We should be paying more attention to Harlem rapper and “Hood Pope” A$AP Ferg — a member of the A$AP Mob hip-hop collective whose acted as the goofier sideman to A$AP Rocky’s straight lead for most of his public career. Ferg (born Darold Ferguson, Jr.) has gifted the world a number of absolute bangers, most notably “Shabba” and “Work,” which are substantive sonic vehicles of ruckus capable of razing a dance floor.
Yet so keen is the A$AP Mob ear for beats that Ferg is practically guaranteed success before he even lays a fingerprint on a track. His songs are already built for maximum mayhem, and Ferg’s approach has generally been to make sure he doesn’t stand in the way of their innate momentum. In some ways, Ferg’s fame has almost been built on being inconsequential.
Which is totally fine — Ferg is a charismatic and versatile rapper, one who deftly matches the energy of A$AP Mob’s erratic productions, and even if he doesn’t always outshine his platform, he definitely isn’t doing anything to make it sparkle any less. He’s performing at the Regency Ballroom on June 7, and the show is guaranteed to go down in true turn-up fashion, with Ferg the ringleader to his own rowdy circus. But unlike mystical technicians such as Young Thug and Future, A$AP Ferg isn’t the center of attention; he’s on the PA announcing it’s the “greatest show in the world” as all eyes are fixated on the acrobatics taking place above.
Ferg steps up when he needs to, however, and when given the right backdrop he is capable of scene-stealing performances. As a rapper he is at his best when his surroundings are stripped down and lend little assistance of their own. “Dump Dump” was one of the most barely-there beats on Ferg’s debut Trap Lord — a few snare hits under some eerie synths — yet it’s a highlight of the album because nothing is there to distract you from Ferg’s heavyweight flow. The track is as wild as any other cut on the tape, but it gives Ferg room to stretch to the outer edges of his headspace, revealing a dynamic control of aggression and a joyously stubborn sense of humor.
It’s this side of A$AP Ferg’s musical output I tend to gravitate toward. It’s the side of the rapper that has resulted in his best song to date, and the one that sounds the least like anything he’s done before. It’s a song called “Strive,” and it has me bouncing off walls in euphoria as I race to the finish line of my own dreams. “Strive” doesn’t slam on your eardrum the way an A$AP Ferg song is supposed to; it has a much more subtle touch than anything he’s attempted prior to the release of the album it derives from, the more casually chaotic Always Strive and Prosper. It’s an outlier in Ferg’s catalogue, yet it’s also the guiding mantra behind his entire new album.
A straightforward 90’s house instrumental, “Strive” is built on minimal support, and on first glance seems hardly ambitious. Ferg delivers an origin story and cautionary tale of what could have been if he had remained under the spell of inertia (I don’t want to spoil the plot, but it involves a very famous ice cream company), and subsequently praises his “bad muddastrudda” of an Uncle Terry. He’s mirrored by Missy Elliott on the track’s back half, with the reclusive MC penning an ode to her own “bad lil’ sumn’” Aunty Jean. Beyond the hearty sentiment, the song derives its immediacy from Ferg stretching his voice to be the best personal motivator in hip-hop, a genre built on the “rags-to-riches” story. He double-times then doubles-back, propelling the song forward with a good-hearted gumption expressed via boundless cheer.
“Strive” is undeniable. It’s an empowerment anthem about finding self-confidence through allowing yourself to seek inspiration in your surroundings. Ferg is adamant that everyone is constantly missing opportunities, and that success is just an extension of action with intention. It’s a simplistic viewpoint, but through glossing over some of the common obstacles, “Strive” works to reveal that they don’t really matter all that much anyway. The song is all about the feeling of confidence, and running on that feeling to grow real confidence. Not since Jamie XX’s “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” has a song made me feel so weightless and optimistic; “Strive” is a song that turns my bones into balloons.
Always Strive and Propser is Ferg’s most inward collection to date — reveling in his roots nearly as much as he boasts about his present situation — and still “Strive” manages to transcend the personal by reading in between it’s own lines. We all have our own “Uncle Terry,” and we all hope to one day be looked up to the way Ferg looks up to him. While in the past Ferg has shown he can be tender, “Strive” feels like the first moment he has been downright touching. He wants you to get the message, and insists on driving his point home for the length of the entire hook: “I can see it in your face, and I know you want to fly” he sings, before Missy harmonizes that “you’re missing opportunities, I know you’re rich in opportunities.” It’s a song to remind you that no matter how you feel, pop music believes in you. And sometimes that’s all that matters.
It’s fortuitous that we got “Strive” before we hit the summer, because it’s guaranteed to motivate the heat-stricken sloths among us to step up to our own level. Each year we’ll start a debate about what the “Song of the Summer” is that will last for decades — long past each summer’s definitive end when the question has no longer any immediate relevance. The question of what song encapsulates an entire season is inherently subjective, and at the very least depends on where you’re listening; yet “Strive” is a contender that might break both in niche cultural circles and in the masses. It’s straight enough for radio, but skewed enough for a scene. Plus its message is universally agreeable and in constant need of being repeated: “You can be you today, you can be you tonight.”