It took less than a year for Rakim Mayers, aka A$AP Rocky, to go from hanging out completely unknown in Harlem to being Sony-signed and Drake co-signed. Last October, on the strength of two street singles, the 23-year-old released the mixtape LiveLoveA$AP, making himself one of 2011 music’s hypest, strangest memes: a curious collision of future ingenuity meets old-guard aspiration.
Troll the archives of now-stalled blog realniggatumblr.tumblr.com and you’ll find an April 14, 2011, entry featuring a YouTube still from Rocky’s first unofficial single, Purple Swag. Site blogger Steve wrote, “Contemporary H-Town rap music from an East Coast perspective, I think.” Steve’s since been outed as an A$AP Rocky affiliate.
“Stevie had a Tumblr going with a good following, and we realized we could sneak in some of my freestyles and songs and he’d act like he wasn’t part of it,” laughs Rocky over the phone from L.A., where he’s recording with Purple Swag producer A$AP Ty Beats. “We got good feedback, and that’s when we knew we had a chance.”
Over the next six months, the hyper-real, violet-tinted videos for Purple Swag and Peso (co-directed by Rocky) went viral, and he signed a rumoured $3 million deal. “There’s nothing wild about it. I always expected and prayed and hoped for this, so when it came true, I just thanked God,” says a dead-serious Rocky. “I always thought I’d be an iconic figure.”
Hyperbole aside, the A$AP crew’s aesthetic, one that used to make them “the weird kids in the neighbourhood,” is essential to A$AP Rocky’s success. That aesthetic includes music steeped in woozy Southern screw, an affinity for tinted Lennon glasses, gold teeth, braids and all-black clothing offset by quirky Jeremy Scott-designed accents. (He’s so into Scott, in fact, that Complex Magazine has them side-by-side on its February cover.)
Whether you call him progressive or different – “That’s just all me,” Rocky counters – there’s no doubt he’s leaving a wide audience rapt. In Toronto, you’ll hear Peso played everywhere from hip-hop to moombahton nights.
“I think my songs are really good,” he says matter-of-factly. “I never wanted to fit in, and now with my music I’m doing everything I want to do, and it’s happening. That’s the only motivation I need.”—ANUPA MISTRY