It’s hard to go under the radar when you’ve signed a $3 million record deal. But when that deal comes before you’ve even released a mixed-tape, it’s a different story. Twenty-three year old A$AP Rocky signed to RCA/Polo Grounds on the backs of two self-released videos and an endorsement from Drake. He put out LiveLoveA$AP shortly thereafter and the excitement surrounding the Harlem rapper has grown exponentially since.

A brief listen to Rocky’s music may leave the uninitiated confused as he may seem like just another rapper, if a bit more talented – but certainly not worth a deal with such fanfare. On recent single “Wassup“:

Shout-out my parolees and I smoke that OG
Kush mother fuck the police, all my niggas rock gold teeth
So hood and we so street, sippin on that codeine
We hustle hard no sleep, your bitch loose that’s no leash

But Rocky’s not so simple. He has the street cred you might expect of the lines above – he spent his time pushing drugs on New York streets – but he doesn’t glorify his time in the game like others might: “I just look at it like, it’s just something that wasn’t for me,” he told Complex. “I did it. I did it to get what I got, and I got what I got out of it. I left the game. I don’t plan on going back. I plan on doing this. But me selling drugs and being able to support myself and family let me know that I could do anything in life. Now I’m supporting myself and my family with this music. So I just feel blessed, bro.”

Perhaps a more striking difference is Rocky’s insistence on high fashion. Amongst lines about the purple, 40s, cocaine, and women, Rocky name-drops Rick Owens and Raf Simmons. In the video for “Wassup” he shows off his taste, wearing Comme des Garçons and Y-3 (in between scenes of dice games and pitbulls on chains, of course). He actually gave an interview to GQ critiquing runway shows. In “Brand New Guy“, Rocky makes a boast and a definition:

Fuck fly, I am fashion

And it’s hard not to believe him, in part because he is so much different than anything else going on right now. A$AP (Always Strive and Prosper) is actually a crew, of which Rocky has become de facto leader. The crew aspect of Rocky’s music comes across in the collective mindset of every track. Yams, A$AP member and Rocky’s manager, claims that the crew isn’t simple posturing. It’s a group of like-minded guys trying to help one another and “give [life] meaning and depth.” Rocky explains that A$AP is “dudes with pride and values and morals.”

Most importantly, however, Rocky brings this focus, confidence, and collective mentality into his music itself. He lists Nevermind, A Rush of Blood to the Head, and Robbers and Cowards among his favorite albums. Though there’s not any obvious references to Chris Martin or Kurt Cobain, Rocky’s songs do take an approach to rap that crosses typical boundaries. Combining New York lyricism with the chopped and screwed codeine dreams of Houston, Rocky puts together infectious songs that just might be deserving of his signing bonus.

Peso“, one of the songs that helped Rocky into his deal, rides a smooth, mid-tempo beat from A$AP Ty Beats with twinkling fills surrounding Rocky’s infectious bravado. “I be that pretty motherfucker,” he declares at the song’s opening, inaugurating a three minute tour of his drug abuse and A$AP love, showing off his Harlem upbringing and the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony influences.

Bass” – one of the many stand-out Clams Casino produced songs on LiveLoveA$AP - depends on a grinding electronic beat that lets Rocky shine. His flow alternates between the fluid, the staccato, and the screwed, a simple repetition of the title in lieu of a hook. “Bass” is all swagger and a marriage of all Rocky’s influences:

Bozo’s love my rose gold
Purple got me slow-mo
Stuntin’ like I’m Dorothy but my ruby’s in my dough though

Rocky has enough charisma on show here to make his claims of “fuckin’ other niggas’ broads” sound almost sweet. This is a man with talent and vision who knows it.

But the A$AP brotherhood mentally keeps everything Rocky puts out on point. The guest verses by other A$AP members are all constructive (excepting, perhaps, Ferg’s questionable lines on “Kissin’ Pink“), the beats are staggeringly good and the producers always get their credits and their shout-outs. Rocky has made it evident that even though “the only thing bigger than [his] ego is [his] mirror” (on “Wassup”–another stand-out), his music is about something more than the material–even if, ironically, that’s all he raps about.

The thing is that everything on LiveLoveA$AP is what he and A$AP have been through. It’s simply factual. The drugs abuse is what it is they do together – this isn’t empty bluster. “I’m sick and tired of your facade and all of your lying and all your diamonds”, he raps on “Leaf” before claiming “I’m a down to Earth nigga, we could kick it.” Rocky’s flaws are honest ones and he has the personality to turn them into something worth listening to. He’s trying to make good music, plain and simple. It’s worth noting that he’s come out full-force against homophobia recently, further separating himself from the expected in hip-hop culture.

What sets Rocky apart is this willingness to stand out, but to stand out with others. That philosophy carries with it a willingness to take influences from new places, the confidence to put his personality on a hill, and the support to get it done. Mixed with Rocky’s talent, rap is threatened to explode around a budding superstar.