A$AP Rocky's "Testing" has all the makings of a grower, set to reward those who value patience.
A$AP Rocky created “Praise The Lord” while he and Skepta were high on LSD. With his mind no doubt addled from the drug’s psychological effects, the curious mischief of Testing’s most accessible banger was allowed to develop organically. Bearing witness to that studio session might have proved hilarious and insightful in equal measure. The former because the thought of Rocky and Skepta tripping balls in a London Studio is a canon worthy buddy comedy. The latter because of what it reveals about Rocky’s creative process, and thereby Testing as a whole.
The project was, in many ways, victim to the weight of expectations. Those who have followed Rocky since the Clams Casino era can attest to his effortless proficiency, often aligning him with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and J. Cole. Yet his track record is far from prolific, with three studio albums in the past six years. The arrival of a new Rocky album felt, at least in theory, monumental. During the roll-out, however, it soon became evident that Testing would be a different venture altogether. There was no surrounding pomp. No antics.
Rocky set his table in the months prior to release, stating “people are scared to test new sounds, so they go with what’s current ’cause it’s the easy thing to do.” There would be no trap beats here. No autotune. Instead, Rocky promised a dive into the depths of his own creativity, with only his instincts playing will-o’-the-wisp. For that reason, Testing arrived imbued with an endearing sense of honesty, even during the project’s more scattershot moments.
A$AP Rocky’s Testing feels like a man wandering the halls of a London jam space. Tape recorder in one hand. Joint in the other. Open door policy.
Consider a selection like Rocky’s admitted favorite “Kids Turned Out Fine.” The simple two chord arpeggio suggests a likely origin story. Somebody, perhaps even Rocky himself, picking up an electric guitar on a whim; a melody, with or without intelligible lyrics, emerged in sequence. Throughout, the skeletal foundation of Testing feels borne from ideas given leeway, yet never tarnished by the dangers of overthinking. Songs have a slightly unfinished air about them, enhanced by the deliberately lo-fi mixing and mastering. Such DIY charm is equal parts blessing and curse.
Unfortunately, it has become a well-worn cliche to describe something as having a “vibe,” particularly in music criticism. To place Testing under the umbrella of “vibe” feels too simple. Yet attempting to wade through the project’s myriad musical directions for some semblance of a thesis statement feels downright Herculean. Testing can occasionally feel like an album constantly unfolding, without ever reaching a crescendo. Like sex without an orgasm; few complain during, but memories of the experience are generally tarnished by the anticlimax. In that regard, Testing is more of a house party makeout mid out-of-body experience.
Questions of A$AP’s artistic limitations inevitably come to mind, especially given his against-the-grain approach to the creative process. Should he abandon all sense of convention, is he compelling enough to rebuild a sturdy foundation? Luckily, the project features enough highs to encourage replay value. “Fukk Sleep” is a quiet contender for song of the year, with a haunting, subdued beat, and a singsong, insomniac hook from Rocky; the end result is not unlike staring at one’s ceiling mid witching hour. The transition into the aforementioned “Praise The Lord” makes for an album highlight, and Skepta’s production once again solidifies the viability of flutes as hip-hop’s integral woodwind. Prior, the hazy menace of “Tony Tone” emerges to foreshadow the album’s general sonic aesthetic; like Radiohead’s “In Limbo,” it seems to derive order from chaos.
On that note, Testing feels more in line with Radiohead’s Kid A, and by association, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition than it does with the average hip-hop release. When trap drums are present on tracks like “Buck Shots,” they’re often paired with unresolved chord progressions or unconventional instrumentation. You’re more likely to hear an acoustic guitar than you are a minor key synth progression. Album closer “Purity” evokes images of beach-side campfires, until the heartbreaking conclusion, where Rocky opens up about his sister's tragic death. Similarly, the evolving musical landscape of “Changes” provides a malleable canvas for Rocky’s most intricately penned bout of development thus far.
Of course, not every test is meant for success. While Rocky’s missteps are seldom offensive, they tend to feel forgettable. The album’s middle section in particular can occasionally seem lost in translation; a “you had to be there” moment after an enthused retelling of an anecdote. Rocky is an accomplished lyricist, capable of evoking much with little. The problem is, his words can occasionally play the role of an additional instrument; as such, songs aren’t always built around them, and Rocky’s presence is thereby diminished.
It’s strange. The album ultimately feels ambitious, but only through its utter lack of ambition. But what is the driving motivation? It’s nothing like John Cage’s “4’33,” in which the art piece is a message in itself. Quite the opposite. Everything about Rocky’s debonair demeanor screams effortless. He doesn’t seem like the type to construct an album with a preconceived set of constraints for the sole purpose of making a statement. Perhaps Testing’s aesthetic speaks to a man detached from expectation, looking almost exclusively inward; the crown and those who seek it are no longer any concern. That’s not to say he’s tired of music. He simply came to terms with his process. Take it or leave it.