Top Dawg Entertainment’s big year has held its most lyrically strong artist on deck to bat clean up all year long. Considering the fact that the last project Ab-Soul released was before all the TDE buzz that Kendrick started with GKMC, there’s no wondering to his apparent, current eagerness. A lot has happened since 2012’s Control System. Those who hadn’t followed the Black Hippy collective up to that point found out not only who Ab-Soul was, but what he is capable of as the most mysterious of all signed to the label. With his first projects, his mind’s vulnerability matched his poise as a rapper- revealing honesty with every beat, holding to strong and relatable and often pondering lyrics. But These Days…, the Ab-Soul we’ve been longing to hear from since “Terrorist Threats” seems to be hiding in the shade of TDE’s new high-watt spotlight.
The new LP from Anthony Stevens IV spreads itself almost too thin over its enduring ninety minutes. Known prior as an individualistic type, Soul attacks other styles than what his very reputation would state throughout the album. It won’t be until track four, “Dub Sac” where anything sounds familiar or maybe even relative to the Ab-Soul we expected – sedated and snappy and relentless on presentation. We have the opener “God’s Reign” that sounds nothing like its title, calling on SZA to bring her signature hook-driven vocals that carry the track all the way to promo single “Tree of Life” where Soul calls to “Suck my third leg while I branch out” with other clever lines too: “Breathe easy/ I just wanna live like the trees/shoot the breeze/ stay around some leaves/ naw’mean?” Lest we mention the track three drag “Hunnid Stax”; even with Q and Mac by his side, all three of hip hop’s appropriate middle class, just hang out in the booth giving us lyrics we’ve heard a time or two somewhere (Big Sean did say “Ain’t nothin’ more important the mula” first right?) Soul proves forgettable yet still mentions his favorite “Druggies With Hoes” line (Won’t pass the weed but I’ll pass the bitch) Q proves to be his signature nasty self (beat the pussy down like my nemesis/ make the pussy drip like I slit her wrist), and Mac providing a numbed out hook that must have been recorded before the Faces sessions, because it was a struggle for me to entertain after bumping “Wedding” twice in a row the day before These Days… finally dropped.
Using the featured artists trick to fill up his open spaces (it’s littered with them), the junior album from Ab-Soul has him not progressing, but regressing to something he never was in the first place. Take for instance, “World Runners” with Lupe Fiasco(?), who utilizes his repeated hook knack and avoids being the lyricist we hope for: “We run, we run, we run this world” – they are more than a hair short of convincing. Then we are given a MMG collaboration with leader himself Ricky Rozay, who has established himself as a proper feature artist over the past few years. But why? Ab-Soul used to be leaning and talking about his third eye, not settling for the boneless trap bullshit seen there next – “Twact”, even though he still does mention his styrofoam cup.
The album does have its strengths, however; one of which being Ab-Soul’s taste for being so human and physical regardless of how he’s managing the output of those strongpoints. The consistent issue throughout the album, though, is how infrequent we see Ab-Soul at his full potential. He seems to be satisfied without taking the lead on his own project – having a featured artist on just about every track, allotting his newly grown crew the chance to see more promotion, as he rides shotgun way too often. See “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude”; it’s so much not his own track that he tells you in the title and might even be a Section .80 outtake – including a saxophone that follows no set pattern resonant of free base jazz like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Davis’ Bitches Brew. But this is Ab-Soul’s fucking album and the following “Closure” resonates the Soul we know with another emotionally driven track where he goes even further into his story involving Alori Joh, before and after she passed.
Even with tracks like “Sapiosexual” where the line “Let Me Fuck Your Mind” is repeated way too often, it becomes apparent that what used to work for Ab-Soul struggles to pack the punch now or “these days” (had to). “Feelin’ Us” holds an irresistible beat but doesn’t do too much more. Repeating the title of the track to the point to where its driven into the ground over and over until by the end of play one, you don’t even believe it. Do I even need to mention “Ride Slow”? Soul and Danny Brown and Mac Miller and an uncredited Earl Sweat are on some other shit, with a beat that has no particular rhyme or reason, and brings a challenging spookiness. Either way though, it’s nice to see some originality from the man who used to bleed it.
All in all, the album doesn’t completely fail because it seems that These Days… are much more laid back than they used to be for our star here. He takes a step back, and allows his album to be both a party and an afterparty. This proven easily by the 23 minute closer, the majority of the track simply having Ab-Soul freestyle for his homies as they react in amusement. So, in a way, Soul seemed to accomplish what he set out to here. These Days… does not have Ab-Soul at his best, but it does have him at his familiar humanistic remedies; but if I had to choose between the artist Ab-Soul can be and what exactly he’s doing these days other than “splittin’ clits with a money clip”, I choose the former every time.