Release Date: Apr 22, 2016
Record label: Polo Grounds Music
You’d better have a sense of urgency if you’re a rapper called A$AP Ferg (real name Darold Ferguson) – and he may be the most quick-witted of all those who’ve scurried from Harlem hip-hop clique A$AP Mob like so many sportswear-clad money-spiders. From chat-up lines to make Charles Bukowski wince (“Even though the bathroom’s not unisex, we can turn that shit co-ed”) to the spiralling internal rhymes of Strive (“Working in Ben Jerry’s, it was scary, my life vision was blurry”), Ferg’s pungent wordplay powers this splendidly diverse and dynamic second album. Check out Hungry Ham if you’re looking for a musical pick-me-up.
If A$AP Rocky seemed the young, punkish member of the A$AP Mob, A$AP Ferg always seemed the elder, referencing veteran icons like Shabba Ranks on his singles and bellowing like an East Coast, fashion week-friendly version of UGK's Bun B. Not only that, his hit single with Future, "New Level," landed not only after Drake had already recorded a whole album with Atlanta's version of "what's next," but also after Taylor Swift had made a consumer electronics television commercial with their hit "Jumpman. " Then this sophomore LP arrived as a complicated, winding, and weaving effort that's identifiably post-Kendrick Lamar, and it seems the man prefers to chase rather than lead.
Let us pause for moment and consider hip-hop’s supporting characters, its second-stringers, the doughty lieutenants of rap. Their story is always the same: hoisted to a weird kind of semi-fame by the best-known member of their crew’s success, they launch their own solo career, but it never quite takes off in the same way as their more celebrated mate, and obscurity beckons. Such was the fate of Jim Jones of Cam’ron’s Diplomats, AZ of Nas’s the Firm, Gunplay – the member of Rick Ross’s Triple Cs who distinguished himself by getting a big swastika tattooed on his neck, apparently symbolic of his desire to “Nazi that shit … put all the fake motherfuckers in the gas chamber” – and Sheek Louch and Styles P of Jadakiss’s the LOX.
A$AP Ferg steps his game up and delivers his most complete project thus far.It’s surprising that it’s taken this long for someone from the A$AP Mob to name a project after the most common breakdown of their A S A P moniker. After “as soon as possible”, the phrase “always strive and prosper” seems like a no-brainer for an album title from one of the Mob. As much as it would have suited A$AP Rocky and his prosperous come up, it is A$AP Ferg’s sophomore LP that gets blessed with the fitting title Always Strive and Prosper.
When they first came on the scene, A$AP Ferg and A$AP Rocky offered two very different perspectives on rap’s new Harlem. In Rocky’s case, he brought a strong sense of fashion, with musical branches extending to Houston and Atlanta. Ferg stayed with the conventions of trap music, though his cadence and lyricism diverted from the genre’s formulaic sound.
From their inception, ASAP Mob has never been interested in conceptual, thematic albums, and that’s fine. Their debut posse mixtape Lords Never Worry introduced the New York collective as a group of emcees that had excellent production, spitfire flows, and earworm hooks, yet no semblance of topical or lyrical ability whatsoever. This is because, even though the Mob are from New York, southern hip-hop acts such as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and UGK are a much larger influence on them than the likes of Biggie Smalls, Big L, or Nas.
On "Rebirth," a standout moment from his second album, ASAP Ferg makes his mission clear: "Now that you're no longer a lord that's trap, you have graduated to the Hood Pope. " The follow-up to his acclaimed 2013 debut Trap Lord sees the Harlem rapper open up with more honesty, humor and charm. Blending trap and EDM beats, Ferg builds on the goofy-but-hard persona he introduced last time out, maintaining an arty weirdness that connects him to the other core members in the music/fashion collective A$AP Mob, while discussing the streets and his life story with precision and ferocity.
Making that giant step from supporting star to leading man is a tough thing to do. It’s damn near impossible when you’ve already been pegged as the deputy. Juelz could (and should) have been a star, but he could never have been Killa Cam. G-Unit made being 50 Cent’s weed carrier a viable career move.
A$AP Ferg was always on pace to, at best, be A$AP Mob’s Scottie Pippen — a versatile complement to A$AP Rocky, its trendsetting (and trend-borrowing) superstar and de facto boss. He was never quite cut out to be a star in his own right, but he helped to legitimize the Mob, which seemed little more than a clique of Rocky Yes Men and bottom-tier weed-carrier rappers before his emergence. As far as second bananas go, Ferg has become a rather accomplished one.
The knock against A$AP Rocky from the start has been that he’s an empty Prada suit. You can listen to his albums straight through and never learn a thing about the guy. That’s never been a problem, though, with A$AP Ferg, the A$AP Mob rapper most likely to unseat Rocky as the crew’s flagship member. On his sophomore album Always Strive And Prosper, Ferg’s got personality to spare.
When A$AP Ferg named his 2013 debut album, Trap Lord, the title and the cover art were perfect descriptors of what the eventual project would be. Trap Lord established what Ferg was all about. He was a trap rapper, talking about the drug trade on the streets of his hometown Harlem. The sound of the album was as dark as the black-and-white picture of Ferg that stood out in the middle of the cover.
It’s hard to think of a hip-hop album with more heart, one with a narrative more thoroughly interwoven with the love of family and friends, than “Always Strive and Prosper,” the second full-length by ASAP Ferg, the restless experimenter of the ASAP crew. Here is Ferg, remembering his reckless uncle, on “Psycho”: “Wanted to be like you, jail tat on the chest/With the rugged cornrows and a stab on my neck. ” And here, celebrating his tough grandmother, on “Let It Bang”: “Grandma hid that hammer in her mattress from my uncle/He would listen to Wu-Tang while walking in the jungle.
He’s certainly not the first rapper to get all nostalgic about the ’hood, but the picture he paints of life in Harlem’s Hamilton Heights (AKA ‘Hungry Ham’) is particularly vivid: his street might “smell like s**t, vomit, urine” with crack dealers on the corner, but it’s also populated by memorable characters doing everything they can to survive. Ferg doesn’t pretend to have been a gangster; instead he touchingly recalls his frustration at working at Ben & Jerry’s, going nowhere and “gettin’ a belly”. There’s even a guest appearance from Mama Ferg.The problem is that Ferg fails to provide a coherent musical vision to go with these compelling reminiscences.
Most contemporary rap collectives are just fads that fade away along with hype, leaving just one, or maybe two - three’s pushing it - genuinely talented rapper(s) in the spotlight. Odd Future were the perfect example of this - when the hype and controversy around them died down, only Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean (who’s not even a rapper) and, maybe, Tyler, the Creator (who’s better as a business head) were left as the credible propositions in a collective that had over 20 members. And just as it looked like the A$AP Mob only had one promising rapper - A$AP Rocky, who was always destined to become a superstar (A$AP Twelvyy and A$AP Nast are good rappers, but they’re aren’t superstars) - A$AP Ferg stepped up to the task, showing strong determination and desire to step out of Rocky’s shadow.
Not all musical ambition is the same; it even comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be a different approach on your sophomore album or a complete makeover of your sound and image. In further opposition to the supposed sophomore album curse, Harlem’s ASAP Ferg looks to avoid disappointment with Always Strive and Prosper. For one, the shift in overall tone and sonic palette between Trap Lord, his debut album from over three years ago, and ASAP is immediately noticeable.