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Extraordinary swag and a mouth full of gold: How A$AP Rocky broke bling rap

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Gold, diamonds, cars, chains, watches, grills—the iconic symbols of wealth and success in the hip hop mythos, all guided by the mantra “the bigger the better.” From JAY Z’s classic Jesus Piece, to T-Pain’s “Big Ass Chain,” rappers’ visible wealth adds distinct flair to their public persona. Since Slick Rick first combined a rockstar’s excessiveness with hip hop style, rappers are basically required to wear designer clothing, drive expensive cars, and, most importantly, stay blinged (and preferably iced) out. 

Granted, that’s all par for the course. The real interesting development came in the 2000’s when hip hop’s full mainstream arrival blew open the doors for creative experimentation. One of these experimental artistic movements within the genre, which would spawn the bling era, explored the nature of the rap star as a stylistic entity. These rappers leaned into the fiction of what it meant to be a rapper, pushing the idea to its limits and often reorienting their musical output to service a solidifying public image.

This would lead to the “I’m not a rapper” refrain popular a few years ago, but it began as a deeply genre-indebted creation of a new celebrity archetype, a particularly visual one.  

However, despite this general cultural experimentation, bling rap was a purely derivative musical movement. While that sounds like a harsh critique, it recognizes that bling rap—as a defined set of sonic principles and celebrity presentations—was simply a recombination of existing but disparate elements, entirely devoid of original artistic input. But I stress that this is not an inherent criticism. Bling rap as a subgenre actually embarked on a fascinating nth wave dive back into hip hop’s historical fundamentals. 

The movement’s value lies within that return to some of the genre’s core principles: the stylish reorganizing of existing frameworks (like the original practice of DJ’s reworking breakbeats and samples) and the slick presentation of a hyper-stylish, partially self-aware, and “broken-through” ambassador of a particular regional culture. In fact, that combination created some of the most important, pioneering rap artists of last generation, like UGK, Gucci Mane, Rick Ross, and even early JAY Z. But prior to the late stages of some of their careers, none of those artists contributed new ideas to mainstream hip hop that weren’t already present in their local scenes. Rather, as their achievement, each one of them blended their regional cultures with the most widely popular hip hop sounds of the day, crafting the perfect package to become the most broadly appealing act a subculture had to offer.

While these artist’s catalogues are often important on their own, their real power came from the space they made in the mainstream for “purer” versions of artists championing their respective sounds. 

That general idea has allowed the rap hubs of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and most recently Atlanta to produce so many robust and richly historical artistic movements, as opposed to other more “niche” scenes that can rarely get more than one or two acts into the mainstream each generation (think Houston, Memphis, or the Bay Area). A well executed bling rap ambassador for a city can carve out years of the mainstream’s attention for other more artistically ambitious artists. With this in mind, the best bling rappers realize what they are, slipping into the mainstream to open up space for a new sound, then flooding hip hop with great examples of it, either by themselves or others. Gucci Mane helpfully exemplifies this. He championed the trap sounds of Atlanta’s streets, partially “sold out” to bring them to the mainstream, and eventually innovated their sonic foundations. At the same time, he put on countless artists in his wake. In essence, there would be no Barter 6 or “Drip Too Hard” without “Lemonade.”

While elements of this trend appear frequently, one rapper has reached the absolute artistic limits of bling rap: A$AP Rocky. Though the supposed genius of his early career is now a hot topic in hip hop—especially after his critically divisive album TESTING and his hesitancy to take up political mantels in the wake of his widely publicized Sweden arrest—but his come up as the archetypal modern rapper was both flawlessly executed and defining for this iteration of hip hop. 

In the process of breaking through, unlike every other bling rap ambassador, Rocky didn’t interpolate a regional sound. Instead, he completely perfected style.

During his rise, he both capitalized on his New York origins (though never explicitly the city’s sonics) and drew from the right niche sounds, namely Houston, Memphis, and even indie rock, to garner critical acclaim. With these inroads, under the guidance of A$AP Yams, he followed the bling recipe for rap stardom: become the head of a regional scene (artificially engineered through the A$AP mob), earn adoration from critics, redefine and embody the cutting edge of style, and diversify into other artistic outlets like fashion. Taking this blueprint, Rocky and Yams invented an entire mythos that catapulted a kid from Harlem to the critical and popular A-list.

Despite this impressive arc, Rocky’s early music completely lacks originality. But even without original ideas it still matters; he managed to combine disparate subgenres into a perfectly stylish amalgamation that would open the door for mainstream hip hop’s willingness to cannibalize regional sounds throughout the 2010’s. His second commercial project LONG.LIVE.A$AP is rife with the markings of what rap would become.

From the nonstop flexing of cloud rap on songs like the title track and “Goldie,” to the incorporation of Houston’s chopped and screwed style on the “Purple Swag” remix, Rocky used the rules of bling rap and took them to their logical extreme. Without the limitations of sonic roots, Rocky could experiment with anything he wanted, or, more accurately, anything he thought would succeed. He has admitted on record in an impressive self-aware interview that he worked with artists like Drake and Skrillex exclusively for commercial appeal. Ironically, Drake himself now stands out as the most successful example of this (pejoratively) “culture vulture” mentality. 

But as mentioned, when constructing an archetypal rapper, though music is important, it’s only one part of a much bigger picture. The character of A$AP Rocky as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and “pretty boy” icon contributed just as much to his success as any song. By leaning into fashion and becoming a model for Dior, he rewrote the narrative around modern rappers, necessitating diverse artistic projects across the industry and a worldly sense of cultural investment. 

A$AP Rocky wasn’t the first to set the standard for what it means to be a rapper, nor did he even necessarily do any part of it the best. But Rocky distilled elements pioneered in the bling era into the purest presentation of style—so pure he didn’t have to contribute anything new.

He emerged as the prototypical modern rap star and redefined what a rapper looks like, acts like, and means to the listening public.

As a consequence of this perfection, Rocky also killed bling rap, exhausting its ideas, rendering any new attempts at recombination unoriginal or imperfect. However, by doing so, he influenced all other subgenres of rap, making fashion, the adoption of regional styles, and diversification of creative outlets essential elements across hip hop culture. He made the bling rap blueprint essential for achieving rap stardom. Almost as essential as a fire chain.

A$AP Rocky’s $1.5 million chain in memory of A$AP Yams

Follow A$AP Rocky on his socials:

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Andrew Checchia is a second-year student at UCLA. Currently an English major and a film minor, he is following a passion for writing and diverse forms of artistic expression. Born in Redlands, California, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri at a young age, where he lived for ten years. From there, he moved to Houston, Texas for middle school and high school.

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