Review: A$AP Ferg - Always Strive And Prosper

Don't think for one moment that A$AP Ferg didn't name his album opener Rebirth for no reason. We are, after all, almost three full years removed from the release of Ferg's debut album Trap Lord. Though that album was, without question, an extraordinarily enjoyable album and solid example of Ferg's ability as an artist, the content and Ferg himself appeared as though to be largely one dimensional, and the future of Ferg as an artist appeared at risk of being lost to an inability to be versatile. Since Trap Lord, however, Ferg has risen to his occasion as an artist and, in a sense, forced versatility upon himself. Whether it be appearing as a featured guest on songs by artists such as Haim or Ariana Grande, or whether it be via the content on his masterwork mixtape Ferg Forever - which, though not entirely removed from the sounds of Trap Lord, consistently suggested that there was more depth to Ferg as an artist than one might have been led to initially believe. Then, A$AP Yams died.

Rebirth, the opening track for Always Strive and Prosper (which for reference sake is what A$AP is an acronym for), is a song by Ferg about Ferg. I know, obvious, right? Wrong. This isn't braggadocios, gangster rap, where the idea is to flaunt or gloat about gold chains or Lamborghinis. This is Ferg being self-aware, being conscious and reflective. This is Ferg being defiant. Consider lines such as 'now that you’re no longer a lord that’s trapped' and the concept of Rebirth for A$AP Ferg as both a man and an artist is affirmed. This is 2016, studio album number 2, and A$AP Ferg is an artist reborn. Still, though, what he was remains (true evolution is, after all, not a total displacement from the past) and Ferg of days gone reappears on just the second track of Always Strive and Prosper, weaving his flow over a Skrillex dubstep beat which combines the sounds of a mosquito, a kazoo and a penguin sliding across the ice (imagine it). Admittedly, on first listen, this song - titled 'Hungry Ham' is nauseatingly abrasive. However, as Ferg has become a master of, the track is more of a grower than a shower. The latter mark is best reserved for the album's third track, Strive featuring Missy Elliot (!), which sees Ferg and Missy combining over a groovy beat, vaguely reminiscent of Britain's best dance music from the late 1990s, to create a hit more poppy than any solo track Ferg has ever previously crafted. Though quite unlike any other of Ferg's previous singles, or songs, 'Strive' is directly reflective of the rebirth sentiment offered on the album's opener. This is a more versatile, interchangeable artist than the man on Trap Lord, this is A$AP Ferg stepping out from the one dimension.

Psycho, track five, sees A$AP Ferg return to a subject matter he touched on with Ferg Forever. Once again, this is a self aware artist reflecting on days gone, musing about the past and the people in his life. This is communication, consciousness, awareness. This is an artist not afraid to explore the truth of himself and his past, and open it up for assessment. Not one to let you forget where he started, though, Let it Bang featuring TDE's ScHoolboy Q is classic A$AP Ferg, so too the same of New Level featuring Future which immediately follows. The two leading singles for the album, both Let it Bang and New Level are classic Ferg, only far more refined and polished. This isn't 2013, after all - this is 2016, this is Ferg in the process of rebirth. Never one to shy away from sharing crew love, Ferg enlists the entire A$AP Mob for Yams tribute Yammy Gang appearing at the eighth notch of Always Strive and Prosper. Easily one of the best Ferg tracks, period (indeed, the best gang track from the Mob), the bass heavy, dense beat and panicked piano lends perfectly to the blend of flows on offer from the Mob, who excel in the grimy dark corner of hip-hop that they have pioneered since the beginning of the decade. Thick, meaty bass continues like a pervasive trend on Swipe Life featuring Maybach chief Rick Ross, a track which again sees A$AP Ferg not totally displaced from the Ferg of old, yet still persisting with an undoubtedly more mature and refined sound than that of Ferg from days past.

It didn't take much for A$AP Ferg to declare himself the Trap Lord, and it took even less time for him to make a good case, but since Trap Lord saw its release in 2013 - Trap has grown, Trap has evolved. Despite his desire for rebirth, and attempts to break free of being trapped, A$AP Ferg is hardly the type of artist to let listeners believe that he hasn't been paying attention, and can't keep up. Uzi Gang, with Lil Uzi Vert and Marty Baller, is Ferg's answers to any concerns. The track is a dark and ominous middle finger to any suggestions that Trap has outgrown A$AP Ferg, instead of the opposite. Beautiful People turns up, then, at precisely the right time. An ode to beauty, a conscious celebration, is not typical to trap after all. With Chuck D and Ferg's own mother tagging along for the ride, Ferg resounds his rebirth as a mature artist - introducing himself as a worldly man, unashamed and unafraid to set himself apart and celebrate life through the means of art. Indeed, where suggestions before that Ferg was limited to being an act might have held weight, now the same can be said of Ferg, instead, being an artist. In that way, Ferg may well be presenting himself as a measure to establish the distinct difference between the two badges, through the comparisons of his work. Where Beautiful People is an ode to beauty, Let You Go (which follows) is a stripped back confession track, seeing Ferg bare himself and his feelings out over a, comparatively for A$AP Ferg, minimalist beat. This kind of honesty and transparency is, largely, unique to Trap as a whole.

World is Mine featuring Big Sean, which saw release some weeks ago before the album, (while being a solid track and further evidence of Ferg's rebirth process) might well be one of the weakest tracks on the album in its entirety. Both Ferg and Sean find themselves and their voices swallowed by the beat, droning on and out in to a soundless oblivion before too long. Separate from the album, it would be (and was) an enjoyable song, but surrounded by what else Ferg has offered up it sounds weak and empty. After a brief interruption by a phone call between Ferg and Chris Brown, the latter man pops up again as a featured guest (with Ty Dolla $ign also tagging along) on I Love You, the sixteenth track of Always Strive and Prosper. There's very little to say about this track, besides pointing out the obvious commercial opportunities which one can, quite easily, imagine being opened up to this track. Chris Brown takes the driver's seat for the most part of the song, which will likely see the song get some decent play on the radio but, in earnest, only Ferg's trademark ad-libs gift this song with any indication that it might be his - and it suffers as a result. Couple that with the fact that Chris Brown, when singing, has become woefully repetitive at this point in his career and 'I Love You' is, ironically, a song that A$AP Ferg fans will likely find very difficult to love.

At risk of closing out his fantastic sophomore studio album with a string of weaker tracks, A$AP Ferg saves himself with one of the strongest Ferg tracks to date - Grandma. This is the finalisation of the rebirth process A$AP Ferg set out to accomplish with Always Strive and Prosper. It's nigh on impossible to consider a more solid final word for what A$AP Ferg has offered than what he has achieved with 'Grandma', a honest and heartfelt exploration of Ferg's grief and mourning process for his late grandmother. There is no Shabba Ranks here, no gold chains, instead as Ferg says himself: 'I'm talkin' 'bout my grandma'.

In this instance, he talks and we listen - because this is groundbreaking for Ferg as an artist, this is an honest, stripped back exploration of the artist himself - A$AP Ferg letting himself loose in to the music and the process, to fulfil his rebirth and emerge a completely different beast to that which we heard on Trap Lord. I tweeted out mid-review about Always Strive and Prosper what I consider to, still, be the best description of the album as a whole - A$AP Ferg isn't fucking around.



Album Of The Week: J Dilla - 'The Diary'


On February 10, 2006, hip-hop lost one of its single most influential artists. James Dewitt Yancey, best known as J Dilla, passed away at the young age of 32 due to a rare blood disease. Four years before this, in the year 2002, J Dilla prepared an album of vocal performances - titled The Diary - for release. Then, and now, far better known for his production (having worked with such artists as Common, Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, amongst many others) as opposed to his rapping, the album was shelved amidst communication breakdowns and internal changes at Dilla's then label MCA Records. The Diary fell in to record limbo, only heard from via odd leaks and hushed whispers, the album known by J Dilla's estate as the last record that he wanted out.

In 2016, this very year, the late J Dilla sees his wish finally carried out - thanks in no small part to hip-hop mega star Nas, who collaborated with Dilla's estate to release The Diary on his own label Mass Appeal Records. The album's opening track, appropriately titled The Introduction, is as brave and confident as any album opener could ever hope to be. Over a bass-heavy, fast-paced beat tinged with the influences of late 1990s electronic music, J Dilla raps with supreme confidence and bravado. This is a man who was confident enough in his abilities that he was able to step out from behind the producer's deck and rap such lines as 'I got the MJ disease, emcees wanna be me' and make it believable. Track two, The Anthem featuring Frank n Dank, is a confident, smooth throw back to the cruising hip-hop that abounded the turn of the century. The smooth collaboration between J Dilla and Frank n Dank is so well crafted, it's impossible not to move your feet, bop your head or smile like a goon remembering where you might've been back in the year 2002. That this second track is produced by the man himself, Dilla, speaks volumes of the talent that he had. The following track, Fight Club featuring guests Nottz and Boogie, is a similar throwback to hip-hop at the turn of the century, mixing sounds similar to something Eminem might have put out, sounds that Jay-Z might have put out and sounds Diddy would be proud of. Short, and sweet, the song is every bit as easy to listen to as both those which preceded it. Indeed, more than easy to listen to, J Dilla gifts you infectious nostalgic joy from beyond the grave.

Tracks four and five, The Shining Part 1 (featuring Kenny Wray) and Part 2, continue on the album's established trend. These are beats of old, flows of old, laid down as smooth now as ever before. Cleaned up, scrubbed up - led by thick, meaty bass - this is 1990s classic hip-hop thrust in to the year 2016. And you'd be woefully mistaken to wonder if it sounds, even slightly, out of place. J Dilla takes the reigns on both sides of the coin again for track six of The Diary, producing and rapping over a confident and intelligent hip-hop re-imagining of Gary Numan's infectious, and equally famous, song 'Cars'. Except J Dilla being J Dilla, he needs no car, he's 'here in my truck'. In earnest, Trucks may as well be just an example of J Dilla flexing his muscles and having fun on the track - this is how good he was, how good he could be. The familiar tune of 'Cars' is changed just enough to be Dilla's own, for Trucks, and all the while J Dilla's vocals maintain pace with the backing track and his position of power (with regards to sheer ability) is further confirmed. Somewhere he's laughing, as we're all smiling - because this is low key genius.

As further affirmation of J Dilla's influence and reputation, both while he was alive and since his tragically early passing, hip-hop heavyweight (and surely the one person on speed dial for any further National Geographic documentaries) Snoop Dogg appears on the album's seventh track Gangsta Boogie. The final word of the title, of course, being no mistake. Boogie is exactly what the beat does, and true to his past, and his career as a whole - Snoop Dogg's vocals are right at home amongst the groove. As smooth as you would want it to be, Gangsta Boogie is that track you will blast from your car's speakers with the windows rolled all the way down - just to prove you're cool. Track 8, Drive Me Wild sees J Dilla rapping distantly over a beat that, at times, would not sound entirely displaced in a scene from The Shining, or even the original Batman TV series featuring (Mayor) Adam West. Give Them What They Want, the ninth of The Diary, is - at this point - rather self explanatory. J Dilla again takes both duties to remind us all that 90s hip-hop was no dream, DMX made good music once and there once existed a time where music concerted every vehicle in to a convertible. Top down, wind in your hair - this is classic hip-hop, smooth hip-hop - this is J Dilla.

The beat for track 10, The Creep, is, to say the least, extraordinarily intriguing. Like some kind of interpolation of various 'devil children' sounds from all of the old school horror films, J Dilla raps over a haunting, cold Hi-Tek produced beat. 'Watch out for the creep', J Dilla raps, and true enough it is. Soul legend Bilal's featured performance appears next, on The Ex, rapidly returning the classic amalgamation of soul and hip-hop that ruled the 1990s (and saw Anthony Hamilton appear, seemingly, at least once on every hip-hop album throughout the decade) to the consciousness of music post-2010. Contemporarily, R&B and hip-hop are far less sonically removed than they once were, back in the 90s where they seemed complete opposites, and their combination was so refreshing. J Dilla even returns the grand event hip-hop of old on The Diary, with Supa Dave West-produced So Far, sounding so pronounced and soaring, it's extremely difficult not to feel uplifted by how triumphantly J Dilla raps over the beat. The album's thirteenth track might well be its most significant, and certainly exists as the only track which had previously made waves for J Dilla while he was still alive, and for good reason. Can you imagine anyone but NWA (yes, that NWA) making a song titled Fuck the Police and actually pulling it off? The answer is probably no. Or rather would be, if J Dilla didn't show you otherwise. He is quick to pronounce that the opinions reflected are those, only, of the artist (meaning Dilla himself). But the self produced track will undoubtedly strike a chord nonetheless in the United States, where the 'Black Lives Matter' movement continues to fight and protest righteously for the betterment of J Dilla's people and community today and in the future.

The album's only 'pass by without noticing' track, the title song The Diary, appears fourteenth. For those unfortunate not to have the iTunes bonus tracks, this would undoubtedly be a disappointing end to an extraordinarily solid album. This reviewer, however, is not so unlucky - and thankfully so. For the 15th track of the album, and the first of iTunes' bonus tracks, J Dilla combines with fellow hip-hop legends Nas and producer Madlib for 'The Sickness' - by a considerable margin the best song on the entire album. All three contributors confidently, and aptly, pronounce themselves on the track - reminding hip-hop hounds why they're legends of the genre, and introducing themselves as the same to those otherwise less familiar. For iTunes users, The Diary closes with its sixteenth track - The Doe - a more fitting end to a truly great, smooth album from a legend of, not just hip-hop, but music as a whole - taken far too soon. The Diary, if it wasn't already so hard, makes J Dilla impossible to forget.

Dying at age 32, having been capable of producing such masterworks as The Diary (amongst many others during the time that he was still alive), it's an indescribably tough thought to imagine what hip-hop and music might look like today had J Dilla not passed on. What would J Dilla look like? How would he have changed? After all, as good as The Diary is, it might well be so good purely because it doesn't sound like 2016. Certainly, the smoothness and the crispness of the tracks imply a touch of modernisation - likely that which Nas and Mass Appeal Records can take a considerable amount of credit for - but the overall sound itself is that of the era it was originally crafted in. This sounds like 2002 hip-hop, a master artist of a genre in his prime flexing his muscles, having come up during the 1990s Golden Era of hip-hop.

This is the best of yesterday released today. This is J Dilla's The Diary.