Album Review: Ab-Soul—”These Days…”

Ab-Soul

By James Li

In 2012, Danny Brown tweeted “Black Hippy the new Beatles and I’m Harry Nilsson.” His observation that Los Angeles rap collective Black Hippy are the closest thing we have to the Fab Four today is astute. The Detroit rapper continued in a Pitchfork interview: “Kendrick would be Paul McCartney, ScHoolboy Q would be John Lennon, Ab-Soul would be George Harrison […] and Jay Rock would be Ringo.” Again, Brown is on point. Kendrick and Paul are both the most popular (and for many, the cutest) members of their respective groups. Q and John wear round glasses, and much like John and Paul’s creative rivalry, Q openly guns for Kendrick’s spot at the top. And Jay Rock and Ringo are the oldest and most underrated members.

That leaves Ab-Soul (real name Herbert Anthony Stevens IV). Like George, he’s the quietest member in the band. Ab-Soul’s the odd man out in Black Hippy. He doesn’t have an opus on the scale of Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, or a blockbuster hit like ScHoolboy Q’s “Man of the Year” or Jay Rock’s “Hood Gone Love It.” Unlike the other members of Black Hippy, who hail from the projects (Kendrick is from Compton, ScHoolboy Q is from South Central, and Jay Rock is from Watts), Ab-Soul is from Carson, a suburb of Los Angeles. But he’s aware of his underdog status, introducing himself on an XXL cypher as “the last Black Hippy to get a wiki.”

These Days… (Album Artwork)

Album art for These Days…

The other members of Black Hippy draw from their experiences with gang warfare — Q is a Crip, Rock is a Blood, and Lamar grew up in the crossfire. Ab-Soul’s struggles are different. On Control System, Ab-Soul’s breakthrough album, he declares war on the Obama administration, but he also recounts his battle with Stevens-Johnson syndrome and his fiancée’s suicide. On “God’s Reign,” the opening track on Ab-Soul’s latest album, These Days…, Ab-Soul refers to himself an “abstract asshole,” a moniker that suits him well, for better or for worse.

Ab-Soul proved himself to be a top-notch rapper and lyricist on Control System, which was one of the best hip hop albums of 2012. However, his most recent guest verses on projects by Chance the Rapper, Danny Brown, and Freddie Gibbs and Madlib have been uncharacteristically weak. And the skill Ab-Soul displays on Control System doesn’t come through on These Days….

On tracks like “Hunnid Stax” and “Dub Sac,” Ab-Soul comes off as preoccupied with money and drugs, which is fine, but the end result is still disappointingly generic. Ab-Soul is more introspective on the break-up song “Closure,” and it takes Jhené Aiko’s stellar backing vocals to salvage the track. “Sapiosexual” means “attracted to intelligence,” but that track is neither smart nor sexy, and “Let me fuck your mind” is a refrain that’s as silly as it is grating. Ironically, Ab-Soul’s best rapping happens when he mimics other rappers: he adopts Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” cadence on “Feelin’ Us,” and takes on the “Versace” triplet flow on the second half of “Just Have Fun.”

On Control System, Ab-Soul held his own against Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar. These Days… is likewise star-studded with an impressive roster of guest rappers, but they are often hit-or-miss, either outshining Ab-Soul or falling flat. On “Ride Slow,” Danny Brown sounds gratingly shrill and Earl Sweatshirt mumbles indiscernibly throughout the track. But Ab-Soul is overshadowed by Lupe Fiasco on “World Runners” and ScHoolboy Q on “Hunnid Stax,” even if neither are necessarily better rappers.

The production on These Days… also tends to let Ab-Soul down. Whereas beats on Control System flipped samples from indie video games (“Terrorist Threats”) and classic Madonna hits (“Illuminate”) and made them sound eerie, the beats on These Days… lack the same punch. The beat on “Twact” mimics DJ Mustard’s “ratchet” production. Again, this is fine, but Ab-Soul makes ratchet music sound boring. A technically-inferior rapper like YG or Iggy Azalea would have done a better job on this beat, and that’s a bad sign. Frustratingly, some songs on These Days… sound like several songs cobbled together with little regard for cohesiveness, so we have some excellent moments on the end of tracks like “Tree of Life” and “Just Have Fun” that are tacked onto otherwise weak efforts. There are, fortunately, a few bright spots in production, such as on the opener “God’s Reign,” produced by Purity Ring.

It pains me to be so critical of a rapper whose work I usually respect and enjoy. There are definitely enjoyable moments on These Days…, but even the best tracks have glaring flaws. The beat on “Stigmata” sounds like it was tailored to Ab-Soul’s style, and Ab-Soul delivers some very clever lines, but the features, as good as they are, are unnecessary. Ab-Soul delivered an outro on Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 titled “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” and Kendrick reciprocates with an interlude on These Days… called “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude.” It’s the shot in the arm that These Days… needs, but what does it say about the record if Ab-Soul is barely on one of the best tracks? The album’s 23-minute closer “W.R.O.H.” has an excellent beat and one of Ab-Soul’s most spirited performances ever for four minutes, but the other 19 minutes is an unnecessarily long rap battle.

On These Days…, Ab-Soul comes through an album that shoots well below his potential. The lackluster production, incoherent sequencing, shallow lyricism, and unmemorable features distract from the genuinely good moments on the album and make These Days… sound like an unfinished mixtape. Ab-Soul is the quietest member of Black Hippy, but he usually has something worth listening to when speaks up. Unfortunately, These Days… doesn’t demand much of that attention. (Top Dawg)

Listen: “Closure”

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  1. […] Album Review: “These Days…” by Ab-Soul […]

  2. […] albums in 2014, and this year has already seen releases from Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, SZA, and Ab-Soul. The label recently tweeted that new music from Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock was coming […]



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