Prior to this assignment, I’ll admit that I knew little to nothing about Harlem born rapper and fashionista, A$AP Rocky (born Rakim Mayers). In fact, what I knew only amounted to a vague awareness of his Billboard hit “Fuckin’ Problems” (featuring Drake, 2Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar); and so long as we’re being honest, my knowledge of contemporary rap is admittedly (and deliberately) limited, on the whole.
But I do know a thing or two about fashion, or at least about what looks good, and what that entails. I also know that — whether they’re willing to admit it or not — rappers care a great deal about how they look, because rap culture is deeply and historically influenced by image and perception. Every successful artist from Run DMC to Lil’ Wayne right up to Rocky himself has had an associated aesthetic (e.g. Hammer’s golden pants, Tupac’s bandana, Nelly’s stupid fucking Band-Aid…et al.)
Don’t think that’s just a cheap shot I’m taking at materialism in rap, because image and perception are just as important in other genres of music; and besides, this goes deeper than simple references to clothing and cars in lyrics. I’m merely pointing out that the link between fashion and music has been present in American culture for decades now, and that (at least as it manifests in rap culture) this connection is very important, and further, very telling.
Now, after having researched and learned a bit about Rocky, I have rather a lot to say on the subject. Rap culture has undergone phases of evolution in terms of style, but it’s always been centered around a fundamental image of appearing and/or being gangster — “Thug Life”, if you will. This translates into various aspects of the music (e.g. lyrics, videos, publicized feuds), and is just about everywhere you look in the culture, as well.
For a long time, it seemed as though one’s credibility as a rapper was directly correlated to the level of debauched and/or illegal activity he or she was party to. Bullet wounds became medals of honor, criminal records CV’s, and the act of cuckolding a rival something worthy of positive notoriety — which is really fucking weird, honestly…but we all sort of went along with it, because rap had become such a powerful cultural force in modern American society.
And, as rap progressed, the intended message turned to one of wealth and success. The concept of having “made it” became hugely popular within this cultural microcosm — you know, rags-to-Rolls and all that. Young rappers began to covet an image of themselves as having transcended the ghetto, rather than the previous one of succumbing to it (despite frequent reminders in most every song that parts of the ghetto remained present and readily accessible, if needed).
The overarching theme here should present itself all too plainly as modern day rappers’ insatiable need for affirmation from the society they live and act in spite of. These men and women seem to be torn hopelessly between a desperate want to establish their image as social pariahs contrasting middle class America, and a financial need to sell that image (along with records in the millions) to those very same suburban households that comprise it.
Here’s where Rocky comes in. If you watch “SVDDXNLY”, the online mini-series documenting his meteoric rise over the last four years, a few things become gradually yet distinctly apparent about the undisputed leader of the A$AP mob (stands for Always Strive and Prosper, by the way). What’s most striking and likable about Rocky that you can see from his interviews is the way the guy walks the line between confidence and arrogance.
There’s a level of brashness that’s not only expected, but required from rappers of any era — and Rocky’s got his fair share — yet there’s a self-awareness, a genuine humility that’s easy to discern when hearing him speak. Rocky’s not shy in the matter of discussing his success, but nor is he tasteless or overly smug in doing so. That grotesque, often repulsive boastfulness which many rappers assume after achieving fame is nowhere to be found in his persona (or at least, not the public one, but that’s another issue altogether).
You get the sense, watching these interviews, that the guy’s got nothing to prove — which is pretty much unheard of among rappers of the 21st century. At the age of 26, Rakim Mayers has succeeded in doing what only a few of his peers in the industry (e.g. Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell…and that’s it) really have, which is making it…without having to make sure we know it. And that modesty, that ability to just live well rather than demanding to be seen as living well, it’s seldom seen in the young and famous.
Keep in mind, also, that what you wear can say a lot about you (and is in fact meant to, most of the time). Clothing is a statement — like it or not — so when you see Rocky walk on stage in attire that succeeds in being at once urban and magisterial (and you hear him verbally acknowledge it in one of the videos), it’s safe to say he’s going for something explicit, something quite apart from the more basic grandiosity/insecurity of his contemporaries.
Swagger has become a grievously misused word in modern America; it’s become more of a marketing tool than anything else. What it really denotes is an overconfidence that is somehow attractive — and I mean that in the literal sense, that it attracts — and you can see that, hear it, when people talk about Rocky. He’s not just a pop star; he’s a leader. Qualities like this, along with a seamless sense of style, are what grant him and the chosen few other artists genuine transcendence, true independence — Imperial Eloquence.
“Not gonna let all these millions get to our heads; I’m still the same ghetto, crazy….pretty mothafucka“
– Rakim Mayers
Here’s a link to the first of five parts in the “SVDDXNLY” mini-series:
Watch the other four, if ya dig.
Shop more at http://www.imperialeloquence.com
to be continued