Early on in his sold-out show at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, after declaring that the night was all about love and creativity, A$AP Rocky announced, “Fuck all that mainstream shit.”
This may have been slightly disingenuous. His most recent album, the woozy, delirious, and thoroughly engrossing At. Long. Last. A$AP., debuted at the top of the Billboard charts, and the video for “L$D (Love $ex Dreams)” is closing in on 25 million views on YouTube. In other words, he’s hardly an outsider artist.
The same could be said of the other acts with whom Rocky shared the bill: Most of them — Tyler, the Creator, Vince Staples, and Danny Brown — are familiar names to anyone who owns an iPhone and has a working knowledge of the internet, and all but one (Brown) are signed to a major label. If you were looking for underdogs, this wasn’t necessarily the place.
But at the core of Rocky’s statement was a kernel of truth. All four of the evening’s performers may have achieved a measure of success, but they’ve managed that by upending pop conventions, making music that opens the curtains just enough to let the darkness in. At. Long. Last. A$AP. — which is both deeper and more complex than even its most favorable reviews give it credit for — exists in a kind of acid-soaked dreamworld. Its songs are full of queasy, purplish washes of synth, and its best moments effectively capture the kind of eerie calm that comes when you’ve taken drugs with a group of friends and everyone except you suddenly starts freaking out. It’s a shivery, shadowy record, with zombie-like beats that shuffle and drag. It may be popular, but it hardly fits the loose definition of “pop.”
In person, that tension was more muted. A$AP Rocky’s set consisted of an imposing two-level metal platform with inlaid video screens that seemed part rejected Blade Runner set piece, part MTV dance show circa 1987. It was constantly awash in color: During “L$D” — which blurs the line between the euphoria of love and the euphoria of drugs — it was full of purples and pinks; during “Goldie” it glowed Easter-egg-yellow while one of those enormous screens displayed rotating digital skulls. For “Holy Ghost,” this latest album’s booming opening track, its beams became alabaster columns, and Rocky slowly worked his way to the top of them as the song progressed. As a performer, he swings from moments of intense focus to those of unbridled enthusiasm; on “Multiply,” he volleyed his bars breathlessly against the song’s grinding production, a lone human voice punching its way out from the center of the machine. Because all of the light was coming from behind him, he (and the other members of the A$AP Mob who joined him onstage) often performed in silhouette, and the effect was unnerving — a group of merrymakers rampaging through some strange dystopian power station after dark.
Tyler, the Creator’s set was far less focused. When he emerged eight years ago as a member of Odd Future, his tracks seemed lean and threatening — skeletal instrumentation supporting songs that often spoke of violence. In the intervening years, though, he’s come across as a bit of an empty provocateur — less an artist with a method to his malice, and more one who may someday end up the subject of an unfortunate Onion headline. He’s got a gruff, barking voice, and it was at its best tearing up the center of rowdy shout-alongs like “Domo 23,” which returns, over and over, to a chorus of “Fuck that, golf wang.” But the set unraveled into a string of whoopee-cushion r&b semi-parodies, with Tyler typically turning from sincere to vengeful within a few bars for little more than the benefit of a cheap punchline.
Danny Brown was both more charismatic and more rewarding. Gifted with a voice that runs from elastic yawn to firecracker pop, he played it against the music almost as often as he allowed it to run alongside. On “The Wizard,” his voice darted between booming bass, and in the delirious “25 Bucks,” he ran well ahead of the track’s glacial production, as if he were composing the song, frantically, in real time. Where Tyler’s approach to moral ambiguity is often ham-fisted, Brown’s is trickier. On “Side B (Dope Song),” he revisited his days dealing drugs, but the song kept flipping from triumphant to troubled. By its end, Brown declared, “Not my last dope song/But my last dope song,” and that punning contradiction — along with his buoyant, brash stage persona — is one of the things that makes his music so compelling.
The same could be said of Vince Staples, whose brief opening set likewise balanced moments of celebration with moments of darkness. Staples heaved and spun across the stage like a cut electrical cord, and the doomy menace of his music was the perfect complement to his pinched, burrowing vocals. Like with Rocky and Brown, in Staples’s music, darkness and light coexist. After leading the audience in a spirited chant of “Fuck the police,” he began “Oh You Scared” by repeating, “Hands up! Hands up! Hands up!” That the message was simultaneously political commentary and time-tested performer ad lib only heightened its intensity.