As an intriguing recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology noted, across a plethora of disciplines, “the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good.” It’s hard not to ponder that phenomenon when considering Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, who recently inked an eye-popping $3 million record deal on the strength of a single regional hit, and is now headlining midsized venues before he’s even released a proper record. Though the rapper managed to avoid succumbing to impossible expectations Friday night at the Palladium, his performance revealed a still-raw talent.
Despite the news that “LongLiveA$AP,” his debut album on RCA Records/Polo Grounds, is set to miss its planned Halloween release date, the 24-year-old Rocky’s existing body of mixtapes still provided him with plenty of material for an 80-minute set. Taking the stage to an intro featuring “Apocalypse Now”-style chopper noises, music from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” playing over the loudspeakers, and two men in gas masks standing in front of a backdrop depicting the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, the bar for onstage spectacle seemed set a bit higher than the green young rapper could clear.
Which is not to say that he didn’t put in the effort. Dressed in a tight track-suit/flack-jacket combo, with his payot-like side-braids peaking out from beneath a skullcap, Rocky was an frenzied presence, bobbing and weaving across the stage with all the energy of Muhammad Ali, who is perhaps the only man alive to refer to himself as “pretty” more often than Rocky.
On record, Rocky is a charmingly unprepossessing rhymesmith. Though capable of occasional Bone Thugs-style acrobatics, he’s more likely to simply coast smoothly atop the beats from his murderer’s row of hot young producers (Clams Casino and Hit-Boy especially). Live, however, he seemed to lack the proper confidence in his abilities, and early runs through “Purple Swag” and “Pretty Flacko” betrayed an odd hesitancy verging on stage-fright.
All those jitters vanished 15 minutes in, when Rocky’s eight-person crew the A$AP Mob flooded the stage, and the uptick in confidence came with a downgrade in coherence. Formed prior to Rocky’s major label signing, with all its members boasting Ramones-style variations on the A$AP name, the crew have yet to establish a second star who can approach Rocky’s flow and presence. With nine men on stage and only one of them worth watching, at times it felt like a nightmare version of the Wu-Tang Clan, comprised of one Method Man and eight U-Gods.
The show managed to regain its footing later on, with the capacity crowd finally going truly bananas at the first strains of “Goldie” and the re-emergence of opener Schoolboy Q for “Brand New Guy,” which was all the more dramatic for a fog machine malfunction that left both MCs rapping from inside a dense cloud. Closing the set with his infectious breakthrough single “Peso,” Rocky showed what he could do with a real barnstormer, as his crew members went stage-diving one after another into a widening mosh pit.
Anyone expecting a polished performance from the youngster, much less a justification for all the hype, was bound to be disappointed. Rocky is a charismatic rapper with an ear for quality beats and plenty of femme-appeal, and under normal circumstances that would be plenty. Whether the tyranny of great expectations, and need to offer a return on investment, will allow him to simply be that is another matter entirely.