Following a rather significant slump, A$AP Ferg has some serious making up to do in the eyes of the hip hop world. One of the leading figureheads of perhaps the most heavy-hitting troupe in contemporary rap music, A$AP Mob, Darold D. Brown Ferguson, Jr.’s debut album under his recording alias of A$AP Ferg, 2013’s Trap Lord, earned the rising rapper a great deal of respect amongst critics, hip hop fans and his contemporaries alike. I may have my reservations for the project, but given the musical climate in which it was released, it’s easy to understand why the gothic spin that the record put on cloud rap was received so well, especially when someone with the firepower of Ferg was behind the mic. The end product matched the MC’s rapid-fire rapping expertise with a sound that was chilling, nocturnal and oddly gorgeous at times, to the point that, one’s personal opinions on the album notwithstanding, Trap Lord can surely be respected and regarded as a milestone in modern rap music, with countless artists to have succeeded Ferg striving for a similarly moody, atmospheric production style to suit their breakneck flows. This record’s follow-up, Always Strive And Prosper, however, marked an unprecedented one-eighty for A$AP Ferg, with the musician making the questionable decision to follow the innovative and individual Trap Lord with one of the most unabashedly contrived efforts at a mainstream crossover from a hip hop artist in the past few years. With the tracklisting littered with features from the likes of Future, Lil Uzi Vert, Chris Brown and Big Sean, it was clear right from the onset that Ferg was likely hoping to put together a more conventional record that could rake in attention from a more comprehensive audience, but the extent to which the project would unapologetically jump from trend to trend, with absolutely no care for any tonal consistency outside of Ferg’s rapping style, led to an almost jarringly fickle attempt at appealing to a broader audience. With the record returning a rather mixed reaction from fans, whilst not heralding the attention for which Ferg was potentially hoping, the question of whether or not the MC would bounce back with a return to his Trap Lord form on a future project was a very real one, but with the title of his newest mixtape, Still Striving, being announced only seven months following the release of Always Strive And Prosper, the prospect of Ferg foraying further into the pop rap rabbit hole seemed likely.However, in spite of its name, Still Striving falls much more on the Trap Lord side of the fence, with A$AP Ferg favouring the fast flows and banging beats of his debut album over the pristine, poppy presentation of Always Strive And Prosper. The result, therefore, is undoubtedly a massive improvement compared to his previous full-length undertaking, but whether or not Still Striving lives up to the definitive, ambient moodiness of Trap Lord is another matter and, taking everything into account, one would probably be hard-pressed to say that this tape offers the same flair for style of Ferg’s debut record. Although the rapper is at the top of his game on a handful of the songs in the tracklisting — with some of the mixtape’s features being placed alongside him rather well, compared to the tendency for his guest artists to outshine him on Always Strive And Prosper — a great deal Still Striving sees Ferg resting on his laurels, with much of the tracklisting feeling somewhat uninspired in terms of the ideas that the MC brings to the table. With Ferg having always been one to favour style over substance, many of the flamboyant, braggadocious bar-fests boasted across the mixtape undoubtedly play to the artist’s strengths in a highly compelling fashion, but with a significant portion of the tracklisting being content in its unoriginality, Still Striving lacks the consistent semblance of a pure, fiery rap impulse brandished across Trap Lord to live up to the bar that A$AP Ferg has set for himself on his most defining material.
With a project that plays towards the relentless, hard-hitting territory of Trap Lord, one would hope, and somewhat expect, that it would witness A$AP Ferg fly straight out of the gate with his signature spitfire flows, bolstered by some airy, banging trap beats, and, credit where credit is due, Still Striving undoubtedly gets off to a fittingly fierce start. In both name and execution, the opening cut, Trap And A Dream, captures and conveys the essence of what made much of Trap Lord so compelling. The production, courtesy of Frankie P, despite its bare-bones nature, retains a round and resonant sound thanks to its warbled vocal sample, breezy ambiance and resounding chimes, with the space left by this skeletal instrumental being filled by a relatively rudimentary trap beat that nevertheless carries a full, round sound, whilst the accented snaps of the snare provide just enough syncopation to keep the listener entirely attentive. Meanwhile, Ferg’s performance across Trap And A Dream sees the rapper bring the blazing bars to this beat that anyone familiar with Trap Lord would know and hotly anticipate, and the track is all the better for it. Weaving his way through tireless triplet bars, punchy pauses and punctuations, and straight, textbook quick-fire flows, Ferg truly exercises his title as the ‘Trap Lord’ across this song, although it must be said that the noticeably underwritten refrain hampers the overall fluidity of the cut to a degree. As is often the case on an A$AP Ferg track, the MC brings in outside help for assistance on the mic, with Meek Mill being his choice for the opening cut. Although the notorious battle rapper can bring a gripping amount of energy onto a track when he wants to, Meek’s style of delivery typically takes a rather different form than that of Ferg’s, in that his vigour is often translated more through his intonation and overall expressiveness than how fast he can spit, so to see the MC listed as a feature on Trap And A Dream certainly raised questions about how well he would work his way into the mix. This is especially true given that A$AP Ferg’s projects can often be rather hit-or-miss when it comes to guest artists, and Still Striving is no exception, but there will be more on that later. As for Meek Mill specifically, despite not opting for Ferg’s flashy flows, his performance on Trap And A Dream witnesses the rapper come through with a palpable level of liveliness and spirit that is translated loud and clear through an impressively ardent delivery, which is made all the more powerful through the well-worked multi-tracking used throughout his feature. On the topic of features that go over very well, the succeeding song in the tracklisting, Rubber Band Man, besides boasting one of the most contagious and appropriately moody hooks on the entire mixtape, brandishes one of Cam’ron’s signature, smoky, East Coast flows that pairs perfectly with the muted humming and intermittent whirls of the raw-boned, ambient instrumental. Whilst these first two cuts play to Ferg’s strengths like few other points on the mixtape, there are most definitely a handful of other moments that appeal to the same brazen bravado of Trap Lord and are thus successful for similar reasons, even if they hardly push the boat out for the musician at all. Plain Jane, for example, which is one of three cuts from Still Striving to see Ferg appear with no features, makes use of some tribal rhythms that create a stark contrast against the instrumental’s hollow, electronic howls and buzzes, whilst also playing into the primitive grunts that punctuate Ferg’s verses, establishing an identity for this song that makes it stand out like no other cut in the tracklisting. With both of the mixtape’s posse cuts, Mattress (Remix) and East Coast (Remix), being stacked with bullish beats and appropriately cutthroat performances from many of their guest artists, whilst a cut such as One Night Savage, as its title suggests, plays to the gritty heights of many of the most arresting moments from Trap Lord, Still Striving not only overcomes Ferg’s obnoxious tendency to play to the gallery on Always Strive And Prosper, but its best moments undoubtedly mark a massive return to form for the MC.
Although calling Still Striving a return to form is arguably justified overall, that’s not to say that the mixtape lives up to the already somewhat-flawed Trap Lord, with some of the problems with A$AP Ferg’s debut album appearing in a slightly exacerbated form here. A significant portion of these problems pertain to the fact that, with Ferg having admittedly carved out a unique position for himself in the trap and contemporary hip hop scenes on Trap Lord, his blueprint is left relatively unaltered throughout the entirety of the tape’s runtime, resulting in some significant lulls in the tracklisting. With many of the most attention-grabbing cuts from Still Striving being placed towards the very beginning and very end of the mixtape, it’s more around the middle of the tracklisting wherein Ferg’s formula begins to show signs of losing momentum. Whilst much of this has to do with the fact that some of the beats, such as on songs like What Do You Do and Coach Cartier, fall into many of the more trite tropes of trap, there is also something to be said about the extent to which some questionable feature choices play into this problem, primarily as a result of Ferg appearing alongside rappers that simply clash with his style and do little to accommodate for his differing aesthetic. The fact that the likes of Lil Yachty, NAV and Playboi Carti are listed as features is undoubtedly enough to raise some eyebrows, with these MCs often being associated with low-key and laid-back deliveries that exist in a vastly different world to Ferg’s fast, fiery flows. That’s not to say that none of these rappers can ever convey the same charisma as Ferg, especially in the case of an artist such as Lil Yachty, but whether or not they would be able to find a footing on some instrumentals that are expressly tailored towards more aggressive, hard-hitting performances is another beast entirely, and it’s hard to say that they stick the landing in this sense. There does, however, seem to be a certain level of compromise, especially in the case of Aww Yeah, for which Maaly Raw’s production is slightly more subdued compared to the rest of the tape, whilst the prominence of the brooding, somewhat bubbly bass is more fitting for Lil Yachty’s brand of self-described “bubblegum trap”. As it happens, this decision certainly pays off in the sense that Lil Yachty sounds perfectly at home on this track, but the MC, unfortunately, plays it relatively safe with his performance, sticking to the usual trappings of his soft sung performances and mellow spitting. Whilst this is arguably enough to make for an endearing switch-up from the prior performance from Ferg, whose hook and melodic embellishments during his verse are very effective at creating a sense of consistency with the later feature from Yachty, it nevertheless feels as if there was a much vaster scope of possibilities with regards to how the artist could have been integrated into the cut. The following song, What Do You Do, also shows signs in the production of there being a conscious effort made to comfortably house the track’s feature from NAV, with the watery trap instrumental being as rudimentary and inconspicuous as the Canadian MC’s music tends to be. Whilst it could potentially be said that NAV sounds at home on this beat, his anaemic, auto-tuned delivery sounds no less uninspired as a result, and what’s perhaps worse is the fact that he seemingly drags Ferg down with him, as the artist attempts a similar auto-tuned performance for which he simply lacks the nuance to pull off convincingly. With Mad Man being cluttered with ad-libs that seemingly attempt to mask the relatively middle-of-the-road trap beat, whilst Playboi Carti’s guest verse witnesses the MC continuously interrupt his own performance for no good reason, which only ruins the fluency of his delivery, Still Striving unfortunately spotlights the issue of one-dimensionality that led to the odd slump over the course of Trap Lord, with the minimal attempts made to overcome the one-note nature of the mixtape falling short of providing any refreshing ideas for the most part.
With A$AP Ferg likely being aware that he had a lot to make up for following Always Strive And Prosper, the overall trend of Still Striving is unquestionably a positive one, with the musician plainly and simply playing to his strengths, both in terms of the production over which he is rapping and his performances themselves. Of the numerous highlights throughout the tracklisting, many of these cuts could certainly be said to live up to the bar set by Trap Lord, even if Ferg’s songwriting formula remains largely unchanged. The salient shortcoming of the tape, however, quite simply arises from the flump in creativity that crops up across many of the cuts at around its midsection, with Ferg having to make compromises for his guests that don’t pay off, whilst these outside artists themselves don’t justify their own appearances with their, at best, serviceable performances. Ultimately, Still Striving may not overcome the issues of inconsistency to have bogged down many of A$AP Ferg’s projects up until this point, but it at least sees the MC pen some of the best songs that he has put out since his prime material, meaning that, coming out of the mixtape, it would be hard to look at the future of Ferg’s output all that negatively.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10