Without doubt the biggest and most important hip-hop album of 2013 was released only two weeks into the year on January 15th. A$AP Rocky’s album LONG.LIVE.A$AP, featuring Kendrick Lamar and Drake, who Rocky is closely associated with, has already had a huge impact on US Hip Hop, and will go on to define the genre’s 2013. It will appeal to a huge audience, from rap to mainstream to dance (as the latest single featuring Skrillex will show).
Despite high-praise from the vast majority of the music world, including Pitchfork and NME, it has also drawn unsurprising criticisms from some sectors. A$AP’s album is full of a language that that is sexually, racially and culturally offensive, endorsing violence towards women, drug-taking and heinous crime, among other questionable things. These are criticisms that A$AP is used to; even Jonah Weiner of Slate, who ranked his debut 2011 mixtape Live.Love.A$AP in his top 5, called Rocky ‘hip-hop’s abiding misogynist.’ Online reviews have gone a lot further, with contactmusic.com claiming the album is ‘ruined by a backdrop of violence and misogyny’ and various blogs attacking papers such as the New York Times for celebrating his misogyny. A look on Google will discover a string of complaints and even online petitions to boycott his music. As low-level as these criticisms might be, and despite approval of Rocky’s talent from the music world, the question seems a fair one; is there a place for a misogynist and violent rap music in 2013?
But A$AP Rocky’s album is supposed to be shocking, and shocking it certainly is. The real radicalism of the album though, is not in his willingness to use words and language that others shy away from, but somewhere completely different; it is in his use of the voice.
A$AP’s trademark noise, which cannot be transcribed in language, sounds something like a pig snorting. Anyone who has listened to even one song will know what we mean by this. We could try to transcribe it: ‘URGHH’ or ‘AHH’ or perhaps the closest possible ‘UUU’ (we’ll run with that). The noise crops up in every track, it simply wouldn’t be A$AP Rocky without it. Kendrick Lamar even has his own go at it at the start of his rap in the new single with Rocky, ‘Fucking Problems.’ The noise is deeply disconcerting and shocking, but also something we are intensely drawn to; it is both horrible and appealing, both repulsive and desirable. The noise contains the real brilliance of A$AP Rocky.
Psychoanalyst Mladen Dolar has written a fantastic book on the subject of ‘the voice.’ There he notices, in a way that is relevant to our discussion of music here, that the two conventional ways that the voice can be seen are ‘as a vehicle of meaning’ or as the object of ‘aesthetic admiration,’ i.e. what we consider to be a beautiful voice. In the course of the book Dolar asks us to think about a third way in which the voice functions, as something which is neither of these two, which instead has some power of its own to be uncanny and disconcerting, to dislodge our sense of both meaning and the beautiful.
So what of A$AP Rocky’s voice? It certainly cannot be described as ‘beautiful’; if I describe it as I did above as ‘like a snorting pig’ few people take issue, but if I start talking about A$AP Rocky’s ‘beautiful voice’ I will find few sympathisers. Likewise, it seems dubious that it can be described as ‘a vehicle of meaning.’ As the tension surrounding the criticisms of Rocky’s misogyny indicate, the content is hardly the point, we listen to the music anyway, and critically acclaim it. Furthermore, what meaning are we to attach to our favourite trademark A$AP noise, ‘UUU’? Clearly it fits neither category.
The first words that the world ever heard from A$AP Rocky, the first line of the first track on his debut mixtape, are: ‘UUU, god damn, how real is this […] how trill is this?’ This needs close-reading; we are offered the noise, on its own, and then we are asked to think about how real that noise is. The answer is; it is so real that we cannot handle it. The noise expresses a reality of the voice that we usually repress, it shows us that the voice is not our tool which we use to express ourselves but something beyond us, something which is just a material noise, something which is out there, against us as much as for us, out of the control of the speaker.
From the first line he raps Rocky’s fame was set in stone; we are faced with something new, a voice that does not fit any existing model, and with the need to recognise that this teaches us something deeply real about voices. The voice is neither an object (of admiration) nor a form (the conveyor of meaning) but something that shows that there is no true distinction between those two things, both are material.
His second line introduces us to the word ‘trill,’ a hip hop term probably dating from around 2007, but which A$AP has made his own. Trill means both ‘true’ and ‘real’ and also ‘too real.’ The message from A$AP Rocky is that the voice is ‘too real’ – it shows us how it is no-one’s voice, no human’s voice, with no relationship to beauty, and no relationship to coherent meaning; it is a reality with nothing to organize it, nothing behind it. In 2013 with A$AP Rocky, the voice has taken over from meaning in the hip hop world.