There are three rappers who blew up in the early 2010s that I've always grouped together in my head, though they do hail from different corners of the country and are some of the most enigmatic artists currently working in hip hop. The categorization's based mostly on first impressions, which is unfair, but also on realizing that those impressions were wrong. It's a jarring moment when you hear Schoolboy Q, Danny Brown, or A$AP Ferg rap for the very first time-- one that begs the question, "Is this what this guy really sounds like?" All three have voices that have on multiple occasions been described as "cartoonish," and I admit that that's definitely the adjective I was searching for after first hearing "There He Go," "Huzzah (Remix)," and "Kissin' Pink," respectively.

People initially struggled to take them seriously, but the reason all three are still recognizable and relevant names in 2016 is that they showed they have much more to offer than animated (pun intended) vocal deliveries. Q let his struggles with addiction bleed onto 2014's Oxymoron, and Brown's XXX and Old emphasized the dichotomy between his substance-abusing lifestyle and grim surroundings. Although Ferg's last project to date, Ferg Forever, gave us a bit more depth than his debut album, it felt even more scattered and not nearly as fun, and it seemed like he still needed to ground us in his real life to let us fully wrap our heads around his clearly intriguing personality. On Always Strive And Prosper, which tellingly features the lyric "Grandma used to call me Mickey Mouse but I'm no rat" in its first few minutes, he's done just that. 

Trap Lord's follow up unfolds almost entirely on Ferg's Hungry Ham block, and it has a relatively small cast of characters who orbit around Ferg and have various influences on his life. Most times when rappers attempt to give us this much autobiographical detail, things get jumbled, pieces seem to be missing, but Ferg brilliantly narrows his scope so much that by the album's end, we feel like we know him, his uncle, father, mother, grandmother, and girlfriend. He doesn't try to tell his full life story, instead honing in on a few snapshots-- his girl finding condom wrappers, his mother discovering that he quit his job to become a rapper, etc.-- that are each worth a thousand words. An album-as-life-story this articulate and well-curated is a true rarity, and thusly Always Strive And Propser is much more effective in introducing Ferg as a well-rounded artist than either of its predecessors.

What this tight theme allows for, for better or worse, is a very diverse set of sounds and production styles. Always Strive And Prosper veers from the Stankonia-style freak-out of its intro to big tent EDM on its next two songs, to the warm boom-bap of "Psycho"-- and that's just its first four tracks. Trap Lord didn't seem like a very cohesive project at the time, but going back and listening to it after a few rounds of this new one makes its reverby gothic trap stand out as a much more singular-sounding album, in contrast to its very loose lyrical themes. Ferg really branches out with his sound here, at times getting weirder, at times charting more of a course towards the mainstream, and it's often hard to tell how much of that is his own doing and how much is at RCA's behest (remember, Ferg originally wanted to put this out a year ago, so there's gotta be some good reason for the delay).

Sometimes, the big-ticket collabs pay off, despite adding little to the framework of the album's story (like the undeniably banging "New Level" with Future), and other times, they seem to just check off the type of boxes that label executives still seem to rely on ("Strive" has the "big hook," the wholly inessential "I Love You" is obviously the "song for the ladies"). It's especially disheartening to see Skrillex pop up on an A$AP album again, not necessarily because of any of the EDM producer's own personal sound or style, but rather because that's something that Yams was vocally against on Long.Live.A$AP, and it makes his absence even more palpable. Ferg does a great job of weaving these sometimes unnecessary-seeming guests and forays into other genres into his own story-- the phone convo with Chris Brown about buying belts from him back in the day is a nice touch-- but it's easy to envision Always Strive And Prosper a much more cohesive and much less pandering-sounding with the addition of a Yams executive producer credit. 

While the album's structural and stylistic choices sometimes clash (most notably in the abrupt transition between "Uzi Gang" and "Beautiful People"), the ride is still very enjoyable for the most part. "Strive" may have a hook that sounds like a knockoff of a Kid Cudi/David Guetta collab from 2009, but Ferg and Missy Elliott's intriguing tales of personal triumph overshadow the cheesiness; Big Sean may cheapen "World Is Mine"'s message with his tabloid-style relationship raps, but I'll be damned if his hook isn't the catchiest on the album. Always Strive And Prosper's highlights are Ferg's brightest moments yet, namely his Azealia Banks/Nicki Minaj-style flows on "Hungry Ham," the thoroughly unique charms of "Yammy Gang," "Let You Go"'s emotiveness over a beat that sounds like an update on Kanye West's "Roses," and most importantly, "Psycho." The song dedicated to Ferg's uncle is at once catchy, soulful, heartbreaking, and brilliant storytelling-- it allows Ferg to keep the vibrancy that's always made his words pop off the page, while also allowing him to be more mature in his observation of these events from afar. It'll never be his calling card like "Work" or "Shabba," but it's probably his best, most impactful song to date. 

Always Strive And Prosper has the storyline and contained concept of a perfect album, but the flow and pacing of a major label mishap. In a way, it reminds me of Ty Dolla $ign's Free TC, another project that had a clear theme but seemed to be obscured and bloated by unnecessary and distracting guest and production choices (ironically, I think Ty's 40-second-long guest spot on Ferg's album falls into this category). It's a two-steps-forward-one-step-back situation for Ferg, who builds on his own persona and strengths but is impeded by typical blockbuster rap album follies. Always Strive And Prosper's tight script seems like it'd work best with a close-knit group of collaborators, but instead, it's an ensemble drama with some weak links. This makes it better from a commercial standpoint, but slightly cheapens the intensely personal potential that it has. Yeah, it's probably the only album that'll ever feature Lil Uzi Vert and Chuck D on consecutive tracks, but is that necessary? Ferg's got a big enough personality to carry an entire project himself, and it's time that he and his label realized that.