Review: A$ap Ferg – Always Strive and Prosper


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A$ap Ferg’s impressive debut elevated him from A$ap Rocky’s mate to star in his own right. His new album, Always Strive and Prosper, is a schizophrenic effort torn between a chart friendly sound and raw thuggery that never quite reaches the same heights but is saved by some highlights amongst the filler. 

New York hip hop has always been associated with darkness. In it’s sparse, beat driven sound and gritty content it summons forth images of run down tenement buildings and foreboding, dimly lit city streets. Of shifty figures on street corners dressed in winter coats and Timberland boots. But amongst the coldness there’s always been a place for eccentrics, for characters who can blend the grimness with outlandish humour. Think early Busta Rhymes with the swinging dreads and frenzied delivery. Perhaps the most iconic example is Wu Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard, one of the Clan’s most beloved members whose deranged personality bordered on the genuinely unhinged at times.

Amongst the new breed of New York MCs no one has shown more desire to carry the torch of this manic tradition than A$ap Ferg. His 2013 debut, Trap Lord saw him step out from A$ap Rocky’s shadow, delivering some of the biggest hit singles of the year in “Work” and “Shabba.” With his erratic flow and unorthodox delivery, Ferg was an exuberant presence throughout his first offering. A critical and commercial hit, Trap Lord marked him out as his own artist rather than just a side kick hanging on to Rocky’s coat tails.

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This week saw the release of Always Strive and Prosper, Ferg’s follow up to Trap Lord. Critics were interested to see which direction Ferg would choose for his next project; stick with the street-centric bangers, focus on the more serious aspects hinted at on Trap Lord or go for commercial success?
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The end result is a messy mix of all three. In places, Ferg’s seemingly going all out for radio play with dance beats. Scrillex himself actually produced the album’s second track Hungry Ham. This alone is probably enough to get hip hop traditionalists hitting skip in disgust but Ferg’s never been a Joey Badass-esque, boom bap type so it’s not too out of character. Hungry Ham is a weird mixture, with a skittish beat underlying lyrics about Ferg’s early rise to fame. The weirdness actually compliment Ferg’s style on the verses, describing his neighbourhood of Hamilton Heights in Harlem. The hook itself, however, is repetitive and after a couple of listens pretty annoying. Lyrically, there’s highs and lows but Ferg’s appeal has always been in the energetic vibe he can create. Hungry Ham showcases the same feel evident on Trap Lord but doesn’t quite reach the same heights.
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The next track on the album isn’t going to sit well with those who prefer their hip hop dark and gothic. On Strive, Ferg spits over a bouncy house track alongside a feature from Missy Elliott. The beat sounds like something Rudimental could have made. For what it is, basically a fairly generic dance track, it’s OK but it does seem weirdly out of place with the rest of his output. It’s an unashamedly poppy effort which has presumably been included to attract mainstream attention (although confusingly it hasn’t been released as one of the initial singles). Some of Ferg’s bars on the track aren’t exactly his best work either with gems like “working in Ben and Jerry’s/ it was scary/ my life vision was blurry.” This one’s probably not going to play well with Trap Lord fans but if some reason you were dying to hear Ferg try his hand at chart house you’re in luck.
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After a a pretty bland opening, the next three tracks include some of the album’s highlights. Track five,”Psycho,” brings a sudden shift in tone. It’s the most nostalgic sounding song on the album, reminiscent of New York classics. It’s also one of the best tunes on the whole album. The title refers to the nickname given to Ferg’s wayward uncle, a volatile, crack smoking street veteran. The pace on “Psycho” is slower and the tone more subdued. Ferg’s lyrics and flow also step up a level here, reflecting on witnessing his uncle’s manic lifestyle as a youngster. “Psycho” is at least as good as anything on Trap Lord and shows Ferg can still deliver.
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“Let it Bang” picks up where “Psycho” leaves off, but here brooding menace replaces nostalgia. Again the subject is Ferg’s uncle, this time detailing his criminal heyday as a street kid roaming around Harlem with violent confrontation around every corner. Ferg name checks ODB, and the late Wu member’s son, the originally named Young Dirty bastard, actually appears in the video for the song. “Let it Bang” sees Ferg making a welcome return to the frenetically dark territory that defined Trap Lord. “Let it Bang” also includes one of the best features on the album in Schoolboy Q’s final verse. Schoolboy gives a west coast spin on the same energetic brand of dark humour that Ferg provides, as seen on his latest track, “Groovy Tony.” As a result his inclusion here works well. Fans hoping for more familiar Ferg material will appreciate “Let it Bang.”
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Always Strive maintains the momentum with “New Level.” Adopting the uncompromisingly aggressive tone that made “Work” and “Shabba” break out hits, here Ferg is at his brash best. While he may not always be the greatest lyricist, few rappers can match his energy when he hits his stride on the right beat. Here Ferg is in his element and this is probably the track (also a single) that will be the best received by those hoping for Trap Lord 2. The obligatory Future feature appears on “New Level,” who fits the atmosphere of the track well enough even if he does sound even more incomprehensible than usual.
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The next three tracks, Swipe Life, Yammy Gang and Uzi Gang continue Ferg’s return to more comfortable ground. The dark, unsettling beats on all three fit far far more comfortably into what’s expected from Ferg. While maybe not up there with “New Level” and “Psycho,” these are pretty solid tracks with Uzi Gang being the stand out.
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The atmosphere on the album switches up again with “Beautiful people.” This is Ferg in conscious mode, delivering his commentary on black America and its struggles. Public Enemy frontman and hip hop royalty, Chuck D appears on the intro for the track. On first reaction, this could be seen as a token “deep” track, thrown in to appease those who demand some sort of political statement. It’s sincere enough though and it’s good to see a different side to Ferg after the well trodden flexing on the previous three tracks. It’s definitely a less jarring addition than Strive.
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The album peters out towards the end, with a mixed bag of tracks making up its conclusion. Let You Go is the sentimental track for the ladies that every hip hop album is required by law to include. Again, like “Beautiful People” it’s probably not going to have critics raving but its an interesting enough biographical track.
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 “I Love You” is a less compelling spin on the same genre. These sort of tracks almost always seem like an afterthought, included to try and appeal to the teen girl market that probably aren’t going to be checking for Ferg anyway. Here he enlists the help of R&B heavyweights, Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign. You’ve heard a hundred rappers do this song before and this really isn’t a stand out example.
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The album concludes with “Grandma”, another biographical account of Ferg’s relationships with those around him. After a couple of disappointing tracks, on “Grandma” is at least a heartfelt effort, even if it isn’t the album’s most memorable.
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Verdict 
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A mixed effort that hits a few wrong notes but also includes some genuinely great moments. Is it going to be as well received as his debut? Probably not, but it at least shows Ferg is willing to test out new material, even if it is with varying degrees of success. Definitely worth a listen, especially for the middle section where the album is strongest.

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