A$AP Rocky’s debut mixtape was a perfect talisman of the 2010s

‘Live.Love.A$AP’ redefined rap in the moment. But the paradigm shift it promised never came.

A$AP Rocky performs at the Hollywood Palladium.  (Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Get...
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Last week, having paid whatever publishing ransom necessary, A$AP Rocky and RCA Records announced that Live.Love.A$AP, the Harlem rapper’s debut mixtape, would finally be available on digital streaming platforms in time for the tenth anniversary of its Halloween release. While Rocky remains an A-list rapper — it is something of a running joke how frequently he appears atop festival flyers, even between album cycles — he has also always seemed like a relic of that moment, a little talisman of the early 2010s. A decade after the fact, Live.Love.A$AP sounds as hazily inspired as ever. It made Rocky as big a star as anyone could have expected. But the paradigm shift it seemed to signal never really came. It’s best understood not as a hard break in the genre’s history but as something fleeting, a snapshot distinct and elusive as its airiest Clams Casino beats.

Rocky was born Rakim Mayers in the fall of 1988, and named after the rapper who ruled New York at the time (an older sister is named Erika B. Mayers). He lived briefly outside the city, in Pennsylvania, but for the most part grew up in Harlem. At one point after his father was sentenced to prison on drug charges and his older brother was killed, he and his mother stayed in a shelter. By the time he was a teenager, Rocky was trafficking a bit as well, though he says he generally kept that to the Bronx. He was caught with a gun, charged with attempted murder, and spent a couple weeks on Rikers Island before getting off. He was 16.

Meanwhile, also in Harlem, another young man was studying the game from the inside. Steven Rodriguez, who would later rechristen himself A$AP Yams, was letting his mind drift—cutting class to hunt for obscure records on Canal St. and obscurer ones on Limewire. When he was 16, he dropped out of high school so he could focus on his unpaid internship with Dipset, packaging mixtapes while slipping a few into his backpack to sell on the side. Yams was an archetypal New York rap kid for the 21st century: enamored enough by the Dips’ chaos mythos to work for free, street smart enough to see what levers they were pulling to finance the whole thing, yet with enough lingering love for golden-agers and Five Percenters to write raps of his own under a name like Sensei the Golden Child.

Rocky and Yams met in 2008 through a mutual friend. In 2012, Yams gave an interview to the writer Jeff Weiss, saying that in ‘08 Rocky sounded “like Kid Cudi mixed with Lil Wayne,” and that it was he who told Rocky to listen to the Houston records that would eventually shape his sound. By that point Yams was elbowing his way to the center of the rap internet: His Tumblr full of scans from old magazines, mp3s, and mixes would soon be widely read by fans, critics, and executives. (His aesthetic sense bled out and onto his body, the tattoos and gold teeth he bought with a student loan complementing the unmistakable birthmark that covered part of his face.) While Rocky honed his vocal approach and highly manicured presentation, Yams started seeding his music on the blog. He was lying, of course. “He'd just be like, 'Yo I like this kid from Harlem, but I don't know where he's from,’” Rocky would later recall his partner posting online. “‘It might be Texas, it might be L.A.' So he'd put that out there because he's trying to make it seem like he didn't know me like that.”

People bit. In the summer of 2011, the video for “Purple Swag” became a minor internet sensation — on its musical merits, sure, but also for its famous opening close-up of a white girl baring gold teeth to mouth the line, “This is for my niggas getting high on the regular.” By the fall of that year, the hype around Rocky had snowballed to the point where the Sony and RCA subsidiary Polo Grounds Music gave him $3 million to sign. The figure itself became as effective a teaser as any single could be, and in the weeks leading up to Live.Love.A$AP’s release, the curiosity of underground rap fans and industry watchers dovetailed in a way not seen since.

“Purple Swag” is as reasonable an introduction as any to the sound Rocky and Yams had settled on. Rocky’s voice — the timbre, the tics of pronunciation that nip at the starts and ends of words—is recognizably New York, but the lyrics themselves, like the screwed-up, pitched-down vocals in the song’s hook, are an extended ode to Houston’s rap culture, woozy fare for slow-moving cars and slower-still nervous systems. (The original version of “Purple Swag” replaces the remix on Live.Love.A$AP’s streaming version, which also excises “Kissin’ Pink” and closer “Out of This World,” and adds the previously unreleased “Sandman.”) “Purple Swag” was followed as a single by “Peso,” which more deliberately split that difference — Harlem cutting through a fugue. That song solidified Rocky’s reputation on the weirdo rap internet; it also got him on Hot 97.

The fixation on Houston — specifically the aesthetics of its mid-2000s mainstream moment, and the way those artists updated the DJ Screw style from a decade prior—was one of Live.Love.A$AP’s defining traits, but it wasn’t the only Southern city that Rocky liberally borrowed from. On the tape’s opening song, “Palace,” he raps somewhat defensively about his influences — and, in its second verse, lapses into a triplet-bound flow reminiscent of Memphis’s Three 6 Mafia. Though Rocky is not a superlative writer or vocalist, his verses on Live.Love.A$AP seldom sound like karaoke, or even pastiche; he was a conscious, even conscientious synthesizer.

We had just come out of a decade in which CD sales collapsed and there was rampant fear mongering about iPods and ringtone sales, where minimal (and, importantly, Southern) styles like snap music were derided as childish and unserious, and snap’s equal opposite, crunk, dominated club and radio playlists but received little critical attention. What emerged around the turn of the decade were two strains of maximalism: the Lex Luger-led kind that was perfected on Waka Flocka Flame’s Flockaveli, and the softer, stranger, but still all-encompassing genre that became known as cloud rap, perhaps best typified by “I’m God,” the Lil B song over a Clams Casino flip of Imogen Heap’s “Just For Now.”

Rocky dabbled in the former but dove headfirst into the latter, enlisting Clams for five beats on Live.Love.A$AP and his imitators for several others. The beats fill the mix even when their edges are soft; where there are decades of rap songs explicitly about selling drugs (and, around 2010, a swell of songs about taking them recreationally), Rocky’s debut often feels like the mushy middle of a drug experience, where various senses are distorted in different ways, stretched in different directions. There is the irresistible sloth of Screw music, but also a Mollyish full-body tingle. The uniqueness of this aesthetic gave him art-rap cred and suggested huge pop potential; crucially, because the sound was not definitionally New York, Rocky’s ascent was frequently cited as proof that New York was now more interesting as an interpreter, rather than exporter of new rap styles, and that regionalism in rap was dead.

While Rocky went on to become a massive star, he would never again make something as singular or strange as Live.Love.A$AP. His RCA debut, 2013’s Long.Live.A$AP, opened at No. 1 on Billboard and eventually went double platinum, but that major-label debut plays distinctly like a major-label debut, its author’s style diluted just enough to make obvious sense on Best Buy racks. As mentioned, Long.Live.A$AP and the two diminishing-return albums after it have kept him atop the list of rappers who play arenas and close out festivals. On these records, Rocky continues to blend disparate styles, sounds, and textures with what seems to be an omnivorous taste. But the notion that his breakthrough marked some end to regionality in rap music has been proven as ridiculous as it seemed at the time.

When Rocky debuted, he was unique for his ability to borrow from cities he’d never so much as visited and make their slang and ethos sound like natural extensions of his. Of course that knack was not widely replicated. More to the point, hip-hop has always been hyper-local in all the important ways: Even when a rapper or producer borrows something from another city he or she, if talented enough to get noticed, reinterprets it, the same way early rap recontextualized samples from disco, R&B, and electro. For example, when the triplet flow Rocky uses on the second verse of “Palace” became the defining style for pop rap in the middle of the 2010s, it was not used, or seen, as an homage to 1990s Memphis—in fact it was so thoroughly laundered that it is today mostly associated with Atlanta, whose artists warped its dimensions into something they could use differently.

The notion that Rocky’s breakthrough marked some end to regionality in rap music has been proven as ridiculous as it seemed at the time.

A survey of rap in the early 2020s reveals that the genre, outside of the blandest Top 40 plays, is as siloed as ever. The most exciting scenes of the last several years include rambling, comic crime tales pouring out of Michigan, the careening street rap from Los Angeles, and New York’s reimagining of drill music, which itself emerged in Chicago just after Rocky debuted. These regions are in conversation with one another the way they have always been — the way G-funk bled East into Texas, the way many No Limit rappers took vocal cues from 2Pac, the way the Bay Area and Detroit have always enjoyed a symbiotic exchange. But they do not collapse into a single homogenous brick of signifiers, at least not on records that justify their own existence.

Live.Love.A$AP was always more interesting than that, anyway. The point was not that Rocky grew up in Houston, or wished he had. It was that Houston, like so many other things—the economic conditions of his own city, the designer clothes he coveted and then hoarded, the sounds of his block and his peers and his namesake—was part of a digital and corporeal landscape he could study, ingest, and remake in his own image.