PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Ab-Soul: Do What Thou Wilt

Top Dawg's Ab-Soul approaches a lot of interesting thoughts with his newest release, but doesn't explore them fully enough to make them stick.


Ab-Soul

Do What Thou Wilt

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Release Date: 2016-12-09
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.