Outside of Madiba, an enormous coffee shop and bar in Harlem, a man approached a long line of fans. “What’s this? A concert?” he asked no one in particular.
“It’s A$AP Rocky,” a tall guy in a backpack replied, “giving a lecture.”
“Professor A$AP?” The man strolled away into the Harlem night.
The event, put on by Red Bull Music Academy, was a lecture, or a conversation, between Jeff “Chairman” Mao and A$AP Rocky, billed as the “best-dressed wordsmith” and brightest light of New York City’s “young torchbearers.” I gathered that most of the audience — a collection of college students, local fans, and a surprising number of couples, many visibly high — came to hear a track from the forthcoming At.Long.Last.A$AP, the follow-up to Rocky’s revered Long.Live.A$AP (out June 2). They were not disappointed.
While we waited inside, a journalist I’d never met sat down next to me and ordered a beer. “My last name is also Beer,” he told the bartender. He noticed my wristband. “Have you talked to A$AP yet? I just talked to him. He’s stoned out of his mind.”
Was I? The lecture started hilariously late. Eventually, though, a flannel-clad A$AP Rocky and a stoic Chairman Mao emerged, then summarily reclined in leather chairs in front of a small brown coffee table. Rocky was obviously high. (“I’m stoned,” he intervened at one point in the lecture. The audience laughed knowingly.) As soon as they sat, Mao, like his namesake, got to the point.
“What’s it like being back in Harlem for this event?” he asked.
“It’s different now, but I’m home.” Rocky reminisced about the Apollo, the Harlem Renaissance, Dipset, Children of the Corn, Murder Mase.
“Killa Cam?” Mao asked.
“I said Dipset,” Rocky replied. “It’s not like it is now in Harlem.” He paused. “That’s a sad subject. You should switch it up.” But he kept going. “Now there are police on every corner. I came up for the 4th of July and there was no firecrackers, no culture, but I live in SOHO now, so it’s good.”
When asked (inevitably) about his fashion sense, Rocky’s reply was almost musical.
“New York is a mecca of fashion. We made our own style. It was a mentality, a look, a pizazz, a character.” He explained that he got his style from music videos. And then he praised Old Navy. “That was the shit, man! I love tacky people. Everyone goes out there and tries to be weird.”
“We should all be such lucky weirdos,” offered Chairman Mao.
“That’s the dopest compliment. Slash insult,” Rocky replied sternly.
When pressed about Baltimore and Ferguson and race, Rocky pointed out that violent cops are nothing new in the world. And he wonder aloud about what it means to be a black man in 2015. (“What does he look like? Where does he work?” he asked rhetorically.) Then we got to the forthcoming album. Rocky described it variously as “new age,” “classic rock,” and “weird.” He talked about the discipline required to produce it after the passing of A$AP Yams.
After some light teasing, Rocky unveiled the single “Everyday,” which features a Rod Stewart sample, Miguel, and Mark Ronson. It is more or less as he described it — classic rock, new age-y, and weird. To me it sounds like a better version of Jay Z’s terrible “Young Forever.”
From there things got even weirder. Rocky carried out a debate with himself about whether a laptop or a toothbrush is more indispensable. (“You can order a toothbrush from a laptop,” he concluded.) To the audience’s disappointment, he advocated for less strict gun laws; to their confusion, he lambasted pedophiles and rapists. Then he talked about his appreciation for Geto Boyz, Mike Jones, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall before calling Kendrick Lamar’s album “jazzy,” which did not sound like a compliment. Somewhere in the mix, too, he delivered an honest and smart mini-lecture about contemporary New York hip-hop:
Is it Bobby Shmurda and them? Is it French Montana and them? Is it A$AP and us? Is it Joey Bada$$ and them? Is it Action Bronson? What’s the sound? There’s not one sound and I think that’s the dope thing about it now. If we are going to be honest, man, some of the best music, some of the dopest music is coming out Atlanta right? But all them n****s sound the same.
Back on the subject of Harlem, Rocky asserted that the lamentable changes in the neighborhood are “not about gentrification.”
“It’s just washed up,” he said, “the little gatherings, the festivities we had. People moved to Brooklyn, the Bronx…”
“SOHO!” a woman interjected from the audience.
“Smartass!” Rocky replied.
Mao moderated. “You say it’s not gentrification, but…”
“It is,” Rocky admitted. “It is.”