The knock against A$AP Rocky from the start has been that he’s an empty Prada suit. You can listen to his albums straight through and never learn a thing about the guy. That’s never been a problem, though, with A$AP Ferg, the A$AP Mob rapper most likely to unseat Rocky as the crew’s flagship member. On his sophomore album Always Strive And Prosper, Ferg’s got personality to spare. There’s Ferg the party animal; Ferg the brimstone-belting hood apostle; Ferg the lover; Ferg the pussy hound; and first and foremost, Ferg the good son. Depending on what any given track calls for he’s a menace, a goofball, or a teddy bear, and each of these personas is so fully developed that none of them feel like contradictions. Rocky may be a pretty motherfucker, but Darold Ferguson is multifaceted, and that makes for more interesting records any day.
Always Strive follows 2013’s Trap Lord, a banger-delivery system that played up Ferg’s curatorial skills first and foremost. Between its exquisitely minimal production and its fascinating lineup of B-list guest features—Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Trinidad James, Waka Flocka Flame, B-Real, and Onyx among them—Ferg’s own rapping often took a strategic backseat. Always Strive changes course, putting his effusive, Seussian rapping front and center and spotlighting what a fantastic storyteller he’s become. As its guest spots from Future, Big Sean, and Chris Brown attest, the album is unabashedly more commercial than its predecessor, yet also infinitely more personal. With its perky house groove, “Strive” isn’t far removed from the kind of brainless party track that Flo Rida specializes in, but Flo Rida’s never packed a track so dense with autobiographical detail. In a vivid leadoff verse, Ferg relives his listless days working at Ben & Jerry’s, getting fat off of free ice cream, and longing for the quick cash he sees his Uncle Terry scoring on the corner.
With all due respect to Ferg’s Uncle Psycho, a troubled character who fights in the park for cash, Uncle Terry is the closest thing Ferg has to a male role model on the album. At least he doesn’t lack for strong women, though. They’re all over the record. There’s his mother, of course, who serves as the album’s conscience, tisking him whenever he takes a shortcut. Then there are his grandmothers. His surviving grandma phones in to remind him to eat well, while the ghost of his departed grandma looms large. She was a streetwise woman who once hid Ferg’s uncle’s gun under her mattress to keep him out of trouble, information that’s matter of factly divulged on the riotous Schoolboy Q feature “Let It Bang.”
With its detailed, interlocking tales of Ferg’s family tree, Always Strive sometimes feels like rap’s answer to Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. And like that nakedly personal record, this one has the power to make you weep. Thousands of rappers have recorded songs about their late grandmothers, but few have thought to rap from their perspective the way Ferg does on the heartbreaking closer “Grandma.” He honors the woman not only as his grandmother, but as a real person, with aches and pains and romantic woes and trust issues. Ferg didn’t just love her; he understood her.
Another tired rap trope Ferg breathes improbable new life into: the angry girlfriend skit. Ferg’s is one of the few that genuinely sympathizes with the woman’s perspective. On “Let It Go,” he channels his girlfriend’s frustration over being marginalized in his music: “You talk about your experience with other women / How you think that be looking? / My daddy and whole family hear it / Where’s the respect? / I don’t feel it.”
Rap albums are inherently narcissistic, the product of one person’s values and interests, yet on Always Strive And Prosper, the secondary characters are every bit as fully drawn as the buoyant personality at the center of it all. Without succumbing to false sentimentality or restricting himself with the overly linear narrative structure of many of rap’s recent prestige albums, Ferg has crafted a tender tribute to the people he loves most. It’s not often that albums that bang this hard are this moving.