Rocky road

The pressure of living up to expectations as one of the most hyped new rappers of recent times doesn’t appear to have unduly affected A$AP Rocky when I meet him at his record label’s London offices.

He reclines on a sofa, feet on the table, hands laced over his chest, head propped up on a cushion, eyes half-closed. From his box-fresh white trainers to his immaculate white baseball cap, the New Yorker projects an aura of perfect repose; so much so that I fear that chatting with the FT might make him slip into a deep sleep. It wouldn’t be the first time: he apparently nodded off while talking to the New York Times.

Underneath the relaxed appearance, however, Rocky – real name Rakim Mayers – turns out to be a complex and charismatic character. Aged 24, he comes from Harlem, where he grew up in the most challenging circumstances. When he was 12, his father was jailed for drugs offences; a year later, his elder brother was shot dead near the family’s apartment. Poverty forced him, his mother and sister to live in homeless shelters for a while. He sold drugs but gave it up because “I wasn’t making any money and I almost got killed.” A$AP stands for “Always strive and prosper.”

Rapping was just a hobby until he signed a record deal in 2011 with Sony-owned RCA Records, reportedly for $3m. The label swooped on the basis of two self-released singles – at that point the sum total of Rocky’s recorded output. A free mixtape album he released later that year added to the buzz.

Now his first “proper” major label album has arrived after a series of delays – usually not a good sign, though Rocky insists the delays were of his own devising, as a way of building anticipation. “People were expecting me to drop the ball on this one,” he says in a soft drawl. Such doubts don’t appear to have crossed his mind. “Because I know how good I am, man!” he chuckles.

Long.Live.A$AP lives up to its maker’s self-assurance. It smartly blends the woozy underground feel of his 2011 mixtape with expensive production and imaginative crossover collaborations: dubstep DJ Skrillex and Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine are among the guests. This week it began repaying RCA’s investment by entering the Billboard charts at number one. New York, birthplace of rap, has a new champion.

Or does it? Rocky has certain characteristics of the typical Harlem rapper – flamboyance (he loves fashion), cockiness – but in other respects he’s a gadfly to New York rap purists. An impressively versatile stylist, he prefers the drawn-out enunciation of a rapper from Houston or Atlanta to the verbal attack of his home city. The southern affinities extend to his recreational habits: Rocky is a devotee of “sizzurp”, a cough syrup-based drink that has become southern hip-hop’s favourite narcotic.

“Syrup and weed: I just love it,” he enthuses, sitting up. “The dark lights – it’s like purple, gloomy, really cool and trippy.” The trippiness spills into his songs, which have a hallucinatory, introspective quality, alongside more formulaic passages of bawdy humour and drug and sex talk. Crude chants about “pussy, money, weed” slide into grimly surreal images of a cockroach-infested childhood. He is, he says, “a dark guy, a gloomy guy”.

Over Christmas, Rocky’s father died. “I just lost my dad two weeks ago,” he says. His thoughts turn to his murdered brother. “I lost him at a young age. I’ve been through a lot.” He speaks without self-pity, although clearly he has a temper: a scuffle with photographers last year earned him three days of community service.

“I’m not innocent,” he says. “I fight sometimes, I’ve done bad things, I’m human. I get upset, I curse. I’m not perfect.” Unlike other rappers who have come up from the streets, he is reluctant to glamorise his background. When I mention reading in a previous interview that he earned $50,000 a week dealing drugs, he’s anxious to put the record straight.

“No, no, no, no. They didn’t quote me right. That makes me look like an asshole. I made about five Gs a week – a good week, a very good week. A bad week is like $1,500. You’ve got to take money out of it to replace the product, so it’s not really much of a profit.”

Rocky paints a banal, Wire-like portrait of bagging marijuana on sneaker boxes – “I was the best one at weighing and stuff” – with Gnarls Barkley playing on a laptop. At 15, he had a stint selling crack, “which I regret, it’s terrible”.

Following his discovery that many of the fashion designers he admires are gay, the rapper has taken to speaking up against homophobia, with the inevitable consequence that a portion of rap fans – far from the most progressive body of opinion in the world – “are accusing me of being gay.” He complains that “the state of hip-hop is limited right now.”

Rocky pushes at the genre’s traditional boundaries. He’s not constrained by regional rivalries, and his appearance as JFK in a Lana Del Rey video (she as Jackie) showed a willingness to think outside the usual archetypes of black masculinity. He wildly exaggerates his own importance – “I’m the Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King of hip-hop,” he tells me in total seriousness – but even here you can detect a change in tone from the usual rap bragging. His 1990s street-rap forefathers preferred to compare themselves to John Gotti or Pablo Escobar.

Yet for all his open-mindedness, Rocky is hardly a picture of political correctness. Long.Live.A$AP has more gunshots than a Quentin Tarantino film. Sexist epithets fall fluently from the rapper’s lips, as in one song extolling the allure of “bad bitches”.

“Well, honestly, you know, girls call themselves ‘bad bitches’,” he says in defence. “‘Bad bitches’ in an urban society in this day isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t degrading, it’s not calling them a female dog or it’s not calling them a slut or a whore or a tramp etc.”

It’s at this point that the gulf between his world and mine seems immense. “It’s OK to identify the fact that different people do different things based off of their background,” Rocky says. “For instance, I smoke weed and I call women ‘bitches’ at times. I’m black. For you, you might have a cup of tea with your grandmother and read books, but at the end of the day, you’re my brother, we’re human beings, we came from the same place years and years and years back, man, centuries ago. We’re related, brother.”

The sentiment isn’t glib. When Rocky was eight, his family moved from Harlem to a Pennsylvanian suburb. At elementary school he was mortified to overhear his teacher and school principal, both white, laughing about his spelling in the corridor. From that point on he began writing in his head, memorising words rather than putting them down on paper – which is how he creates his rap lyrics to this day.

After supporting Rihanna on her current tour, he plans to turn up at his old school with an MTV camera crew. “I want to put all my teachers to shame. I’m serious. I’m going to put all of them to shame,” he says. It’s a glimpse of the abiding feelings of anger and hurt that lie buried behind the outward self-confidence, and also of the remarkable inner resources with which Rocky has turned them to productive use.

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