It’s weird how, of all the ’90s ephemera that has returned to the mass consciousness of the SoundCloud/YouTube generation, no one really seems to appreciate the oddity that was the crash dummies — no one that is, except ASAP Rocky. The irony that his unique sensibility allowed him alone to connect so spiritually to a goofball set of commercial characters wasn’t lost on me as I watched him tear down his Injured Generation Tour set at the world famous Forum last Thursday night.
The other thing I noticed during the electrifying set was that the missing component from Testing wasn’t anything that could be quantified, held, or even contained on the album in whatever medium it was consumed. It was Rocky himself, his infectious energy, his cocksure demeanor, and the visual components of his live performance, which ranged from inventive to outright absurd. Watching him perform the songs live, the intent of Testing became clear. Rocky complained in a recent interview that the album received a lukewarm response from both fans and critics, that it was too experimental, drawing its sonic direction from its title. However, I’d argue the opposite, that ultimately the problem with Testing may not have been that it was too experimental. Rather, it wasn’t experimental enough.
For instance, during the show, Rocky made his entrance dressed as a Crash Dummy himself, putting himself in the shoes of a test subject as a computerized AI voice put both him and the crowd through their paces with a series of instructions issued both by the AI and by Rocky’s lab-coated assistants, who were also dressed as Crash Dummies. The iconography that was plastered all over his album packaging and promotion suddenly made perfect sense to me — in the old commercials, some of the Dummies naturally played the scientists, putting the others through a series of dangerous exams behind the wheels of a range of cars.
The overall message of those Crash Dummies PSAs was to encourage people to use their cars’ safety belts. In Rocky’s vision, the desired goal is to get people to take more risks, not fewer, a sentiment he conveys in a breathtaking moment where he rhymes “Gunz N Butter” from atop a car suspended over the stage — it looks wildly unsafe, but the spectacle is worth the implied peril, if for no other reason than the story. As the AI occasionally interrupted the proceedings to bark out orders — for instance, stopping an exuberant rendition of “Tony Tone” to prompt Rocky to whip out ten push-ups — the concept of a mad science experiment gone off the rails couldn’t be ignored or overlooked as it could on the album.
The biggest issue on Testing, and really with most of Rocky’s music, is how clearly he wears his influences on his sleeve. The Injured Generation live show and Testing share this attribute, but it only really works live. During the show and the album, a lot of the seams show, and in the patterns of the stitching you can see the remnants of the patterns he worked from, the designers he was inspired by and ultimately, followed maybe a little too closely, i.e., cribbing his flow from Cleveland, his muddy, chopped-and-screwed beats from Houston, and his almost goofy obsession with fashion from Kanye.
On record, it’s underwhelming. I wanted to love Testing but couldn’t help feeling like I was being hustled by an artist hucking reproductions outside the real art show, talking fast to obfuscate the shoddy work and inflate his own genius. In person, he can cherry-pick the most fun bits of other artists’ shows and it’s just as exciting to watch him as he reinterprets those pieces through his own, wacky lens. Live, his energy and the energy of the ecstatically violent crowd cover for this lack of originality. There are enough bells and whistles — like the sudden appearance of Drake or watching Rocky make beats on a custom iPad midi controller while lounging in a collection of presumably fan-donated bras — to distract from the relatively straightforward execution of the derivative ideas.
But the Injured Generation tour wasn’t completely about the sale, but the experience, like the “being hustled” aspect was just one facet of a larger performance art piece. Bits of it still felt silly, but I also felt like I could relax a little and enjoy the spectacle rather than trying to make it make sense. It was a little like being at a magic show. You know there’s a gimmick, you know that everything you see is just sleight of hand designed to obscure the turn, but the prestige… the prestige is always worth it.
ASAP Rocky may only be putting druggy, distorted spins on the same o’l tricks, but they’re still entertaining and so is he, despite himself. The whole point of testing an experimental hypothesis is to find out what works and what doesn’t. Artists are sensitive and while Rocky may not be risking actual bodily harm with his musical experimentation, he puts himself out there for the public’s judgment and that can hurt in its own way. Rocky’s commitment to making himself a living crash dummy in the interest of entertainment is admirable. If he keeps it up long enough, it just might result in the creation of something truly original somewhere down the line.