It was 2012 and New York rap was in the early days of a renaissance. A$AP Rocky, a major piece in this movement, decided to capitalize on his growing hype by releasing Lord$ Never Worry, a collaborative project with the A$AP Mob. At first many thought the album was a vehicle for Rocky to push his less talented friends, but amidst the filler (and the infamous A$AP Ant “Bath Salts” verse) emerged a rapper. A rapper with a special voice. Melodically, he felt like the lost member of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. He could flow like Lord Infamous, and when his energy became uncontainable, a scream would develop; not a gruff DMX scream, but high pitched and eccentric. This rapper was A$AP Ferg, and there was nobody else quite like him.

The insane thing about art is that something considered fresh five years ago eventually becomes "normal," to the point where you almost forget why it was special to begin with. A$AP Ferg, on his second official/commercial mixtape Still Striving, is still seeking to revisit what caught the world’s attention back in 2012. For better or worse, his plan to accomplish this is by surrounding himself with a revolving door of rap's most prevalent characters.  

Some may see the intimidating amount of features on Still Striving as an example of an artist insecure in his own ability, grasping to maintain his relevancy. In reality, Ferg appears to recognize his underwhelming electronic music detour on Always Strive and Prosper, attempting to course correct by revisiting his roots. The problem is, Ferg exists on the tip of a double-edged sword; his efforts at creating a new sound and retreating to an older, more recognizable A$AP aesthetic appear to be met with equal criticism from fans.  

Cam’ron, who has faced similar issues in his own music, was once one of rap’s most illustrious personalities. Now, he appears for a disappointingly mundane feature on “Rubber Band Man.” This track stands as the only time on Still Striving where Ferg’s enthusiasm trumps the accompanying artists, as he's generally the more tedious part of his own album. On the radio-ready standout “What Do You Do," Nav, whose authenticity has been relentlessly questioned, has a charisma that oddly feels more natural than Ferg’s in this case. On the following track, A$AP Mob continues to surround themselves with as many controversial figures as possible, including Famous Dex, who appears for the first of two features. Dex does his best to save an eye-roll inducing hook with animated ad-libs, but a Ferg verse with a three-years-too-late ice bucket challenge pun, alongside the dull and seemingly factory-made Frankie P production does him no favors.  

A$ap Mob’s history with Three 6 Mafia goes back to the days when Spaceghostpurrp was a close affiliate, and Ferg continues the legacy with the project's most exciting track - “Mad Man.” Honorable C Note provides Ferg with the mixtape's strongest beat; the Three 6 Mafia “Tear Da Club Up 97” sample fits perfectly with the haunting keys and hi-hats, feeling as if DJ Paul produced this himself back in 1994. Playboi Carti is also featured, only a couple of lines away from a verse made up exclusively of ad libs (it will happen one day). The Three 6 Mafia inspiration finds its way onto another track, “Plain Jane,” which is one of only three songs on the album without a feature. Still, despite an enjoyable Get Out reference and elite name-dropping (“Please believe me, I see RiRi, I’ma eat it like Panini”) nothing else is enticing.  

A$AP Ferg initially forced himself into the rap conversation through his often show-stealing efforts on posse cuts, from the “Work Remix” (one of the all time greats) to some of the lesser known cuts on Lord$ Never Worry. Here, once again, it doesn’t exactly feel natural - both massive tracks “The Mattress Remix” and “East Coast Remix” come off manufactured, as Ferg attempts to recapture his early magic through force over finesse. The Digital Nas production on “The Mattress Remix” is frustratingly simple, especially for a producer who has been one of the most consistent on Soundcloud over the last year. A$AP Rocky and Ferg trading bars is appealing, to be sure, but only until Rich the Kid and Famous Dex follow suit, outshining them with an elevated chemistry. The “East Coast Remix” features a Ferg who is aware of his status with his fans as he says, “I got a feeling they want that old Ferg “Cocaine Castle,” “Hood Pope” Ferg.” Ferg responds to his own line by saying “Got a question to ask, do you know Ferg?” implying to the fans that there is more to him than just a rehash of four-year-old ideas. 

Ferg feels lost and directionless on Still Striving, like an impersonator in an A$AP Ferg mask glanced at the blueprint and ran with it. While there are a few instances where that lovable personality begins to seep through, it quickly gets overshadowed by unimaginative elements. In a New York climate searching tirelessly for rap stars, Ferg’s misstep is detrimental, as it comes at a time when he could have once again been pushed to the forefront. It's doubtful, however, that Still Striving will manifest that renaissance. Fans definitely want to show nothing but love to A$AP Ferg, a likeable character through and through, and he doesn’t need to rewrite the book to accomplish it-- but if he does want to grow, it’s time to start a new chapter instead of looking to replicate or recycle the old.