A$AP Rocky's Hard-Knock Life

Before the hit album and the epic Barneys shopping sprees, things were a little different for the Harlem MC

ASAP Rocky poses for a portrait backstage during The FADER Fort by FIAT at the Drive-In Studio, New York City,October 21st, 2011 Credit: Roger Kisby/Getty

On the second Friday in February, a blizzard is bearing down on New York, whipping the city into high alert: Reports predict several feet of snow, offices are closing early and armadas of salt-spray­ers are revving up. A$AP Rocky is on the third floor of Barneys, on Madison Avenue, thumbing a black-leather Saint Laurent biker jacket. Fashion Week has started, and Rocky — hip-hop's reigning dandy of the moment — is engaged in his own version of disaster prep, buying outfits to wear to the runway shows. "I gotta stock up," the Harlem-born rapper, 24, says, flashing a grin that's full of gold. "I might not be able to buy clothes for three days!"

He models the jacket for his pal and crewmate A$AP Bari, who's hovering near­by. "It looks mean," Bari declares. Rocky checks a mirror and frowns. "It's not all that," he says. A saleswoman named Brenda has been filling a dressing room with Rocky's picks. Rocky's in tight jeans and designer hiking boots, and his hair is twist­ed into what he calls "O-Dog from Men­ace II Society braids." He's orbited by Bari, two bodyguards, a publicist and his co-manager, a burly guy named Geno, who's carrying Rocky's parka. Rocky's voice is a stoned croak and he moves unhurried­ly — "I'm on a three-blunts-a-day habit," he confirms.

This morning, Rocky arrived on the red­eye from Los Angeles, where he was busy recording tracks for his next album, and went to his mother's condo in New Jersey — the closest thing he has to a permanent East Coast home. This afternoon he meant to go see his maybe-kinda girlfriend, the Victoria's Secret model Chanel Iman, walk the Jason Wu show, "but I was tired."

The way Rocky sees it, he's earned some downtime. In January, Rocky's debut album, Long.Live.A$AP, came out at Number One. Its release had been delayed repeatedly throughout 2012, in part because Rocky's a tinkerer and because the label didn't hear a single: The first attempt, "Goldie," fizzled, but the second, "Fuckin' Problems" — a rowdy paean to non­stop boning — went platinum. This spring, Rocky will hit the road with Rihanna, who chose him to open 33 dates on her North American arena tour.

So today he's happy just to be doing nothing. "I love shopping; I could be in this store for days," he says, passing Brenda a Balmain Collarless Double Zip Moto Jacket ($1,650). She motions him toward loose-draping Ann Demeulemeester gar­ments. "I don't care for Ann's stuff this sea­son," he says. "She got lazy." Rocky trusts his judgment, he says, above anyone else's. "I hate stylists," he says. "Half the people I've worked with can't even enunciate the names of the shit I like." His eye catches on some Jil Sander blazers. "Belgian," he says appreciatively. "German, actually," Brenda says. "No, Jil Sander is Belgian," Rocky insists. He plucks out his phone, Googles it. "OK, German," he admits, then has Bren­da find a white topcoat and trousers in his size.

Rocky's confusion on this score can be excused: Geographical scrambles are a hallmark of his music. From his earliest online hits — the dark and woozy "Purple Swag" and "Peso" — to his 2011 mixtape to the debut album, he plays fast and loose with provenance, teleporting between styles associated with New York, Miami, Atlanta, L.A. and on and on. Internet-age music consumption bridged eras and regions, and Rocky has done more than any other rapper to collapse space and time in his work: adopting an early-Nineties Brooklyn flow one bar, dropping into a sludgy morass of mid-'00s Houston screw music the next. "I'm a New York rapper, but I make whatever's appealing to me," he says. "Before I ever thought about selling records or not, I did what I grew up on: East Coast, West Coast, down South, Snoop Dogg, DMX, Rakim, UGK, Bone Thugs. It all sounded like rap to me."

For Rocky, borders are meant to be crossed. As a teenager in Harlem, he'd ride the subway downtown with friends to hit on girls in Soho and buy clothes in Lower East Side boutiques. (The A$AP crew — which includes his buddy Bari, Svengali A$AP Yams and eight other core members — formed around then.) Rocky s wardrobe began to reflect his dual citizenship: With money he earned selling drugs uptown, he started mixing Air Jordans with Raf Simons, do-rags with skin­ny pants. This could make for friction back in his neighborhood, where traditionalists accused him and the A$AP dudes of homosexuality for their fancy clothes. Confrontations like these taught Rocky to fight, and they taught him the courage of his convictions: "Some people look at me strange as hell. That's cool. A lot of things I do, it may not sit well at first, but eventually they aren't gonna have a choice but to get on the bandwagon." (Rocky is progressive not only in his music but in his politics: "I'm the least homophobic cat in rap," he proclaims, having taken a prominent stand against the prejudice in several interviews.)

While Rocky's trying on clothes, Geno, the co-manager, sits outside the dressing room. Geno's passion is comic books, not fashion, and a day off for Rocky can still mean a workday for him. "If we wind up downtown later," Geno says hopefully, "there's a store where I wanna get The Dark Knight Falls." When Rocky's done shopping, the bill comes to $14,632.80. He calls his accountant to clear the funds, but his card is declined. Rocky redials. "The shit just declined, bro," he says. He exhales loudly as the accountant says something about lifting a spending cap. Time passes while the accountant works. Rocky exchanges texts with Iman. Geno and the bodyguards watch cardio-workout videos on an iPhone. Rocky browses A.P.C. jeans, flirts with a saleswoman named Domi­nique. She responds coolly, to which he replies, "I singlehandedly picked you to help me because you're beautiful. Don't be overwhelmed by my confidence." The accountant calls, and Rocky retries his card. Declined. He groans. He's been trying to pay for the better part of an hour now. "What the fuck?" he says.

Iman, done with the Wu show, materializes at the store. Elegant and wispy, she glides toward Rocky on high-heel boots. "How was it?" he asks, softly touching her waist. He returns to the register, tries splitting the clothes between two cards. Declined. He asks Brenda to knock off an item, thinking that driving the total down might help. She says she has authorization on one card, and ringing everything up again might undo that. Rocky's patience is at its end. "I'm about to say fuck this, this is pissing me off," he says. Brenda, seeing her commission vanish after two hours of work, pleads, "Don't do that to me." Iman murmurs to him soothingly. Finally, Brenda strikes a pair of $1,330 cargo pants from the bill, and the purchase goes through. "Why didn't you do that in the first place?" Rocky says.

Geno takes the shopping bags. "We out, Rock?" he asks.

"Nah," Rocky says, calming back down. His arm is around Iman's waist; his wallet is in her hand. "We're gonna go look at boots for her."

Rocky was born Rakim Mayers: His parents, hip-hop fans, named him after the towering New York MC, "jinxing" Rocky, as he puts it, "in a good way." He grew up in Harlem with two older brothers and a little sister; his mother was a nurse's assistant, and his dad, Duke, who dealt drugs, was briefly imprisoned but otherwise present and loving. While Duke served his sentence, the family struggled, living in a homeless shelter on 104th Street and Broadway when Rocky was in middle school. He has described that time as "really hard for me" — he'd lie to schoolmates who wanted to come over, telling them, "I can't have company." In retrospect, he says the experience gave him grit: "It made me who I am today."

To Rocky, rap was a lifelong love that doubled as an economic opportunity. His brother Ricky, who also dealt, was killed in a dispute with a rival when Rocky was 13, and although Rocky has said he was able to earn as much as $50,000 a month dealing, his heart was never in the work. (The Mayers family has known more than its share of tragedy: Duke died suddenly, last Christmas, of pneumonia; Rocky doesn't like discussing it much, but said that when he has kids, he'll be there for them, "like my dad was for me.")

Long.Live. A$AP captures a broad range of conflicting impulses, moods and inspi­ration — Rocky's a sneering peacock here, seethingly suicidal there; hedonistic over Skrillex dubstep drops on "Wild for the Night," melancholic over a Danger Mouse lament on "Phoenix." He's a self-described "spiritual person" who talks about "fucking bitches off Twitter," a pescetarian who kept vegan for a stretch out of a desire to purify himself.

As he and Iman browse footwear at Barneys, he glances down at his finger­nails: "I haven't had a manicure in a minute," he says. We step outside into the wet and clumping snow and board an idling Sprinter van that smells curiously, as Rocky says, "like weed and fish." We drive to a nail salon, where Rocky orders a "mani-pedi" for himself and treats me to a $9 manicure. As a thirtyish South Korean woman hunches over his feet, he starts joking with Iman and Bari about getting "happy endings" after massages. "Sucky-sucky," Bari says. "Nah, man," Rocky replies, cracking up. "Jerky-jerky."

Rocky's still a kid in some respects. This can manifest in pigheaded humor and, on occasion, precipitous losses of temper: He and members of the A$AP crew have been sued for allegedly beating up a sound guy at a concert; arrested after brawling in New York; and videotaped diving into a South by Southwest crowd to pummel fans who'd hurled beer at them. Rocky alludes to these incidents as persecutions he's put behind him: "People didn't think I was gonna make it, because I was getting in fights. But that wasn't me. That was people provoking me. This year, I'm all about no trouble, no fights." He shows me a chunky gold ring, inlaid with diamonds and a giant topaz stone, that the superproducer Swizz Beatz gave him. "He got it from the king of Dubai," Rocky says, beaming. "Swizz gave it to me and said he was proud of me for getting where I am."

When it's time to settle up, there's a miscommunication between Rocky and the cashier — he wants change, but she thinks he's stiffing them on the gratuity. "Yo, what the fuck, I'm still gonna tip you!" he barks. Geno grins sympathetically, but Rocky scowls. Back in the Sprinter, Iman and Rocky start making out. Everyone else is quiet. Rocky directs the driver downtown, where he intends to drop off his Barneys haul at Iman's apartment before heading to the studio. His mood has soured, and he's trying to relax. As we drive down Broadway, Geno points to a shop and calls out, "That's the place I wanna get that comic at!" Rocky is silent — his head on Iman's shoulder, his eyes closed — and the store rolls past.

At 8:30 p.m., we pull up outside Iman's building. "Two minutes," Rocky tells us, and he walks with her into the lobby and disappears. An hour later, we're still waiting. Old-school rap blasts from the radio, and no one says much. The snow is zinging in sideways on freezing gales. As the clock nears 10, Geno texts Rocky. The reply arrives: "He got caught up on the phone. He's coming down soon." Twen­ty minutes pass. Rocky's studio slot was scheduled for nine, and it's uncertain now whether he'll make it. Rocky's peo­ple know to give him a wide berth, that they're on his clock. The van rocks in the wind. Geno makes a phone call. "Do you have Dark Knight Falls in stock?" he asks. After a while, Rocky sends another text: "Two more minutes."