What is Ab-Soul trying to advocate for or against on his newest, super-dense release? Is he a feminist or a womanizer? Does he believe in God or has he just become jaded to the whole notion of religion? Do What Thou Wilt is lyrically and musically conflicted, putting the mood of the album’s cover photo into sonic space with Ab-Soul staring straight forward, straight the viewer, head in hands, overwhelmed. The rapper is skilled and creative, dextrous and precise with his words, but his inherent wildness betrays him both to his benefit and his detriment.
Ab-Soul has been one of Top Dawg Entertainment’s flagship artists along with Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, and Schoolboy Q for nearly ten years. He has displayed a creativity as a member of Black Hippy and in particular through his acclaimed 2012 release Control System. As one of TDE’s most category-defying artists, Ab-Soul’s dominant features are his clever wordplay which somehow avoids common struggle-bar pitfalls and his unique delivery. And his skill remains consistent on Do What Thou Wilt, even as his themes, production, and delivery drift heavily into abstraction and freneticism.
Ab-Soul has studied, that much is clear. He is familiar with hip-hop both old and new and uses classic techniques while nudging at more modern tropes. On “Braille”, he knowingly leads in with a poorly enunciated staccato line reminiscent, if also a mockery, of the likes of Migos, Future, and dozens of other modern rappers. The same style appears on “D.R.U.G.S.” On the other side of the coin, “INvocation” strays away from the wink/nudge referencing in favor of a learned reverence to the same kind of avant-garde jazz and soulfulness that drives his TDE companion Kendrick Lamar. The sound doesn’t ever fall into a single category and Ab-Soul often refuses to let the beat dictate the style of his flow, but fans go in for that. He calls himself an “abstract asshole” after all, why would anyone expect anything other than what’s printed on the tin?
Do What Thou Wilt is intentionally disjointed in the same kind of way that Danny Brown’s latest Atrocity Exhibition album was, although significantly less successfully so. It is meant to put forth the picture of a complex, conflicted artist dealing with mixed messages and fighting against impulses and desires. Many of the sonic elements help to further this theme, but the content and writing are often the less productive devices. Ab-Soul plays with the ideas of feminism and misogyny on “Threatening Nature” and “Womanogamy” but in a decidedly unconvincing way. The same is true of his takedowns of religion on “INvocation” and “God’s a Girl.” He speaks in a tone that suggests strong opinions, heavy forces on either side, but his arguments on the side of feminism amount to a laundry-list of semi-related words starting with the prefix “mis-” for which he confidently says that feminists should adore him for reciting, and the cute but ultimately pointless line “Way back when I was in grade school I learned about history / But what about her-story — did anybody ask?” He never answers these questions or achieves a moment of clarity or even seems to come against a mental dilemma in dealing with them.
When it comes to religious epiphanies, Ab-Soul’s most frequent theme is his “discovery” that God — his belief in whom is already questionable — is a girl. He speaks the line “Nature is a mother / And life is a bitch, I am convinced” as though he is the first person to think of such an idea and should somehow be rewarded. The relationship between feminist ideas, religion, and Ab-Soul’s admitted egotistical tendencies could have been explored more deeply and led to interesting, self-reflective lyrics and touched on some larger conflicts in hip-hop itself, but Ab-Soul more frequently seems to go for the joke. His themes are treated as easy fodder for shock-value lines like “Come have sex with Jesus.” Sure he says “we don’t speak on sexism much as we really should / The black man could vote before the woman could” but that’s as far as he goes. Simply observing a problem or a conflict isn’t enough if you don’t somehow go further into the idea, the roots of the issue, and come away with something resembling a new outlook.
Do What Thou Wilt is perhaps too ambitious for its own good. Ab-Soul is clearly smart both musically and in wit and knowledge. He knows how to attach ideas to music, how to articulate concepts in clever ways, but the themes that the album wants to put forward are lofty; loftier than Ab-Soul was able to realize and give the proper attention to fully. Too often he’ll punctuate a possibly profound statement, something almost meaningful and real, with a boast or a clever play on words, something trivial and inane. His sound and his self are not timid exactly, not in a way that stunts the performative aspects, but he is timid in the way he approaches interesting ideas. They are not allowed to expand fully. They are cut short for entertainment, good sounding but pop-sensible beats, and clever jokey lyrics. It’s an album that embodies the idea of potential that isn’t fully realized. It’s overwhelming but not because it delivers too much to consider, but because it comes so close to meaning anything and frustrates every time it slips back away from that edge.