The Albums That Defined 2015 explores how this year's most influential records have shaped and reflected the wider music landscape. Today, how a pysch resurgence has swept through rap, from A$AP Rocky to Kendrick, Ghostface and Chance.
After friend, collaborator and A$AP Worldwide co-owner A$AP Yams died in January, A$AP Rocky told Complex that it was psychedelic music that helped heal him. Stuff like Question Mark and The Mysterians, The Castaways and The Doors. It was on that detour that he hired Danger Mouse — with his tangerine-tinted lenses — to produce the follow-up to his 2013 chart-topping debut. He promised this latest would explore a new direction. But what he turned out was also quite reminiscent of an older one.
At 18 tracks, running near 70 minutes, At.Long.Last.A$AP is a psychonautic quest, transforming Rocky's cloud rap into kaleidoscopic lysergia with a distinctly Southern twang (Juicy J is another executive producer). Rocky, you see, loves acid, and whether he's weighing the worth of his soul ahead of some Faustian deal, conflating the altered states caused by sex and drugs, or boasting about being a handsome, well-dressed and talented zillionaire as he does for more than a few tracks, LSD is built into the very sound of the album.
Like rock and roll 50 years ago, hip-hop reflects the sentiments of America's urban centres at street-level. And at this moment marked by extreme partisan tension, much of America wants to explore a different path.
It seems fitting that the aesthetics of the '60s and early '70s has gained a new currency, especially when another unpopular American war bubbles overseas and civil rights have come to the fore at home (blackness in America, but also marriage equality, reproductive rights and Islamophobia). Like rock and roll 50 years ago, hip-hop reflects the sentiments of America's urban centres at street-level. And at this moment marked by extreme partisan tension, much of America wants to explore a different path. As Rocky offered: a new direction, kinda like an old one.
But though At.Long.Last.A$AP grabs at the handle of The Doors of Perception, it never quite barges in. Rocky's proselytizing on the hippie life is confusing, especially mashed against his conspicuous consumption. Is he endeavoured to some Timothy Leary-style consciousness-expanding, truth-finding mission launched in inner space? Or are his frequent trips down the rabbit hole simply a form of escapism? Perhaps the experimentation scratches both itches — the underlying sentiment being a search for some alternative way of being. It's a desire you can feel, even when deeply entrenched in the game. Maybe especially so.
Surf by Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, the candy-coloured Chance the Rapper-featuring project, with its strong moral optimism and general positivity, leans heavily on freak funk and jazz, each with their own subcultural attachments to a more global consciousness.
And that call for expanded awareness was projected at cosmic scale by WOKE, a supergroup of neo-Afrofuturists Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Shabazz Palaces. They invited George Clinton onto "The Lavishment of Light Looking," making a tacit link to the era of psychedelic soul. In fact, the whole Brainfeeder family, representing a group of L.A. jazz freaks, seemingly counterposed to the cool, repetitive minimalism of club music, has been influential in recasting contemporary hip-hop as an experimental, exploratory genre.
Their influence is felt not least of all on Kendrick's opus, To Pimp A Butterfly, which is symbolically steeped in civil rights-era psychedelia. At the centre of the album, divorced from its disco track, the Isley Brothers' guitar forms a wail — plaintive, but also buried in our cultural memory, it's the sound of action on the street. It recalls Hendrix and Kent State and Vietnam — political tension, violence and volcanic social change. And right now, hip-hop is directing our attention back there.
More of THE ALBUMS THAT DEFINED 2015: