One minute, A$AP Rocky was an Uptown unknown, the front man for a small band of Harlem misfits who’d made some noise online thanks to a pair of woozy singles, “Purple Swag” and “Peso,” and their equally intoxicating videos. The next? He was the toast of the town, the subject of a glowing New York Times profile (“A$AP Rocky, New York Rapper with a Hint of Elsewhere”) and sharing the stage with the likes of Drake and Jim Jones. New York tastemakers were calling him the leader of the city’s new breed, and his shows—at downtown hot spot Santos Party House, and on marquee bills at the VICE Creator’s Project and Cornerstone’s CMJ Fader Fort—were must-sees for anyone who considered them-selves in the know.
“After ‘Peso,’ shit got crazy,” A$AP Rocky says, sitting at a table in the dining area of his newly acquired one-bedroom midtown Manhattan apartment in early fall, just weeks before signing with Polo Grounds Music for $1.7 million, with an additional $1.3 million for the A$AP Worldwide crew (at least according to A$AP Rocky).
Born Rakim Mayer at the height of New York hip-hop’s golden era and named after the city’s original God MC, A$AP is wearing a black “Funeral” snapback, plaid button-down and $1,700 Rick Owens sneakers. At 23, he’s young and fly. And he knows it. “We the shit—that’s why niggas is lovin’ it,” he says while surfing Facebook, looking at photos of an older woman he recently met at the club. “When you hear my music, you don’t say, ‘What’s the big fuss about?’ You go, ‘Oh, so this the nigga everybody talkin’ about?’ It’s a difference.”
It certainly is. New York’s struggles to shake the perception that hip-hop has long been dead in the city where it was born have been well- documented. And that’s what’s made A$AP’s rise so exciting. After years of trying to force the city’s weight on the shoulders of MCs who either weren’t willing or weren’t able to carry the load, many in the New York scene believe it’s finally found its new voice. Rather than sticking to New York classicism, A$AP Rocky has caused a stir by taking a different yet also distinctly New York approach—he’s thrown the past decade of hip-hop into the melting pot and cooked up syrupy sound soaked in Southern influences but dripping with Internet-savvy swag. “They got me excited about hip-hop again,” says Rocky’s manager, Chace Infinite, of the A$AP crew, a collective of at least 12 and stacked with members like A$AP Twelvvy and producer A$AP Ty Beats. Infinite is best known as the MC in hip-hop duo Self Scientific.
“A$AP” serves as an acronym meaning Always Strive and Prosper; Accumulate Status and Power; Always Stackin’, Always Paper-chasin’; Assassinating Snitches and Police; or the catchall, Acronyms Symbolizing Any Purpose, depending on who you ask. But if you ask Rocky, saving the city’s rap scene isn’t his goal. “I don’t want New York to feel like I’m the poster child, that I’m the one to bring it back,” he says. “I don’t plan to bring New York back; I plan to bring hip-hop back, man.”
Polo Grounds CEO Bryan Leach agrees. “Signing Rocky was not about saving New York hip-hop or living up to any of those types of expectations,” says Leach, whose label is also home to Pitbull, Yo Gotti and Hurricane Chris. “It is about helping Rocky and his A$AP Worldwide team build a brand. He is Harlem. He is New York. But it really is so much bigger than just that.” Still, not everyone has appreciated A$AP’s approach. In September, Odd Future’s Hodgy Beats posted the short burst “Asap copy” to his Twitter account (@KILLHodgy), and it was hard not to read the tweet as an insult. After all, the similarities—big crew, acronyms, charismatic front man, stranglehold on new media, and even shows marked by stage diving and mosh pits—are striking.
For his part, Rocky remains unfazed. “I don’t like when they compare us to Odd Future, but I respect them little niggas, though,” he says. “I feel like we a group, they a group; we ignorant, they ignorant; we comin’ up, they comin’ up.” Or at least he was. A$AP Rocky’s momentum hit a snag in late October, just days after he announced his Polo Grounds deal and his scheduled opening slot on Drake’s upcoming “Club Paradise” tour, when his set at the Fader Fort reportedly dissolved into chaos.
The Fader’s parent company, Cornerstone, and the A$AP crew declined to address the incident for this piece, and details from the incident remained sketchy as RES PECT. went to print. But the talk around A$AP in the downtown scene that had claimed him as his own had certainly shifted in the immediate aftermath: What’s up with New York’s next big thing had quickly become what the fuck? Yet nothing can change a conversation like great music. A$AP’s long-awaited mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP, dropped on Halloween. The quick take? It bangs.