Awww, yeah! Again and again: A$AP Rocky’s ‘1-Train’

So, we’re starting a new thing here at Death and Taxes, bringing you some of the web’s coolest outside contributors. Today we’ve got comedian Josh Gondelman, who’ll be joining us frequently to talk about one of his great loves: rap music. – NH

People say hip hop is dead. Normally they say it when they need some kind of hook to boost album sales. I’m looking at you, Nas. But it’s not dead. Every week I’ll write about a hip hop song I’ve got on repeat. Could be a new song. Could be an old song. This week, I can’t stop listening to “1 Train” by A$AP Rocky.

Since the release of “Long.Live.ASAP” in January, I’ve pared my full-album listenings down to a few select tracks, highlighted by the group effort of “1 Train” (named after the NYC subway line, not just a reference to any singular train). I have a weakness for posse cuts. The amount I love a multitude of rappers attacking a single beat is probably the closest I’ll ever get to appreciating the virtuosity of jazz soloists riffing on a musical theme. Maybe it’s because as a former preschool teacher, I’m really into sharing. Maybe it’s because our attention spans demand constant variety. Regardless of what drew me to the song, here are five things I love about “1 Train.”

That Beat

“1 Train” opens with the faint hiss of needle hitting turntable before the beat proper emerges from the darkness. Ominous strings surge and ebb over a shambling, half-drunk drum pattern. Throw in the simple piano loop that comes and goes intermittently, and the beat (produced by Hit-Boy) mimics the feeling of walking through a sketchy area late at night. You grow familiar with the weirdos and lunatics of you own neighborhood, but you never know what to expect when you’re far from home. That’s this. (Or maybe I’m just a wimp about walking alone after midnight.)

Those Whaaaaaats

The best part about freestyle rap videos (and even the pre-arranged BET cyphers) is the excited, incredulous reaction of the crowd. Any studio effort that mimics the playful spontaneity of live performance has me on board from the onset.

“I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout/All the 0’s in my bank account (Whaaaaaat?)/
X the hoes in my bed is ‘round the same amount (Whaaaaaat?)”

Obviously this was planned. But I love hearing background vocalists react like someone just dunked in a high school basketball game.

That Lineup

Seven verses, seven personalities. A$ap Rocky, the curator. Kendrick Lamar, artsy emoter of brash confidence and urban fear. Hip hop classicist Joey Bada$$. Yelawolf, a country mouse gone feral in the city. Danny Brown, the dizzy drunk full of id an extacy. Action Bronson and his vast appetites for sex, weed, money, and of course cheesecake. Big K.R.I.T. closes the song out, locating himself as firmly in the country tradition of his native Mississippi as he is within hip hop history. If you’re not happy with what you’re hearing, just wait a minute. It’s like New England weather.

No Chorus

Why bother singing a hook when you can have seven rappers tag-team the track in forty-five second bursts? A refrain would only slow the train’s momentum (which many New Yorkers would argue is a more accurate MTA experience). The song barrels forward with the insistence of a late 90’s Wu Tang track.

The 1 Train

I live in what could charitably be described as the upper, upper, upper west side, half a block from the closest 1 train stop. There’s an aspirational element to hearing Rocky rap:

“Transition to a Lamborghini from a Mustang/
I know one thang/Anything is better than that 1 train.”

Unfortunately, as the owner of a fourteen-year-old Toyota Corolla I have an extra step to make. Toyota…Mustang…Lamborghini. Not that I would even feel comfortable driving a fancy sports car. I’d mostly worry about it getting dinged where I parked it. Still, it’s charming to hear a rapper known for his love of luxury brands to reminisce about how much of a pain it is to rely on public transportation. Thanks, Rock. You’re truly an MC of the people.