The old adage holds that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But when A$AP Ferg fired off a hasty tweet mistakenly trying to correct hip-hop manager Michael C. Clark on his use of the word “forthcoming” to describe his second studio album, triggering the customary Internet pile-on (“A$AP Ferg getting bodied by a reading error,” read one caption to a screencap of the exchange), it probably wasn’t the type of pre-release buzz he was hoping to generate. Worse, it seemed to put the sophomoric in “sophomore effort.”
Putting a more generous spin on an obvious gaffe, Ferg’s new anagrammatic album, “Always Strive and Prosper,” which dropped this past Friday, is a kind of second coming for the Harlem-born rapper. The man who once flatly declared to Pitchfork writer Corban Goble “I wanna be as known as Jesus” has always been heavy-handed with religious allusions, dating back to his self-designation as “Trap Lord” on his studio debut. On the opener to the new album, not-so-subtly titled “Rebirth,” he’s even more blunt: “Now that you’re no longer a lord that’s trap / You have graduated to the Hood Pope.”
As entertaining as it is to imagine Ferg decked out in white robes while trading verses with unabashed hedonists like Schoolboy Q and Rick Ross — two of the many high-profile guests featured on “Always Strive” — the vibe on the album is much closer to a megachurch revival than a somber papal proceeding. The term “vibe,” by the way, is used loosely here, shorn of its usual connotations of something fully realized and cohesive. Unlike its predecessor, “Always Strive” is a bizarre, haphazard hodgepodge of styles and moods, veering between Skrillex fever dreams like “Hungry Ham” and unexpectedly heartfelt neo-soul eulogies to his family members like “Grandma.” When it does settle into a tonal register, especially on the bafflingly upbeat “Strive,” the listener might feel as though they’ve stumbled onto the set of a religious infomercial, with “DIAL NOW” flashing over their heads in all caps. Compounding this impression is the album’s title, which, with its strange prosperity gospel overtones, sounds like a Joel Osteen sign-off.
Ferg has harnessed his confrontational, disorienting style to brilliant effect on previous projects; take the strangely unsettling banger “Shabba” (2013), or the grittily surreal “Cocaine Castle” (2013). Little of that exhilarating rawness is on display here. The one truly disorienting thing about “Always Strive” is how uncharacteristically vanilla it can get at its lowest points. Granted, Ferg still shows flashes of the technical virtuosity that catapulted him to stardom on tracks such as “Let You Go” and “Yammy Gang.” He even gets some assists from Missy Elliot, Future and Chris Brown, who all bring a unique flavor to the album. But these cameos, enjoyable though they may be, aren’t enough to prop up a sagging effort.
If anything, the wide-ranging features end up being a double-edged sword. “Always Strive” might tantalize listeners with its who’s-who of hip-hop and R&B giants, but it serves more as a forum for these artists to showcase their work than a unified vision. Like a piece of cloth stretched past breaking point in all directions, the result is something transparent and insubstantial. What thrilled rap aficionados about “Trap Lord” was the emergence of a fresh, idiosyncratic voice. Here that voice is muted, drowned out by the bigger, more established guns. Which isn’t necessarily a problem — it’s always fun to hear Schoolboy Q spit a monster verse, as he does on “Let It Bang” — but if the guest verses are your album’s biggest draw, you’re doing something wrong.
On the rare occasions where Ferg is allowed to shine through, however, he manages to produce some solid work. And though longtime fans might knock him for going soft, grappling with emotionally charged topics like an unstable uncle and the tragic death of fellow A$AP Mob member A$AP Yams, that brand of wounded vulnerability has always been latent in his music. In “Hood Pope,” Ferg envisioned himself as a positive role model for the wayward black youth of his community who find themselves spiritually adrift. He expands on this theme in the album’s centerpiece, “Beautiful People,” which nods to the Black Lives Matter movement in its uplifting spoken word intro: “If our lives don’t matter, no lives matter/Thus, life is our future, dying is unacceptable / Living for what we believe in is life itself.” It’s a message at once simple and profound, intuitive and layered. While it may be a little premature for A$AP Ferg to start wrapping himself in the vestments of Hood Pope, “Always Strive” shows that he is more than ready to assume the role of humble messenger.