Whether he would care to admit it or not, there was a lot riding on A$AP Rocky to deliver the goods with his third album. His last full-length, 2015’s At Long Last A$AP, was a mild snooze; not bad in the slightest, but lacking in anything particularly memorable across its aimless, hour-plus runtime, especially when stacked against his king-making debut mixtape and his hit-riddled first studio album. In the years since, Rocky has kept busy with two volumes of an A$AP Mob compilation and a handful of choice guest spots, not to mention the heaps of duties that come with being the rap game’s preeminent, fashion-forward trendsetter.
This span of time was technically his most prolific, and yet, intangibly, something was missing. His work needed to evolve; a sentiment not unlike what he expressed to GQ in October 2017 when detailing an upcoming album that honed in on “testing new sounds.” However, multiple months of delays didn’t exactly inspire confidence, nor did its eventual arrival in a chaotic flurry of loose singles. A collaboration with BlocBoy JB, a smattering of half-baked SoundCloud uploads, and a contribution to a Shaq-starring sports comedy were all at one time thought to appear on his next record, the only surefire bet arriving with the drop of the ornate, Moby-sampling lead single “A$AP Forever”.
Of course, the joke ended up being on us - TESTING is here and not one of those aforementioned tracks made it to the album, not even the initial version of “A$AP Forever”, which in lieu of being cut got a drastic rework. Far from causing further confusion, it erases any earlier doubts that Rocky would fail to live up to the hype; to the contrary, he more than delivered the goods. In so many words, TESTING is an absolute triumph. It does not have the earth-shattering impact of his genre-defining debut, nor does it have any one track with as much immediacy as, say, a “Fuckin’ Problems”, but it is unequivocally his most thoughtful, most ambitious, and most rewarding project to date.
TESTING is structured much like any other major label rap release, and yet it deftly swerves away from the problems that plague the majority of its peers. It is overstuffed with ideas across its 15 tracks, but not a single second of its runtime is wasted; one of the rare albums that is all killer, no filler. It has a jaw-dropping list of guest artists and producers that may be the most eclectic musical team assembled thus far in 2018, but it never lacks for cohesion or clarity for a moment.
Take the one-two punch of “Fukk Sleep” and “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)” that appears midway through the album’s first half. The former is a murky trap dirge that depicts the rot beneath a life of excess. “I remember I was pooring, I was young and living homeless / Now I rock the Ricky Owens” Rocky raps, only to admit that his “new bags on new bags” apply to his closet and eyelids alike. The track finds his sonic consigliere Hector Delgado joined by Australian production duo Finatik n Zac and the one and only Boi-1da behind the booth, while FKA twigs lends her slinky vibrato for an inspired guest verse. She and Rocky are a sublime pairing; one that plays to both of their darkly seductive instincts (not to mention their mutual friendship with the Rick Owens household) to haunting effect.
Barely a moment passes before the pitch-black heart of that track is exchanged for the feather-light flexing of “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)”, Rocky’s first foray into the world of flute rap. His third collaboration with grime’s superintendent Skepta is not only their best yet, but also their most joyous. It’s a jaunt between two titans on equal footing that extols the virtue of camaraderie as effortlessly as they interpolate both Julius Caesar and DMX in the chorus. TESTING thrives in such moments of seeming contradiction; where a woozy haze of skeletal trap can sit beside a go-for broke flute rap without skipping a beat.
True to his word, TESTING is indeed full of sounds that Rocky has never employed before. “CALLDROPS”, despite its dubious love for the problematic Kodak Black, is a fragile bit of minimalist guitar pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a King Krule record. It’s the first of a handful of indie-inflected tracks that add a wealth of texture to the enterprise, two of which are among the record’s best. “Hun43rd” coasts along with the characteristically-dreamy production work and achingly-fragile tenor vocals of Dev Hynes, whose presence here connects the respective corners of the New York scene that each artist has been repping for the past decade. Meanwhile, album-closer “Purity” - with its show-stopping Frank Ocean rap bolstered by a Lauryn Hill sample - is simultaneously the most radical break from Rocky’s sound yet and the most natural-sounding collaboration of the lot.
That said, to discuss the album exclusively as a hodgepodge of stylistic experiments overlooks one of its foremost achievements. Yes, it is very much a collagist interpretation of whatever Rocky’s been listening to (mostly Frank Ocean’s Blonde if we go by his lyrics), but that narrative downplays the notion that, at their core, these are still classically-Rocky tracks. All of his signature hallmarks are still here - the pitch-shifted vocals, the industrialized trip-hop elements - they have simply been cross-pollinated across a rich template of outside influences, giving Rocky the ability to evolve in several directions at once without compromising the record's cohesion.
For a man named after one of the greatest MC’s all time and who, as he reminds us on the syncopated electro-meltdown “OG Beeper”, has “just wanted to be a rapper” his whole life, you would think there is little myth-making left to be done. Indeed, TESTING offers little in the way of transcendent statements or character-building breakthroughs. What it does offer, however, are moments of one of this generation’s leading artistic voices taking stock of his empire and finding ways to give back; to reflect on his deeds as he challenges himself to change.
This is exemplified on “Buck Shots”, the album’s ravishing centerpiece. Rocky kickstarted the careers of Playboi Carti and Smooky MarGielaa, and here, he invites them both to revisit their accomplishments, collectively partaking in a moment of pride and glory. Marrying crisp trap snares to lines of synth that are downright Baroque in their decadence, the track effuses victory and melancholy equally - a spin on the age-old adage of how lonely it gets at the top. The track, and TESTING as a whole, point towards the idea that the states of transition, the periods of in-betweens and unsureness, are every bit as beautiful as consistency.