Ab-Soul’s Do What Thou Wilt announces the Black Lip Pastor’s return and oh, he mad.
On opening track “RAW (backwards),” Soulo transforms into Kendrick Lamar’s junkyard dog, choosing to go after Jay Electronica for dissing Lamar, rather than let the group’s crown jewel get his hands dirty. He also takes a shot at Brooklyn local - and human trash can - Troy Ave for making light of the late Capital Steez. Red rum indeed.
It’s a theme he doesn’t choose to lean on too heavily, because Ab-Soul is more to the collective than a henchman. His work can stand wholly apart from Top Dawg, and the album credits reinforce this idea.
Aside from one guest appearance from ScHoolboy Q and SZA each, Ab-Soul plays curator instead of little brother, putting the spotlight on artists like TDE pupil Zacari, Da$h and Ruthless Records alumni Kokane. DWTW has a well-rounded credit page with equal parts star power and fresh blood. The word “curation” seems more fitting than “album” to sum up DWTW; beats feel tailor-made for featured artists, with Ab-Soul working his magic to fit the mood. Take “Beat the Case” for example. What could easily have been a last-minute scratch from ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face is now a perfect transition for “Straight Crooked,” Soulo’s epilogue describing his mentality as both a citizen of the United States, and an infallible criminal.
Still, the project’s length doesn’t always do itself favours. The drawling beat on “Threatening Nature” sounds decades apart from neighboring track “Womanogamy,” which aims to reinforce the importance of women to Soul in a much less cultured way than on “Portishead in the Morning /// HER World,” four tracks later.
It’s clashes like these that may have warranted reorganizing the track list in hindsight. DWTW could have easily split Ab-Soul’s persona right down the middle, between ignorant and enlightened.
Sample these lines to get an idea of the see-sawing Soulo does lyrically:
"Look, I got two baby mamas, but I ain't got no kids
Nah, I'm fuckin' with you, them my lesbian friends
[Fast forward to the next verse]
Hold that thought, next scene, shit, it would be the morning
I give her morning wood, then roll my wood up in the morning
Finesse this flow from Lucki Eck$
I’m finger-fuckin' Mother Earth
Put my thumb up in her butt, then roll like a was bowlin'"
Not exactly poster-worthy for a #notallmen campaign. Then, Ab-Soul reminds the listener that his album is in fact a “woman appreciation album” on the tracks “Portishead In the Morning /// HER World,” as he explained to The Breakfast Club.
"Do we really want to go to Heaven?
Ain't no bitches mentioned
I ain't a sexist, I enlighten sisters too
And, oh yes, it's Bohemian Grove, baby, not groove"
At first glance, it’s an awkward concept. Using hard beats and harsh language to say how important women are to Ab-Soul seems misplaced. Maybe it’s the unlikely marriage of bangin’ bass and the exploration of spirituality, equality and self-proclamations of holiness that makes Soul’s lyrics all seem genuine. This is one of Soulo’s strengths; much like Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling through the eyes of a young hooligan from Compton, Ab-Soul’s roots shine on DWTW. He embraces all parts of his consciousness, from hood sensibilities to ideas on higher power as he approaches his subject matter in a way that is unabashed and straightforward.
Using a word like “curator” to describe Ab-Soul on this might be painting this album with broad strokes. Diluted terms like it often describe the #influencers and “director of vibes” types in this world, which may be a tad unfair to Soulo.
Still, DWTW feels tasteful. That’s a rarity in hip hop right now, given the obsession with hi-hat trills and rigid rhyming in triplets. “God’s a Girl?” dances all over the line that separates the brash thoughts from the brainy.
Ab-Soul swears that God’s a girl, but calls himself Jesus in the same breath. He squirts lady lyrics over a beat that can be described as an agitated dance track. Then on “Wifey vs. Wifi” he makes note that typing “M-O-M” on a cell phone brings up the number of the beast. He’s all over the place in terms of symbolism, sounds across tracks, and his message, messages, or lack thereof.
It’s snippets like these that make you wonder if Ab-Soul agrees with Marshall McLuhan, that the medium is the message; that one song can advance the narrative of an album and contradict songs of the same work, at the same time. There are lyrical connections strewn across DWTW, and it’s the mess of it all that makes you want to unravel Soulo’s messages.
Making sense of Ab-Soul’s mixed messages for 80 minutes has its challenges. Take the title for starters, based on the law of Thelema: “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Soul lays it out clearly on “the Law,” saying love is the only law, a belief of Thelemites.
Now listen to “RAW (backwards)” or “Huey Knew THEN” and ask yourself, what parts of these songs are about love? Still, it’s unfair to expect 16 tracks to universally reflect just one idea. Especially concerning a genre as fickle and in flux as hip-hop.
Sonically, Do What Thou Wilt. is damn solid. Ab-Soul isn’t putting a square peg into a round hole, rapping around his guests over ill-fitting beats, which might be a criticism of his last album, These Days.... The lyricism is punchy and clever without being outlandish. Nods to the past replace the drawn out history lessons of previous releases.
You might not be in love after your first listen, but it’ll grow on you. Sifting through Ab-Soul’s dense wordplay takes patience and multiple listens. Even if you only use this album to make your brain work harder after a heavy dose of Migos, it’s worth the investment.