It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
We will look back on the early 2010s as a time when hip-hop became obsessed with style — not lyrical style or anything so old fashioned, but personal style. Good, bad or strange, billowing black capes or crisp skatewear, leather kilts or retro gold: It pays to have taste, or at least the appearance thereof. The rise of Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky has as much to do with his entrancing, hybrid Harlem-Houston sound as his keen, confident sense of fashion — as he raps on "Hell," "We used to wear rugged boots/ Now it's all tailored suits." Everything is fluid and stylized, every nanosecond of sound an opportunity for curation. The lures are obvious: the meticulously dark title track, the vice anthem "PMW," the Clams Casino-produced mission statement "LVL," the booming, short-attention-span posse cuts "F---in' Problems" and "1 Train." This is hip-hop circa 2013: a voracious, all-at-once sound that swerves, swaggers and preens from street to street, from the Internet to all corners of the map.
There were no baby-steps or first drafts; the teenage Rakim arrived fully formed. The singles that comprise his 1987 debut Paid in Full expanded the possibilities of rapping over a beat. It's a sign of the era's hyper-competitiveness that their second album, released the following year, didn't merely rehash their triumphant style. Instead, Follow the Leader feels much more minimal: the title track's guttural bounce, the straightforward, line-for-line wizardry of "Microphone Fiend." A$AP Rocky's government name is Rakim Mayers, his mother's way of paying homage to the God MC. Follow was released a few months before Mayers was born, which is truly strange if your conscious memory reaches back that far. For someone of Rocky's vintage, perhaps Eric B and Rakim feel most inspirational as a series of poses: fearless, brash, cocksure. While the young Harlem rapper hasn't quite inherited his eponym's intricate rhyme scheme, there are traces of Golden Age gusto throughout his aesthetic, from his laidback confidence to the verging-toward-absurd style that plays like a modern-day Dapper Dan.
The Home Team
There's a clip on YouTube about the making of the Diplomats and Master P's "Bout It, Bout It…Part III" video and, near the end, a 15-year-old A$AP Rocky gleefully appears, jostling around with his friend in front of a bemused Jim Jones. The first Diplomatic Immunity posse album was one of the high points of the colorful Harlem clique's career together. There was massive, block-rocking fare engineered for the New York canon — "I Really Mean It," "I'm Ready," "Dipset Anthem," "Real Ni***s" — and then there were the over-the-top moments that suggested an arena-sized, verging-toward-mad braggadocio — "Built This City" or the Winger-sampling melodrama of "Ground Zero," for example. "New Orleans and Roc-A-Fella: It's bout it bout it," Master P warns, and this mingling of "up top" with "Down South" sounded like a blueprint for the future. Circa the mid 2000s, the Diplomats were a ubiquitous presence, the rare New York act that boasted connections throughout L.A., the Bay, Houston, London (S.A.S.!), "Dayton, Youngstown, Cleveland, Cincinnati."
The New Normal
Representing New York might be A$AP Rocky's birthright, but he's far from a hometown purist. He came of age in the late 1990s and 2000s, when New York offered but one of many "regional" sounds. You can hear a swirl of influences in Rocky's music — the Uptown flamboyance of Dipset but also the creeping, John Carpenter-cribbing textures that haunt Memphis, the languid but dexterous sing-songs that soundtrack Texas's sprawl. Rocky acquired his versatile approach to song structure by studying artists like Devin the Dude, U.G.K. or Scarface — the slowed-down choruses of "Peso," "Goldie" and "PMW," for example, all owe something to the South. A member of DJ Screw's original Screwed Up Click, the unheralded Z-Ro has one of the most disarming voices you'll ever hear. The perfect complement to Screw's syrupy sound, Z-Ro is hypnotic, enchanting, almost gentle-sounding. Time goes peaceful and languid, as he surveys his empire (the "Paid in Full"-styled "Mo City Don" or the classic "25 Lighters") or schemes to hit you with "the mule."
The longest track on Long.Live.A$AP is "1 Train," a Wu-sized posse cut featuring Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T. It works as both a gesture of covering-his-bases realpolitik and a we-got-next manifesto, a bracing inventory of all that the present will allow. Loosies collects some of the hybrid-obsessed Fool's Gold label's favorite current hip-hop. Despite the diversity of acts, a shared aesthetic runs through these selections: charismatic, Looney Tunes raps, EDM synths and massive, blast radius bass-lines. Danny Brown sounds ecstatically murderous on "Molly Ringwald," while Droop-E goes for cavernously lonesome on "Mind Gone." Action Bronson's retro "Twin Peugeots" and Flatbush Zombies' minimalist "36 Chamber Flow" flex two different approaches to being a New York rapper circa 2013, both Wu-indebted. The bedroom producer has more tools than ever at their disposal, and geography is no longer a form of determinacy.
"I made it acceptable to wear braids and play JFK," Rocky recently told Pitchfork. It says something about him (and our times) that that's not even the strangest thing he says in the interview. The old language of collaborations and cameos is now one of brand alliances, tie-ins, cross-promotion, and there were few moves as brazen as Rocky's aforementioned turn as a pomo Kennedy in Lana Del Rey's 2012 "National Anthem" video. While Del Rey has come under scrutiny for her seemingly inauthentic image, Rocky's done a masterful job trading off his rather fluid attitude toward authenticity and borders. The LDR track intended for Long.Live didn't make the final cut, but Rocky's clearly got a larger crossover audience in mind, rapping over Skrillex's frenetic strobes on "Wild for the Night" and heading out on tour with Rihanna. On "Fashion Killa," Rocky raps about his ideal lady, "jiggy like Madonna" and "trippy like Nirvana," someone who might appreciate his mastery of men's and women's boutique brands. Where his predecessors may have worried about shady label politics, Rocky has other things on his mind: Lanvin, Balmain, Isabel Marant, Alexander Wang.