A$AP Rocky and Pusha T battle it out in our latest installment of the Debut Album Versus series.
One’s career has been a straight shot as success seemingly from the get-go, while the other's was a slower, more deliberate rise to as a solo artist. A$AP Rocky, who only turned 29 this year, benefited from the mercurial buzz that surrounded his debut mixtape, Live. Love. A$AP, which caused quite the sensation on the Big Apple’s underground scene. It also eventually went viral after being made available as a free download (a tactic which, back when downloading music was a thing, cannot be underestimated). Meanwhile, Pusha T was still trying to find his footing in his post-Clipse go-around. Despite hits like “Grindin’,” there was a moment where Pusha and at least part of his legacy seemed to be fading into the background. By the end of the 2000’s, things looked to have dried up for an emcee who was fast approaching his 40th birthday. However, a signing with GOOD Music and a memorable feature on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy helped pave the way for his equally strong solo mixtape Fear of God, which proved to be a sign of things to come for the veteran rapper.
Neither man has never been one to fight squarely into the mold of what sound might be considered trendy in hip-hop, with their proper studio debuts being examples of that penchant for straying from the norm. In 2012, Pusha T told MTV that he was heavily influenced by an over-the-top Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino film during studio session for My Name Is My Name. “This album was based off the movie Devil's Advocate. Not theme-wise at all, but just in the feel of the album,” he said. “Devil's Advocate is a very dark movie, but at the same time, visually, it's beautiful. The album is based off of that because I speak about the harsh realities of street life but there's a lot of glitz and glamour that comes along with that. If you just look at it at face value, you might think, 'It sounds a bit like he's glorifying [street life]', but when you get tuned into the record, you realize that you get both sides of it."
While such specific influences have not been explicitly stated in relation to Long. Live. A$AP, it’s easy to forget how impressive A$AP Rocky’s full-length debut is, especially after what was an inauspicious career start he saw with the track “Purple Swag.” The video for said single, which was made and released in the summer of 2011 soon after the rapper decided to quit selling drugs for good in order to concentrate on his music, generated interest from labels but was also dragged in a big way throughout his local NYC scene. It would have been easy to give up, especially in that unforgiving environment but, in the end, Rocky would win that scene over. First with “Peso,” a track that would eventually garner airplay from Hot 97, and then his mixtape, which made him one of key figures when it comes to the Internet’s inextricable involvement in developing and growing rap music as a genre. Predating the Soundcloud heroes (or villains, depending on your point of view) that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on newly-minted record deals in recent years, Rocky’s pre-2013 success was nearly entirely predicated on his Internet popularity, a trend that has become so commonplace now it’s almost an afterthought.
At the end of the day, who had the better debut album: A$AP Rocky or Pusha T? Let’s dig in!
Both albums feature some stellar instrumental work, achieved through different degrees of hands-on work behind the board. Under the pseudonym of Lord Flakco, A$AP Rocky was heavily involved with this aspect of his debut from top to bottom, weaving in some of his diverse musical influences over those signature mid-tempo beats. The almost whistle-like loop that floats over the backbeat for “Goldie,” one of the album’s standout singles, is hypnotic in nature, giving the young emcee the ability to ease into a collection of songs that have a distinctive charm to them, instead of being forced to carry the load over generic production work. The stutter-step effect is another hallmark of his, notably present on tracks like “LVL” and “Fashion Killa,” where the delays and perceived imperfection in the instrumentals adds to the off-kilter vibe that Rocky strives to use consistently throughout the album. The only misfire is arguably one of the LP’s most prominent party songs, “Wild For The Night,” where the Skrillex elements in the beat overshadow the indelible idiosyncrasies that are found elsewhere on the album.
Where Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name is concerned, the stable of established veteran talent on the production side stands in stark contrast to the A$AP Rocky project. Handled primarily by Kanye West, the album’s production also includes Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, Hudson Mohawke, Sebastian Sartor, Don Cannon, Swizz Beatz, Rico Beats and many others. Shifting from style to style, Pusha’s vocals are buoyed by instrumentals that feel like they belong on a Yeezy project, taking elements from soul and gospel to craft an almost church-like feel to some of the songs. Something like “40 Acres” features the heavenly drone of some high-pitched vocals in the background, putting a haunting spin on a track that could’ve simply wallowed in the melancholy. “Hold On” and “Nostalgia” sound even more like Kanye joints, recalling the best of the rapper/producer’s work from his seminal LP My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The searing guitar samples and smooth, confident piano accentuations point to a collaborative effort that was clearly designed with sleekness in mind.
Overall, both debuts work well from a production standpoint for different reasons. Long. Live. A$AP isn’t preoccupied with creating a slick, pristine sonic environment like My Name is My Name. Instead, the messiness is the main attraction, with the grit and grime somehow managing to be greater than the sum of its parts. Think of a track like “Jodye,” with a double-up effect being used on certain vocal runs, but never quite in the spot you’d expect it to. At points, the execution of said tactic threatens to drown Rocky’s bars in this soup of aural excess, but the song’s instrumental work manages to walk right up to that line but never step over it. That’s not necessarily an endorsement of that kind of “screw with your audience” technique, which can potentially wear out its welcome rather quickly, but it definitely makes for A$AP Rocky’s album to be quite the interesting listening experience from a production angle.
There’s a fair amount of references made to a bygone era in hip-hop history on Long. Live. A$AP, avoiding direct call-outs but instead letting some of the old-school flavor seep into the lyrics of songs like “F**king Problem.” See if you can spot the nods to the likes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Chiddy Bang and a well-known crooner from the 1980’s R&B scene:
Hold up, bitches simmer down
Takin' hella long, bitch, give it to me now
Make that thing pop like a semi or a 9
Ooh, baby like it raw with the shimmy shimmy ya
Huh, A$AP, get like me
Never met a motherf**ker fresh like me
All these motherf**kers wanna dress like me
Put the chrome to your dome, make you sweat like Keith
Those moments continue on “Ghetto Symphony,” where he weaves several cameo-style shout-outs into his lyrics that focus on the joys of a hip-hop comeuppance that is well-deserved:
A rebel I be one day, on that track with Gunplay
Outcast my whole life so I decide to spit like André
Beef is on my entree, gin and juice, that's Bombay
Driving fast the wrong way, I swear life is like a one-way
While A$AP Rocky was knee-deep in pop culture wordplay, Pusha T brought his bars through the streets that impacted him growing up, never shying away from the darker, bleaker visuals. Such a moment happens during the hook on his track “Suicide:”
When it comes to shooters, my n***s is trained to go
And they gettin' practice on bitches who breaking codes
Thirty-five hundred, just point and give 'em a name
They back flipping n***as, that go for rappers the same
You don't know me, n***a, f**k out my way
His Future collaboration, “Pain,” is another example of strong, detailed storytelling, where the specific components that he mentions, like the gold chains and expensive cars, leap into the mind’s eye and play out in almost cinematic fashion, creating a songwriting fabric that is thicker than anything Rocky was able to craft on his debut. For those who enjoy a depth of narrative when indulging in rap music, Pusha T certainly has the edge in that department.
Comparisons between the commercial performances of Long. Live. A$AP and My Name Is My Name isn’t really that fair a fight. The former rode the wave of Rocky’s mixtape success to a first week debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, moving over 130,000 sales units in its first week. Pusha T’s record also cracked the Top Five on the same chart during its first week of availability, but only 74,000 copies. Despite the support from the GOOD Music and Def Jam brands, the former Clipse rapper wasn’t able to translate that into a significant financial windfall.
However, My Name is My Name earned almost universal praise from critics, who cited the album’s sense of street-level philosophy as the factor that placed it among 2013’s best studio efforts. A$AP Rocky’s record was less successful on that front, with the original nature of his overall sound undone somewhat by the large amount of cliched rhymes that were spit. Still ranked on many year-end lists as one of the stronger hip-hop offerings from 2013, Long. Live. A$AP seemed more like the less mature younger sibling of My Name Is My Name’s world-weary brand of violence and crime.