For ASAP Rocky, being “just” a rapper has never been enough. Since his breakout early in the decade, he’s modeled for Dior, collaborated with Raf Simons, and made his film debut in Dope. His work in other areas have informed the creative approach he takes with his own music-making as well. With 2015’s At.Long.Last.A$AP, Rocky expanded his hip-hop palette with elements of electronic music and psychedelic indie rock—a move he builds on even more with his third studio album, Testing.
The sprawling 15-track project features the likes of FKA twigs and Frank Ocean, samples both Moby and multiple unsung Memphis rap legends, and boasts 20-some producers, including Dev Hynes, Clams Casino, and Rocky himself. As you dive into the complex new album, here are some things to know going in.
Rocky gave new meaning to the concept of Testing in the lead-up to its release, beyond his declared intention of “testing new sounds.” In a 90-minute performance-art piece called “Lab Rat,” conducted this week at the Manhattan auction house Sotheby’s, Rocky locked himself in a transparent tank as bystanders watched him plunge into ice water, play beats, take questions, and eventually unveil his album cover. Like Jay-Z putting a spin on a Marina Abramović classic for “Picasso Baby” (or even just Drake making a soundtrack for Sotheby’s), Rocky might be trying to prove that he’s good enough to infiltrate the highbrow art world—one that is notoriously racist and classist. In conjunction with the performance-art stint, Testing appears to be Rocky’s attempt to convince himself—and the world—that he can embody the new hip-hop archetype of curatorial genius.
Samples With a Point of View
Rocky’s had an affinity for unexpected samples since his 2013 mixtape Long. Live. A$AP, and his tastes have only grown more eclectic over time. “A$AP Forever” features a generous sample of Moby’s Play track “Porcelain,” which serves as a cinematic backdrop for Rocky, Kid Cudi, T.I., and Moby himself. “Tony Tone” operates over a slowed-down saxophone loop from “Man Inside,” the 1971 song by British jazz musician Roger Webb. And the relaxed funk vibe of “Brotha Man” is courtesy of soul legend Lee Fields’ 2012 track “Intermission.”
On “CALLDROPS,” the gentle guitar strumming from Dave Bixby’s 1969 song “Morning Sun” is intermittently interrupted by under-the-radar Memphis pioneer DJ Squeeky’s “Money & the Power.” Squeeky makes several more appearances on Testing, with his song “Still Getting My Dick Sucked” popping up on both “Gunz N Butter” and “OG Beeper”; showing restraint, Rocky never uses the song’s titular line. And Rocky continues his tour of Memphis with a few samples from another local legend, Tommy Wright III. He incorporates Wright’s 1994 track “Street Type Nigga” into both the Juicy J-featuring “Gunz N Butter” and the BlocBoy JB-featuring “OG Beeper,” bringing new and old-school Tennesseans together.
For the album’s stunning finale, “Purity,” a slowed sample of Lauryn Hill’s “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” serves as an ethereal backdrop for Frank Ocean’s dense bars. Rocky is the third mainstream rap artist to sample or interpolate Lauryn Hill on a new album this year, following Drake and Cardi B—yet another testament to her timelessness.
In addition to traditional samples, Rocky uses field recordings to place Testing’s narrative within the context of the real world. Gunshots permeate “Gunz N Butter,” which is interrupted by an audio clip from the melee that caused Yams Day 2018 to end early. Rocky’s longtime producer Hector Gonzales can be heard saying, “Rocky, this is Hector bro/We gotta hold on one second bro.” Despite the canned gunshots that up the song’s drama, police statements confirm that there were no actual gunshots fired that day.
“CALLDROPS,” meanwhile, features a monologue from Kodak Black, the South Florida rapper currently in jail for drug and gun charges. (Kodak was indicted on separate sexual assault charges in October and is currently awaiting trial.) At the end of the track, Kodak can be heard over the phone, delivering a muffled, somber verse about his pain and the past. The song cuts out with an operator’s voice dropping in a sly “free Kodak.” Curiously, it was reported in March that Kodak was moved to solitary confinement for allegedly making an improper phone call. In a statement, his lawyer noted, “In my 21 years of practice, I’ve never had someone get 30 days solitary for a three-way call.”
A Broad Cast of Characters
Just like its selection of samples, Testing plays host to a far-reaching list of contributors. The most unexpected guests include FKA twigs and MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden, who both help to make “Fukk Sleep” the waking-dream of a space-trap cut that it is. Elsewhere, Dev Hynes adds his nostalgic-R&B Blood Orange vibe to “Hund43d.”
Also, Rocky might be only artist right now (besides Tyler) who could get Frank Ocean to come out of his reclusive cave long enough to feature on multiple tracks (and possibly a third, if Genius is to be trusted). Frank slides into “Brotha Man” to lend a few bars and a Trump reference (“Getting that God’s view from towers/Lookin’ down, like I’m Donald Trump”). But he really shines on “Purity,” as his fast, stream-of-consciousness flow turns the song into a beautiful fever dream.
It’s also worth pointing out the space Rocky makes for his protégés. Since releasing 2015’s At.Long.Last.A$AP, Rocky signed 21-year-old Playboi Carti and 15-year-old Smooky MarGielaa to his AWGE creative agency. They each contribute a full verse on “Buck Shots,” despite not being officially credited as featured artists. On the flip side of the generational spectrum, seasoned rap veterans also lend their talents to Testing. Diddy (or rather, Love) hypes Rocky up with ad-libs on “Tony Tone,” Snoop Dogg adds a few distinct lines to an ASAP-Ocean verse on “Brotha Man,” and co-executive producer Juicy J brings a bumping, pitched-down verse to “Gunz N Butter.” You could see Rocky as a middleman between eras of hip-hop, but he’s inclusive of rappers arguably of his own generation as well (like Kid Cudi and French Montana), so it seems like he’s simply gone the completist route.
A More Introspective Rocky
While Rocky’s charming grin might make him seem approachable, he often assumes the role of a hardened player in his rhymes. On Testing, he briefly shows that he’s capable of real vulnerability and introspection. On “Changes,” Rocky recounts the story of a girl who left him for someone else—and uses it as a launchpad to address the paranoia and self-doubt caused by social media. He raps, “I wonder how the world would be if they didn’t have me/Wake up to my explore page/See my exes engaged, or either getting married/…I wonder if they really happy or just getting at me.”
Where other rappers would go deeper down the dark rabbit hole of being Very Online, Rocky remains hopeful about whatever lies ahead in this world. On the tender, wistful “Kids Turned Out Fine,” he is comforted by the fact that the younger generation will be alright, despite their seemingly crazy mistakes. This represents a newfound reflectiveness from the 29-year-old, but it’s also not quite clear based on his Testing verses if he thinks it’s time to put down the drugs and stop partying with the kids for good.