Album Review: Ab-Soul-These Days
- Artist: Ab-Soul
- Title: These Days
- Producer(s): Dave Free, Sounwave
- Lead Single: Stigmata
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/abdashsoul
To the casual hip-hop fan, the name Top Dawg Entertainment is synonymous with Kendrick Lamar, the West Coast MC who climbed his way out of the streets of Compton to the top of the charts. But to any listener with an active set of ears and an open mind, you’ve noticed that TDE has swiftly been emerging as one of the best hip-hop collectives in the game. After a strong showing from ScHoolboy Q on Oxymoron a few months back, Ab-Soul has been handed the torch and he intends to burn the building down with his third studio album, These Days…
One quarter of the four-headed monster that is Black Hippy, Ab-Soul continues to carve out a path all his own and much like his fellow label mates, he’s found a sound that is uniquely his. With a love for deep metaphors, double entendres, philosophies and promethazine, his fancies formulate into an atypical sound. While his loves may not quite mesh with the more wonted themes and sounds of popularized hip-hop, Ab-Soul has defined his most current work in an interview with Billboard in terms that was first explained to him by Danny Brown. "When you feed a sick dog, you have to mix the medicine in with the food that it likes already."
Instead of feeding your pit bull a pill for his worms wrapped in a piece of cheese, Soul is rapping philosophies and metaphors, guised in booming 808s and braggadocios bars. Now you’re not all just a big pack of sick dogs to Ab-Soul, but he’s attempting to do what he wants wrapped into something the average listener would want.
At times, this high-risk, high-reward technique pays off for him. In the final minute of Just Have Fun, one of the more lighthearted tracks on the album, Soulo switches the song up and with the smooth soulful stylings of The O’My’s accompanying his rhymes; he uses the influential and often-abused Migos flow. Admitting right before he spits that this will be the only time he’ll use it, Soul puts a spin onto the tiresome flow into something creative and intellectual. “I’m more than a man, I died and I rose again/ I left these holes in my hand just so you know who I am/ An alien, extraterrestrial, ET’s a mini me, you understand/ Look what I did, smoke like a chimney/ Then add to that, that I smoke like the hippies did back in the 70’s/ So many styles I write with a ghost/ Like I had assistance, but this is just dope”.
However, despite murdering the Migos flow, Ab-Soul’s attempt at accessibility oftentimes felt forced and out of place. A prime example of this instance is on Nevermind That, which features Rick Ross. For starters the beat is just a little too busy. While experimentation should always be encouraged, it’s embraced when it works. A hard driving bass, machine gun snares, a screwed up shouting chorus, a harmonized hook with Soul and BJ The Chicago Kid singing on it, a guitar and the sporadic white noise from a television is just too much to focus on. Tighter combinations of these noises might work better, but all together they feel cluttered on the track, much like his lyrics. He transitions from lines like “I’m the one to blame for fucking up the frame of mind of many minds, but might I mind you these are minor things” “ to “fucking bitches in the PH not the PJs (Saudi)/ blow a hundred thousand dollar check/ got them goons on deck”. Again it kind of feels like oil and water. Maybe he’s testing the duality of his situation, but it fits like a micro USB charger in an iPhone.
But to those worried their losing Soul to a completely commercial effort, there’s no need to fret. The Black Lipped Pastor returns to his love for religious allusions throughout the album (and all over the cover art), but especially so on Stigmata. The hook, which borrows some of the same references from his verse in Just Have Fun, when Soulo rhymes “I carry the cross, if Virgin Mary had an abortion/ I’d still be carried in the chariot by stampeding horses/ I’m more than a man, I’ve been died and rose again/ Left these holes in my hands, so you know who I am.”
Not to be outdone by either Action Bronson or Asaad on the track, Ab-Soul shines through his dark shades. “That’s iTunes from a nigga with astigmatism/ I got it from my moms, thank you Steve Jobs/ You took my Grandpa job and you gave me a job/ Not a physical, but a digital way of displaying my rhymes/ Amd making these kind people pay a fine/ I’ve been through a lot, I deserve a lot, this work’s fine”.
An appreciated touch to the album was Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude. For many listeners, the first time your cochlea’s fell in lust with Ab-Soul’s lyrics was on Kendrick Lamar’s Section 80. Now the relationship comes full circle, as the two of them link up over a similarly jazzy Terrace Martin produced track, rife with lyricism.
Lyrics are certainly something that isn’t lacking in These Days… Like any Ab-Soul project, there’s a strong focus on word play, something that always lies in the forefront of his craft. Essentially, the Abstract Asshole is at again and is in strong form in the Tree of Life. “I’m Canibus smokin’ cannubus, sippin’ Actavis/ Before the Mathers diss I used to work at Magic Disk/ With a dollar and a dream, why you think money is green/ Color of vegetation, the most important things/ Trees”.
Most impressive about his third studio album is the way he chose the end it. When you first look at the track listing, you’ll notice that W.R.O.H. (We Really Out Here) is 23 minutes long. W.R.O.H., which starts as a song signifying Ab-Soul’s arrival at he top of the game, it ‘s broken up 3:45 into it with a snippet of a previously recorded interview. After that the songs moves to the studio with Soul battling Daylyt, one of the most prolific battle rappers of his era. The recording is a live studio session, which makes you feel like you’re sitting presumably amongst the rest of TDE and everyone else in attendance. With bars like “but I’m ill, you men ate when I finished Lyt/ You get it, Lyt? That’s how you ILL-u-min-ate, and finish Lyt,” it’s easy to see that Ab-Soul ihas battle rapping talent as well.
In an attempt to make a more commercial album, Ab-Soul did do a lot of things right. He aligned himself with a guest list that complimented him well. From his Black Hippy brethren, to the usual suspects of Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Mac Miller as well as Rick Ross and Lupe Fiasco to name a few more, there is an abundance of talent on this album. His production, however, waivers between beats that fall into his sonic wheelhouse and tracks that sound better suited for another type of rapper. The likes of Terrace Martin, Larry Fisherman (Mac Miller), J. Cole, Like (of Pac Div) and Blended Babies are a few of the big names behind the boards. Tracks like Gods Reign and the very personal Closure, feel like an authentic Ab-Soul track, where as Twact and Hunnid Stax feel more suited for YG and Schoolboy Q albums respectively, both in sound and in substance. But what can you expect when someone’s getting paid. It’s just like Puff says at the end of Hunnid Stax, “it ain’t no more to it. Soulo eatin’ now. Tell ‘em Puff said so.”
In an attempt to make himself more accessible to a larger audience, the Black Lipped Pastor’s latest work will likely split listeners like Moses parting the Red Sea. In theory there’s nothing wrong with becoming more commercial, however, when it feels too forced it becomes much more obvious. Soulo’s presence, integrity and ability are obviously apparent, but These Days… doesn’t quite compare to his previous effort, the critically acclaimed Control System. In the words of Uncle Drew, “don’t reach young blood.”
-Review by Carmine Colangelo