A$AP Nast & the Evolving Fashion of Hip-Hop
How A$AP Nast helped to universalize dual prowess in hip-hop and fashion among modern-day MCs, and why it is entirely up to him to keep it afloat within the very community that started it all.
This past January, the boisterous New York City-based hip-hop collective A$AP Mob drew frantic speculation after being spotted shooting music video footage atop the roof of a Harlem bodega. It had been the first inkling of a major release since 2017’s Cozy Tapes Vol. 2: Too Cozy, their assertive sophomore full-length LP – and in what shaky cell-phone footage circulated social media of the display, it appeared indubitable that they were returning to such foundational ethos: members, decked out in hoodies and chains, bounced around without regard for the ceiling – not a floor – beneath them; the microphone-bearer strutted about his space rapping loudly behind raucously pointing index fingers and pitch-black shades; on the street below, a large crowd of affiliates and fans alike clustered around a lavish Rolls Royce, street barricades at hand nearby.
That day’s video content was prominently featured in 2021’s virtual Yams Day concert, the latest addition to a series of annual performances held in honor of the collective’s deceased founder. The specific portion of the shoot that surfaced online was a now-viral snippet of an upcoming A$AP Rocky single tentatively titled Sandman – which, clocking in at just a minute and six seconds, took a noticeable step backwards from the trap-infused musicality of modern-day hip-hop, moving further into the dreamy, cloud-rap haze that epitomized their ascent to prominence. “New album gonna throw us back to them good ol A$AP days,” the song’s most thumbed-up Youtube comment mused.
Yet – back down on the pavement below – group member A$AP Nast was filming for a song preview of his own. At 30 years of age, his discography only consists of two tracks – Dogtalk (2018), and Designer Boi (2020) – despite his having been part of the collective since its founding in the early aughts.
The snippet itself began with a camera pan onto the aforementioned Rolls Royce, now with Nast sitting inside. He wore a neon green hoodie, matched with equally neon sunglasses and equally neon hair. Upon emerging from the vehicle, he swaggered his way to the center of a sizeable entourage, putting into lyrics the general exterior insinuated by both his present aura and the career that furnished its context:
“Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay / You too cool, that’s okay / I’m too cool, that’s okay / I’m too- that’s okay/ Okay, Okay!”
As it stands, A$AP Nast finds himself amidst a growing class of present-era MCs who are, in his own words, too cool for hip-hop alone – just as much, if not more immersed in the infrastructure of high fashion as they are in the rap game. Decades ago, his photographer recently recounted for the Guardian, when Tupac Shakur posed for Rolling Stone at the genesis of its gravitation towards hip-hop culture, “he showed up with just one other guy,” carrying along “a couple different changes of clothes.” Whereas such was the expectation for any rap-adjacent magazine photoshoot then – the subjects themselves often donning baggy tops and worn jeans from their own homes – nearly 20 years later, the status quo has undergone an exponential shift. In the elusive Atlanta rapper Playboi Carti’s 2020 GQ feature, the upscale attire he modeled for only 8 press photographs summed up to $21,085 in total costs. Designers represented included (but were not limited to) Yohji Mahamoto, Rick Owens, Alexander McQueen, and Matthew M. Williams. The slew of fashionable new-school MCs epitomized by Playboi Carti and A$AP Nast is one that arrives to photoshoots with individual makeup teams; manicurists; hair stylists; clothing stylists; barbers. The concept of the hip-hop photoshoot has transcended the once-dominant through-line of thug nature, and graduated onto the plane of infiltrating a sophistication previously available to only those who could afford it.“Yet, even given his strict adherence to New York-centrism musically, when the art form in question is fashion, Nast exists as a dapper, more street-smart reincarnation of Amerigo Vespucci, venturing into worlds uncharted by members of his own class, all the while garnering both status and money alike along the way.”
Born Tariq Devega in 1990, A$AP Nast’s childhood was one that wielded significant makings of a career exclusive to hip-hop music. Devega spent a great deal of his time with cousin Rakim Mayers – A$AP Rocky – before Mayers made one of several drug-spurred relocations to the Bronx, causing the two to lose contact. While still residing in West Harlem, Devega dropped out of Manhattan’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School in pursuit of a career in music. Years later, since-disgraced founding A$AP Mob member Jabari Shelton (A$AP Bari) re-introduced the cousins under the premise of a then-budding budding rap collective; after changing his moniker from New York Nast to A$AP Nast, he made his official debut on Mayers’ early single Uptown, going on to feature twice on his debut studio mixtape Live.Love.ASAP, then breaking out within New York’s inner-city rap scene via a single entitled Trillmatic featuring Method Man of the Wu Tang Clan.
Whereas prominent members of the A$AP Mob find themselves drawing influences from various hip-hop dialects countrywide – most notably with Rocky adopting Houston’s signature chopped-and-screwed dynamic, and Ferg taking after distinctly Southern flows – Nast’s artistry in itself is wholly predicated upon the ethos of a gritty 90s East Coast rap framework. In a 2014 interview with GQ, when asked for his take on what the ‘next big trend in hip-hop’ would be, he said: “2014 is gonna sound like the 1990s—the old boom bap, real lyrics, that funky era. When I say that, it doesn’t have to be ’90s exactly, just the spirit: authentic, original, no-gimmicky shit. I can’t pinpoint what it is, but it’s something that’s real. People really connected with that vibe when we dropped “Trillmatic,” the single off the upcoming A$AP Mob album, L.O.R.D.S. All people respect what the ’90s era of hip-hop did for us.” Then, asked what he would do if given the role of God over music: “Easy: like the early ’90s all over again.”
Nasty’s World, the sole exclusive Nast track on the A$AP Mob’s debut album, opens with streetside masculine chatter of odorous female genitalia. Then, much like what one would hear on a conventional number from Big L’s Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous (1995), or Nas’ I Am… (1999), there is the kind of spiraling, jazz-reminiscent, sparkling musical warble that epitomized New York’s rise to hip-hop renown in decades past. Nast himself raps with the grit that came packed within such an era. “Check it out, yo’, yo’, yo’ numero uno / I’m a big dog, Cujo,” he opens, going on to rhyme “Cujo” with “sumo” in reference to the way he “slams” rap competition, then with “Juno” in allusion to the inner gangster of his that is willing to shoot up a funeral, of all occasions. While stationed amidst an age of rap music in which criminal undertones are no longer as heavily marketable as overall sound alone, Nast is able to seamlessly draw a direct line from the outdated essence of old, to the demanding crux of the new age without compromising an ounce of credibility.
Even more so, on Dangerous – an explicitly modernized track in both production and features (Jaden Smith, Playboi Carti, A$AP Rocky) – Devega’s stout loyalty to 90s grit somehow remains able to hold its own: noticeably less swift in delivery given that it does come, in fact, over a more relaxed beat, his spiel boasts a warning omnipresent in earlier 90s New York hip-hop scenes – whether resolved on in the studio or on the streets: “Lil nigga, when you talkin’ to a boss / Watch how you’re talkin’ / Cause I got some niggas that (will) pull up right now / And put you in a coffin.”
Yet, even given his strict adherence to New York-centrism musically, when the art form in question is fashion, Nast exists as a dapper, more street-smart reincarnation of Amerigo Vespucci, venturing into worlds uncharted by members of his own class, all the while garnering both status and money alike along the way. In 2016, the Off-White founder and Louis Vuitton artistic designer Virgil Abloh invited him to model the former at that year’s Paris Fashion week; Nast wound up making headlines for not actually wearing any Off-White products, though still making Abloh appreciative enough to state via an Instagram post that his appearance alone was “more important than the show itself.” That same year, he took to social media to direct a since-deleted expletive-filled rant to Travis Scott for copycatting the A$AP Mob’s style, telling him between large gulps of Hawaiian Punch that he needed to “find his own.” In 2017, he began working hand-in-hand with Converse to release collections of mid-century furniture inspired footwear, minimalist sweatsuits, and skate attire, additionally starring alongside the Mob in a widely publicized Calvin Klein campaign. Last year, he was featured in a lookbook presented by No Vacancy Inn and Stüssy.“The crux of the A$AP experiment was to determine the furthest extent at which hip-hop could coexist with high fashion, then seek to push that boundary as far as possible.”
“We just don’t give a fuck,” he said in a 2016 SSENSE interview, asked what he thought set the A$AP Mob apart from other musicians navigating the fashion world. He went on to elaborate about music. “We’re not really trying to make sense. You either get it, or you don’t. We don’t really care if anyone else listens and says, ‘Oh right this makes sense.’ We make music for ourselves.”
As Devega’s career in fashion flourished over the years, a vast chasm left by his near-decade long musical hiatus grew stark upon his return to the studio. Trillmatic for reference, the 2013 Method Man-featuring single that spurred a reputational soar within the folds of inner-city New York hip-hop, saw him spit gritty, gruff-throated rhymes over a strikingly Mobb Deep-esque instrumental section. “Whoa, Nasty baby I’m crazy, the 90’s raised me,” he growled in his opening verse. “I’m just as smart, probably smarter than half the cats who play me / Brazy, drivin’ Miss Daisy, hand on my strap / In my zone, mind on my money like where that shit at?” The latter line, like many similar vintage hip-hop allusions throughout, was a stark citation of Snoop Dogg’s 1999 breakout G-Funk single Gin & Juice, where a popular excerpt asserts that Snoop has his “mind on my money and my money on my mind.” A nod to 90s East Coast subculture itself, the track’s title alone served as a play on Nas’ acclaimed 1994 debut album Illmatic.
Yet, several fashion-filled years later ,on the aptly titled Designer Boi (2020) – one of only two singles currently listed on his discography – the monumental shift in Nast’s tone is decipherable from his chosen instrumental makeup itself: whereas hard-hitting bass grooves and tenaciously altered jazz samples used to give way to scathing bars in years past, there is a looped acoustic guitar track repeated over a steady set of mellow, summer-esque 808s. After collaborator D33J opens the song with What you want repeated eight times in succession, the question is answered in a braggadociously delivered, auto-tuned shopping list: in four lines, high-end clothing brands name-dropped include Fendi, Prada, Alyx, Saint Laurent, Chrome Hearts, ‘lenciaga (Balenciaga), Louis Vuitton, and CDG (Comme des Garçons). As for Nast himself, his verse is defined by a romanticization of his ongoing relationship with lavish style. A far step from his olden rhetoric of shooting up funerals and seeking violent revenge for disrespect, he visualizes sexual intercourse in Margiela bed sheets, going on to shout out “My nigga V” (Virgil Abloh) for consistently well-fitting Off-White paraphernalia a few lines afterward. The lyrics are sung, not rapped.
At perhaps an even higher level, a similar artistic progression is beyond decipherable over the career of A$AP Rocky, Nast’s cousin. Much like it was for Devega, the apex of Mayers’ career was one defined by the class of distinctive thug gospel that chartered the A$AP Mob’s initial rise. After spending the majority of his childhood in Harlem, with his family marred by an omnipresent criminality – his father was imprisoned on drug-related charges when he was 12 years old (he died behind bars in 2012), and his older brother was shot and killed a year later – Mayers made connections with A$AP members Jabari Shelton and Steven Rodgriguez, soon venturing into recording as a solo artist. His Texas-influenced debut single Peso was prematurely leaked over the internet in August of 2011. It received radio airplay within weeks. In Pitchfork’s review of his first mixtape Live.Love.A$AP, Peso and Purple Swag were described by the journalist Jeff Weiss as “codeine fever dreams that recast Harlem World as a slick-talking color-corrected suburb of Houston” – each saw the budding MC rap with lustful confidence about illicit sexual relationships, money, drugs, and why exactly he was better than whoever was listening. His confidence, too, was well-placed for that matter: his starter record deal with RCA was, as he publicly boasted about on multiple occasions post-signature, worth 3 million dollars.
When Weiss asked him when he decided to start singing (unlike early-stages Nast, Mayers welcomed – and still does welcome – melodic vocals on several tracks) for Rolling Stone in 2013, he responded: “The moment that I decided that I could do anything that I wanted.”
“When was that?”
“When I saw my record deal. I wanted to do anything that I wanted to do . . . no ifs, ands or buts. Now I’m doing that.”
On his debut studio mixtape Live.Love.A$AP, he doubled down on what swag-infused foundation was laid via early singles, multiplying all factors – horniness, swagger, audacity – by several scores. On the lustful Kissin’ Pink, a track that introduced many to the cadences of A$AP Ferg, he made being “faded, drinking codeine and every fuckin day straight” a need-it-now lifestyle encased within rhythms just as transcendental as the drugs mentioned. Brand New Guy saw Mayers exchange boastful bars with the veteran Los Angeles rapper Schoolboy Q, addressing foes and competitors of all ages with an air of authority bizarre for his youth. “You know these big mouth niggas don’t know how to act,” he started, opening the track with a villainous voice-deepening effect that quickly became his trademark. “I got my West Coast connection. These dead in the street industry mothafuckas talking ’bout ‘We can’t eat,’ talking ’bout ‘we brand new guys’ – tell them niggas suck a dick!”
The A$AP Mob’s entire exterior up to that point had been, as epitomized by the latter, an inadvertent middle finger to musically conservative older generations who refused to assimilate to their ambitiously careless approach. Their arrogant, thuggish brand, in formative years, found itself rising to the forefront whether in external appearance or speech – asked in 2014 whether anyone came to mind for a hypothetical “artist to look out for” category, A$AP Nast answered: “This incredible guy by the name of A$AP Nast, for two reasons: 1) Because “Trillmatic” is causing static worldwide, ask around, and 2) I’m just the shit. A$$$$$AAAAAP!!!!” As far as “other rappers out there now that you think have good fashion sense,” A$AP Rocky told MTV in a 2011 interview: “Um, me, ha ha. A$AP! I don’t watch these other motherfuckers.”
But although he had somewhat dipped his feet into the waters of high fashion by the time he released his first official album Long.Live.A$AP, years from 2015 onward saw style-adjacent influences of his begin to cross over from his general life and into his life in the studio. In the period surrounding that year’s release of his sophomore LP At.Long.Last.A$AP, he had already crossed off several checks higher-up on the upscale fashionista’s bucket list: he appeared in the DKNY spring 2014 campaign alongside Cara Delevigne and Jourdan Dunn; he was Guess Originals’ inaugural collaborator in 2016; he was cast in Dior Homme’s campaign for autumn of the same calendar year. In 2018, when he was just about as immersed in the infrastructure of fashion as he was in the infrastructure of rap, he released his latest project TESTING to mixed reviews. A vast majority of those who vocally disliked the record – some of which included fans of his – cited its more mellow, experimentation-oriented aura having paled in comparison to the booming assertion of previous releases. A significant portion of those who enjoyed it were either die-hard defenders of the rapper, or new listeners who had never heard him and therefore had no standard to judge it against.
In 2019, the online music publication DJ Booth released a ranking of fifteen rappers with the most disappointing legacies in the genre. A$AP Rocky was listed in the top five. “Unfortunately for hip-hop heads, Rocky decided to step away at his peak,” the rationale stated. “He could’ve been the Jigga of his generation. Instead, A$AP (Rocky) is more comparable to Kanye: a rapper who latched onto his next hobby (Fashion) en route to forgetting his true potential.”
Within the A$AP Mob, although the collective rose through hip hop’s ranks predominantly side-by-side, various members stand at various different points in their respective careers. As for Rocky, with an upcoming fourth studio album on the way, and a legendary set of mythologized underground releases to attest to his prowess, he has already cemented his role as a veteran in the field — whether he will be able to maintain his positive nuance is solely in the hands of TESTING’s anticipated follow-up. The crux of the A$AP experiment was to determine the furthest extent at which hip-hop could coexist with high fashion, then seek to push that boundary as far as possible. A$AP Rocky has shown us over time what it looks like to win the game. Just as much, he has shown us what it looks like to have it blow up in one’s face.
Yet, for A$AP Nast – despite the fact that he is only two years younger than Mayers – the slate remains relatively clean. For as much as he has accomplished in style, he has yet to begin a serious climb atop his own hip-hop ladder; and, whether he can beat the rapidly ticking clock on A$AP’s collective vision is contingent upon what he chooses to do next musically – if anything at all.
“I’ve still got much to learn as well as a lot to prove,” he said, concluding his first GQ interview. “I am ready to do so.”
If you like the A$AP Mob, 90s East Coast boom-bap hip-hop, the color neon green, lavish sportscars, or the word Okay, it is in your best interest that this is true.