A$AP Rocky: Cloud Rap and Live at the Melkweg

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A$AP Rocky is sometimes considered as one of the most prominent of a group of young artists whose sound has come to be identified as ‘Cloud Rap’. The term – which originated around 2011, associated with Main Attrakionz and Lil B, and is still in the process of emerging – is a useful one, for it suggests the way in which such artists produce and promote their songs, and the atmosphere their songs evoke.

‘Cloud Rap’ artists typically draw creatively from the diversity of influences and the easy accessibility which are characteristics of cloud computing. The interplay between different genres and styles of music, owing to the internet, is now a central facet of so much of what is being made: indeed, it is an ineluctable quality of the music of those who have grown up on the net, making use of file-sharing to listen to an unprecedented range of sources. So Cloud Rap pulls from a diversity of rap sounds and locales – from the East and West Coasts, the Dirty South, and other assorted artists who emerged from Atlanta; from genres closely related to and deriving from hip hop, including drum and bass, grime, and trip hop; and from R&B, dance, indie, rock, and pop music.

Related terms have been coined and have sought to define adjacent and overlapping movements. ‘Swag Rap’ is a label that appears to explicitly refer to A$AP Rocky, and suggests a focus on ostentatious presentation, on fashion, and on lyrics that celebrate material wealth. There are of course many precedents for such an outlook, for instance in some of the most enjoyable works of the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z ; but that the term would seem to limit our conception of the artists it refers to only serves to show its insufficiency. It either dismisses or ignores the musical processes and the musical complexities of these rappers.

‘Lo-fi Rap’ says something more about the sound of those artists who would be subsumed under its heading: positing a new group of rappers who record experimentally, frequently using readily-available digital audio workstations, without studios and the backing of major labels, it suggests the influence of indie music in a lineage from Pavement to Beck to The Microphones, and recent lo-fi developments in forms of R&B by The Weeknd and How To Dress Well. More popularly, the specific influence of Kanye West and some of his working methods – especially his manipulation of the Roland TR-808 drum machine – is made clear in Main Attrakionz titling their two 2011 mixtapes 808s and Dark Grapes and 808s and Dark Grapes II.

In particular, Cloud Rap often utilises looped samples from female singers, and often from those whose voices have an ethereal quality. Imogen Heap has been sampled on numerous occasions by Lil B and by Main Attrakionz; she also features on A$AP Rocky’s Live.Love.A$AP (on the track ‘Demons’), which includes other samples from Karl Jenkins’ new age project Adiemus (‘Palace’), the S.O.S. Band (‘Peso’), and British new wave outfit Kissing the Pink (‘Kissin’ Pink’).

Over such sample loops, the flow of Cloud Rappers is relaxed and rhythmic, allowing plenty of space in which to breathe. Atmospherically, and frequently lyrically, the songs depict the smoking of weed, and the hazy cloud which ensues tangibly and physiologically. Moreover, Cloud Rappers often begin circulating their work via the internet, releasing songs and mixtapes via blogs, SoundCloud, and temporary hosting sites. The very concept of a mixtape seems to have taken new form through and is emblematic of Cloud Rap: releasing a collection of songs as a mixtape suggests a certain fluidity, a lack of the finality and discreteness that is associated with albums.

Clams Casino is one Cloud Rap’s preeminent producers, and his production did much to define Live.Love.A$AP, the mixtape from 2011 which established A$AP Rocky and saw him earn a major deal with RCA. Clams appears again on Rocky’s debut studio album, Long.Live.A$AP, released in January of this year – but his sound is less predominant on this heavier album, which features a medley of producers including Hit-Boy, Danger Mouse, and Skrillex.

Where there has been criticism of A$AP Rocky, it has often centred on his reliance on production and the supposed limitations of his lyrics. This seems to ignore the nature of music as a cohesive whole, a collection of parts, which is never defined solely by those words which can be meaningfully written or typed on a page. The sonic harmony which Rocky achieves – combining production techniques with a supple, languid yet characterful rapping style, and lyrics which express through sound and rolling, repeating rhythm – is a mark of good art. Live.Love.A$AP has become one of my favourite rap albums, one of the most distinctive in its chilled-out feel, and one of the albums I’ve listened to most over the last couple of years; while Long.Live.A$AP counts as one of my favourite records of the year so far.

A$AP Rocky brings the same sustained energy, engaging personality, and cadenced sound to his live performances. His show at the Melkweg last night was boldly confident and encompassing in its generosity. Scheduled several months ago, Rocky was to play a single show in Amsterdam, supported by A$AP Ferg: when the concert quickly sold out, another date was added, and Ferg – who has been busy recently releasing his ‘Work’ remix, accompanied by a music video; and featuring on YG’s new song, ‘Click Clack’ – was replaced as the support act by Joey Fatts and Aston Matthews. Fatts and Matthews gave a brief but lively and suitably crowd-warming opening set.

Rocky – wearing a green flannel shirt which he later removed for the white t-shirt underneath; white Pyrex shorts; football socks; and white trainers – played a balance of songs from across his two albums; some of his earlier works, notably ‘Peso’ and ‘Purple Swag’, perhaps still most familiar and winning particularly strong responses. The audience’s already boisterous enthusiasm was spurred as Rocky repeatedly called for mosh pits, sing-alongs, and the revelation of female breasts; he slapped hands with people in the front row, and threw out bottles of water so that those endlessly bouncing up and down wouldn’t dehydrate. When other members of the A$AP crew (the acronym originates in a Harlem collective of artists, and stands for Always Strive And Prosper), took to the stage, they and Rocky prowled in diagonals reminiscent of The Clash.

While the show possesses nothing in the way of set design, effective lighting – blacks and whites and purples – and Rocky’s lithe and powerful, enthusiastically open, playfully charismatic stage presence make for a hugely entertaining and involving live experience. Towards the close of the show, Rocky took around twenty audience members onto the stage, to jump and dance during the final few songs. Eventually eschewing any rapping, he dove into and wandered amongst the crowd, allowing the party he had avowedly sought and orchestrated to come to the fore, and to persist on after his departure.

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