The Black Lip Pastor delivers another sermon of lyrical excellence.
Ab-Soul is a complex artist. The Carson, California native and Top Dawg Entertainment signee has overcome a number of major tribulations throughout the course of his life. And while all artists experience ups-and-downs that become points of growth for them as people while shaping the music they create, Ab-Soul's ups-and-downs are unique to most. On his deeply moving, autobiographical track "Book of Soul", featured on his second album Control System, Ab touches on his David vs. Goliath-esque life story: how he dealt with and survived an illness despite an 80% fatality rate, and how he overcame the death of longtime girlfriend and fellow artist Alori Joh. Soul's story has influenced his music and captivated hip-hop fans from his first project, Longterm, to his third album released earlier this week, the highly-anticipated These Days...
But an inspiring story is a mere aspect to build off of in the overall process of crafting art. Ab-Soul, though, as shown on his four prior projects, offers the perfect combination of hip-hop tools needed to express himself and produce brilliant hip-hop music. His mind-blowing lyrical wizardry, his Kendrick-esque storytelling ability, and his versatile flow has provided an in-depth, personal look into the life and times of Ab-Soul, and has thus made These Days... among the most anticipated projects of the year in the world of hip-hop. And though expectations for the project seemed to be unprecedentedly high, the Black Lip Pastor came through with another outstanding piece of work.
As for the orchestration of These Days..., Soulo recruited his three fellow Black Hippy brothers, as well as several other TDE affiliates including SZA, Tae Beast, and Jhené Aiko. Other features and contributors to the album include Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Mac Miller, Lupe Fiasco, and Joey Bada$$. Soul offers a nice balance of guests who appeal to a wide scale of the hip-hop world, while showing loyalty to his TDE mates. Nonetheless he doesn't let his features steal the show, he gives fans plenty of his own dazzling verses. The production on the album is on-point for the most part, highlighted by a banging J. Cole beat on "Sapiosexual", the jazzy Terrace Martin beat on "Kendrick Lamar's Interlude", and some classic Tae Beast, Curtiss King, and Blended Babies rhythms.
Ab-Soul's lyric-focused rapping style is such that it's rare to hear a disappointing Soulo verse. He is the type of rapper whose verses take several listens in order to catch all of his clever bars and double entendres. Even searching his lyrics online can be a bit of a brain teaser. His "intelligent rap" made the release of These Days... that more exciting: fifteen tracks of Soulo genius. Like his Longterm series and Control System album, this project features no shortage of tricky wordplay and in-depth bars. Each Soul verse has its' fair share of lyrical erudition, but check out "Tree of Life", a track in which Soul messes with metaphors comparing aspects of trees to real life: "I took it to heights these parasites can't see. Rarely do I bark hope you get the analogy, Top Dawg embarkin' on the whole industry." Whether or not the lyrics on These Days... are as impressive as say, those on Control System, is a matter of opinion, but there is plenty of Soul-genius on this album, and it must be listened to over and over again in order to understand both his lines and his music. These Days... simply cannot be judged after only a few listens.
Ab-Soul certainly displayed his versatility on this album, as each track differs from the next on a wide scale. There are pros and cons to this: it creates a somewhat incohesive feel to the entire album, but, because Soulo's main intentions were to give us a run through what he's been doing 'these days' it also makes sense-- each track is a different day in the life. The album features songs for all sorts of hip-hop ears. Take "Twact", for example, a catchy turn-up anthem in which Soulo delivers the final verse, preceded by Jinx and Short Dawg. The song, about getting "twact" on all sorts of drugs, is not Soul's typical style, but that is what makes music awesome. Ab still comes in with a fire, head-nod-inducing third verse. Although this track is not the typical intelligent rap we often hear from Soul, we cannot expect every song to be a prophetic philosophical life-changer.
On "Nevermind That", Soul begins his first verse with some tricky wordplay, and right in the middle of the verse the track cuts to a catchy hook featuring BJ the Chicago Kid: "Nevermind that, baby just move your body". Soul crafts his music with the intention that his listeners will interpret the songs how they may, and whether he has a specific meaning for this track or not, it seems as though Soul is dumbing it down, or taking it easy, something like, "I'm intellectually destroying the verse, but 'nevermind that baby just move your body'". Again, his tracks are in-depth and up for interpretation, but that is the intrigue of Soul: we know how smart he is, and sometimes it's easy to wonder if he just messing around for kicks.
"Stigmata", a track released before the album, is a quintessential verse that shows the depth of Soul. The last few bars of his opening verse display Ab-Soul's talent:
"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 just a physical but digital way of displaying my rhymes
And making these kind people pay a fine
I've been through a lot, I deserve a lot, this work's fine"
Frankly, not even Soul's biggest fans would necessarily fully understand these lyrics, much less a listener with zero prior knowledge of Ab-Soul's background. He explains these bars on an NPR interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Soul states that in his youth he worked in a record store. He elaborates: "Steve Jobs created iTunes to where we could actually, you could sell your music digitally. So that revolution — if you could imagine me — you know, my mom ran it, it was a family-owned business, I'm there every day after school. And I'm trying to rap".
There are several highlights of These Days... The final track, "W.R.O.H.", featuring JMSN, is a fitting conclusion to the album. It is a positive song, on which Soul reflects on where he is today and where he is going in the future. Keeping it real as always, Ab-Soul spits two flowing verses on the uplifting beat, combining with JMSN for a smooth chorus. The song is followed by a rap battle between Ab and Daylyt in which both artists go off with mind-blowing bars one after another, although it's a tad too lengthy for the average listener, as it clocks in at 23 minutes.
Ab gives his TDE brother Kendrick Lamar his own track, "Kendrick Lamar's Interlude", in which Kendrick spits flames over a very funky Terrace Martin beat. The song is reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar's "Ab-Soul Outro" on his Section.80 album in which Soul went in over a similar style beat. It makes you wonder whether These Days... is Kendrick's Section.80, and that Ab-Soul still has his GKMC-esque brilliance still to come...
As for the other must-listen tracks, J. Cole produced a nasty beat for "Sapioseuxal" over which Ab-Soul drops nasty-- literally nasty-- sex-focused verses. The tracks with features are all worth checking out: Lupe Fiasco on "World Runners", Jay Rock and Ravaughn on "Feelin' Us", ScHoolboy Q on "Hunnid Stax", SZA's pleasant voals on the intro track "God's Reign", and Danny Brown and Delusional Thomas (aka a high-pitched Mac Miller) on "Ride Slow". Ab-Soul outshines his guests on almost all of these tracks. The tenth song "Closure", is a slow, sad song on which Ab touches on his former girlfriend and a relationship that followed the death of Alori Joh. Though Ab-Soul does not exactly "rap" over the song, it is intriguing to hear his lyrics which are followed by a memorable chorus.
As a whole, there are many different things to love about These Days..., although there a few setbacks too. The project's length, mixed in with the extended rap battle, makes it drag on a bit. One could also argue there are too many features on the project, and too many erratic beats-- but another person could argue that this is actually a good thing. The album includes tracks for all kinds of hip-hop fans, showing Soul's ability to vary his style and appeal to different fan bases. Whether this album tops his prior releases, specifically Control System, is a matter of opinion. Ab-Soul is a fascinating artist whose songs come with a level of intrigue that has existed since he began rapping. His intelligent style makes every bar a brain teaser of sorts, and combined with his own intellect regarding life, and the journey he has gone through, every Ab-Soul line keeps listeners on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear the next brilliant wordplay that exits his mouth. Earl Sweatshirt posted a tweet that serves as an essential reminder for listening and subsequently judging this album: "Listen to These Days with receptive ears. It's very dense. Spend time with it".
Ab-Soul is simply too complicated, too lyrically talented, and too bright of a rapper for a few listens to be enough to understand These Days...
That being said, stream the album below.