If you’re under the belief that A$AP Rocky has spent the last 28 months since his 2013 debut album Long.Live.A$AP dating super models, acting in movies and smoking weed you’re not entirely wrong, just fundamentally mistaken. Behind the marijuana-coated aloofness and disarming humor lies an observant mind whose “swag” and charm are powered through his hyper-awareness. He’ll hear the sarcastic whispers from the audience member in the fourth row and call her a smart ass instantly. So it became abundantly clear during Rocky’s 105-minute discussion with Chairman Mao for Red Bull Music Academy’s Festival New York at Madiba Harlem’s My Image studios’ last Thursday (May 7) that above all else, Rocky has spent the better part of the past two years watching.

But on this night, we watched the watcher.

“The only key to survive / and get a piece of the pie / Is to agree with Allah/Or believe your facade.”-A$AP Rocky on “Everyday” from At.Long.Last.A$AP

good kid, new Harlem

Rocky’s face beamed with pride when he told the packed audience he stops by his hometown Harlem every Mother’s Day to visit his grandmother, and sulked when he informed them this year he wouldn’t be able to. He reminisces about memories of men and women being robbed of their Northface jackets as fondly as he does Morningside Park cookouts. But, he quickly corrected Mao when he opened the lecture by referring to it as a homecoming for Rocky. “It’s not the same,” Rocky stated “I don’t see nobody I grew up with.”

To him, the culture is missing. He told the audience he is ok with it to a certain extent since he now lives in the culture machine of SoHo, but when he asked the audience who attended the annual Harlem Day Parade and no one raised their hands, he was visibly distraught. A few audience members expressed their views that Harlem’s transformation is due to new people moving into the neighborhood. Through his eyes, the change in Harlem is not so much a result of gentrification but a cruel reminder of the finite nature of time: “We was having too much fun back in them days and now I guess them times are up. Them cookouts aint for us no more.”

But understanding does not preclude emotions and Rocky’s sullied opinion of his hometown manifested last year on July 4th:

“I came for the Fourth of July and I almost cried,” Rocky remembers. “I came with firecrackers. I had my nutcrackers and my fire crackers. My good shoes on. I was looking nice. Real nice. Real cozy. I got uptown and I only seen police patrolling. I didn’t seen one firecracker. Not one.”

Hip Hop’s Rocky Year

Hip Hop is a contact sport and being aware of the changes in the game can be the difference between success and failure. Rocky tried to be as diplomatic as he could when giving his observation on a Hip Hop culture he said had a horrible 2014. He curiously clarifies he’s not trying to “justify” former collaborator Action Bronson “because a lot of people think he sounds like Ghostface Killah” before stating that he views Bronson as being the Ghostface Killah for future generations. He champions the diverse yet fragmented music scene that has left the birthplace of Hip Hop without a definitive sound as a testament to the region’s range not a depleted talent pool:

“What sound is that? We don’t know. Is it Bobby Schmurda? Is it French Montana? Is it A$AP? Is Joey Bada$$? Is it Action Bronson? What’s the sound? I think that’s kind of the dope thing about it, because if we going to be honest, some of the best music, some of the dopest music is coming out of Atlanta. But, niggas sound the same.”

He later clarified that not EVERY Atlanta artist copies, but did give one startling example of the type of creative recycling happening in the dirty south. “I don’t understand how Future can make a song ’Sh1t’ and then this nigga makes “OG Bobby Johnson,” Rocky pondered “You make OG Bobby Johnson and it’s like ‘headshot, headshot, hit em with the.. It’s the same thing Future saying and we allowed that.” Future’s “Sh1t” was released online in July 2013; Que’s “OG Bobby Johnson” was released online the following month in August 2013. Rocky even intimates that Que was straight biting Future and not simply deriving inspiration:

“I feel like it’s ok to be inspired, but you can’t bite off contemporary artists that are in your same league because that’s technically biting.”

The Weirdo & The Man

Rocky revealed A.L.L.A. won’t include any commentary on the recent uproar over Freddie Gray’s murder, but he may record a song addressing it at a later date. The self-proclaimed “weirdo” who compared facing criticism for his polarizing fashion choices to going through the Civil Rights Movement, rhetorically asked Mao “in 2015, what does a Black man look like?” The glimmer of gold necklaces that rested on his chest did not blind Rocky from noticing the racial disparities: “Regardless if you’re African American, white, black or Asian, they give different groups and different races different expectations,” Rocky laments “I don’t think the same rules apply to everybody across the board.”

Now let’s remember, Rocky is still a 26 year old rapper with enough brashness to unexpectedly grab Rihanna’s ass on national TV with his super model girlfriend in the audience watching, so his observations may not always be astute. He told a female audience member her question of what his favorite sandwich is was something women should know, to scattered chuckles. In the most millennial moment of the night, he seriously wondered if a laptop was more important than a toothbrush by reasoning “you can order a toothbrush from the laptop.”

With A.L.L.A. set to be released on RCA Records on June 2nd, Rocky explained he’ll be working diligently on the late A$AP Yams’ album. Rocky revealed before Yams passed in January, the young business mogul recorded a few tracks and completed a tracklist for his album, which Rocky will work to manifest. Last Thursday, those in attendance were able to see A$AP Rocky in his true form. Cool enough to not care about responding to Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse but aware enough to know he never wants to be king of anything. “When the land is mad at you, that’s when it gets ugly,” Rocky lamented “That’s when you start talking about I wear dresses and shit and I don’t like dark-skinned girls.”