[16 July 2014]
Control System was one of the best gems of 2012, a classic year in hip-hop if I need to remind everyone. On it, Ab-Soul revealed himself to be a completely different beast than his TDE label-mates, either in wordplay (see: “ILLuminate”), subject matter (“Terrorist Threats”) or, simply put, soul (see: “Book of Soul”). Or, to borrow from one of Robert Christgau’s more poetic reviews, “He’s ready to blow [money] on love rather than blow or a blow job […] He’s just a gifted kid who likes his weed and his words which he twists with palpable delight around sparse synth beats musical enough to layer on some delight of their own.” That being said, my heart sank when I heard follow-up These Days…, and this may very well end up being the biggest disappointment of the year hip-hop-wise, though I suppose it shouldn’t have been completely unexpected when you recall that Ab-Soul’s features on recent albums have been completely haphazard, from “Way Up Here” on Danny Brown’s Old to “Lakers” on Freddie Gibbs’s Pinata.
What’s the problem? At 90 minutes in length, it’s too long, obviously. You can go ahead and cut “Closure”, a sung duet between Ab-Soul and Jhene Aiko that’s an obvious rehash of Control System‘s “A Rebellion”, the sung duet between Ab-Soul and Alori Joh, but with a less melodic punch. And speaking of rehashes, “Kendrick’s Interlude” is Section.80‘s “Ab-Soul’s Outro”, except Ab-Soul, who closes the song this time around, isn’t as visceral as Kendrick was, and he’s unable to put Terrace Martin’s beat to good use (recall: Kendrick Lamar’s voice and words became more visceral as the beat did, “I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper, I am a human motherfucking being, over dope ass instrumentation”). And Kendrick Lamar himself doesn’t bring anything new to the table, an absolute anomaly when you recall that he’s been boosting his Black Hippy mates’ albums with stellar verses (“Blessed”, “ILLuminate”, “Collard Greens”). Here, he’s just flaying his voice in the exact same manner as on “Control”, but the anger feels like a pose this time around, and I can’t help but laugh when he drops the line “I drank a whole gallon of laxatives by accident just to shit on you has-beens.”
But on a broader level, because Ab-Soul has pulled in every connection he has to feature on These Days (many of whom, including Jadakiss, Isaiah Rashad, BJ the Chicago Kid and Earl Sweatshirt, aren’t even credited because they’re doing background stuff), coupled with the fact that the beats are often too cluttered, feels like he’s just trying to throw everything at the wall in the hopes that something will stick so that Interscope will take notice and finally sign him. And some of these features drag their songs down: apparently, hanging around Tyler, the Creator has already had a negative effect on ScHoolboy Q; “Beat the pussy down like my nemesis / Make the pussy drip like I slit her wrist” is an unfortunate couplet, as is Lupe Fiasco’s spelling lesson, “Can’t spell ‘illuminati’ without ‘lu’; can’t spell ‘lu’ without ‘u’” that opens his verse on “World Runners”. And a problem that most of these songs have is that the hooks are often amelodic and feel like they go on for hilariously longer than the verses they sandwich, as on “World Runners”, “Nevermind That”, or “Stigmata” where Ab-Soul says the title word twelve times to form an annoying chorus.
Meanwhile, though “Tree of Life”, an easy highlight with Ab-Soul jumping on the bipartite bandwagon after Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city and ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, it has a useless bridge where Ab-Soul invokes a playground rhyme for shits and giggles. Though Ab-Soul loves referencing previous works, both of his own or his (former) label-mates, like how “Dub Sac” reminds us of “Terrorist Threats” or the light imagery continues from “ILLuminate” practically everywhere, that helps gives the Black Hippy discography a continuous feel and flow, when a snippet of “Collard Greens” is added to “God’s Reign” it feels like more wasted time and makes me want to listen to a better song. And it’s heartbreaking to hear someone as different as Ab-Soul pretend to be YG as on “Twact”.
Is there good stuff? Sure there is: SZA’s hook on “God’s Reign” is the album’s most melodic soundbyte, though I think it’s a wasted opportunity that Purity Ring’s Corin Roddick hands in a shockingly generic beat instead of making more witch-hop tracks (he produces Danny Brown’s rather excellent “25 Bucks”, you recall). “Sapiosexual” doesn’t live up to its title and is instead a generic (there’s that word again) sex-rap track, but J. Cole’s Eastern-tinged soul (string?) sample might be the most interesting thing Cole has produced. As mentioned, “Tree of Life” is a goodie, and DJ Dahi, who produces the second half continues to be one of the most melodically-inclined producers around. “Stigmata” houses one of the best verses in the album from Soul that makes it worth trucking through my aforementioned criticism about it (meanwhile, either Action Bronson smoked too large a joint before entering the fray, or the constant comparisons to Ghostface Killah has finally gotten to him). But the album’s greatest draws are right after, with ““Feelin Us” sporting the best beat, including an indelible female voice that you can indeed feel in the air during the choruses and a hypnotic pulse of a synth line powering the verses. Meanwhile, both Ab-Soul and Danny Brown kill it on “Ride Slow”, while Mac Miller surprisingly holds the 7-minute joint together with a psychedelic labyrinth of a beat.
Finally, though I think the track has zero replay value, the 18 minute rap battle tacked onto the end of closing track “W.R.O.H.” was indeed a good idea because it shows Ab-Soul’s greatest strength, his wordplay. Sure, countenance like “This movie won’t need to be continued / You finally encountered something you can’t counter, coward / You’re counterfeit” is cool, as are one-liners like “You’re Buzz Lightyears from here, Quill, and you telling toy stories,” but when Ab-Soul dropped the following lines, “Don’t be so transparent, this nigga’s light – through / If you don’t know what transparent means, let me enlighten you / If it’s transparent, that means it lets light through / So I should smack this trans’s parents for lettin’ Lyt through,” my jaw literally dropped. It’s just a shame he couldn’t maintain that level of fire for 90 minutes.