Thursday, June 26, 2014

album review: 'these days' by ab-soul

I've mentioned in the past that every critic - hell, the mainstream music press - are smart to keep their eyes on Top Dawg Entertainment, the indie record label that signed Kendrick Lamar amongst others. Over the past few years, the label has very quickly garnered a reputation for high quality rap music, and it's always interesting taking that first look into the artists on that label. Kendrick Lamar, everyone should know at this point, and I've already spoken on Schoolboy Q and SZA when I reviewed the records they released this year.

But what about Ab-Soul? Heralded as the 'nerd' of TDE, his 2012 album Control System was a jaw-dropping fusion of creative, multi-faceted references and one of the more outlandish rap releases of that year in terms of its content and execution. And like all of TDE's releases, it was defined by its contradictions. Where Kendrick's good kid, m.A.A.d city was defined by the dichotomy between his responsibilities to his family and his character and the world tearing away at them, and Schoolboy Q's Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron were at their core defined by the gangsta doing bad things with good intent, Ab-Soul goes for something more primal: the internal battle between a wicked intellect and the ignorance that sells. And thus we get Control System, an album in a haze that might be coaxed by drugs but goes for something spiritual. And while Ab-Soul wasn't the greatest technical rapper in the game - he rhymed too many words with themselves to be excused, and it got really distracting - the creativity and depth to the project demanded appreciation, along with a succession of killer guest verses and really strong beats.

So you can bet I was psyched to dig into Ab-Soul's new album titled These Days - how is it?

Well... I'm conflicted about this album. I'm not going to say this record is bad or even not good, because it's definitely not, but Ab-Soul's These Days is a step down from Control System, even though I suspect it's just as ambitious, but in a different way. Because to be blunt, this record is not as lyrical or incredibly creative as Control System, which is one of the reasons it's a step back in my books, but at the same time, I get the impression that it wasn't trying to be, instead opting for more of a satire or parody of modern cliches of rap, a commentary of sorts. The question then becomes whether or not he did this well, and that's where things get significantly more complicated.

Now some of you are immediately asking why I'm not just taking this record as a straightforward grimy, commercially-leaning hip-hop record - because on the surface, that's what this album is. Songs like 'Hunnid Stax', 'Twact', 'Feelin' Us', these are hedonistic, drug-and-sex obsessed tracks that you could find on any mainstream hip-hop release - and honestly, they aren't great bangers in this vein either. 'Hunnid Stax' has Schoolboy Q's vicious spitting and Ab-Soul imitating his flow, but then Mac Miller gets on the hook and the momentum falls as completely flat as the Lana Del Rey sample they used on that song. 'Twact' actually has a pretty decent synth and some snapping percussion, but none of the guest rappers or Ab-Soul have anything interesting to say on the track. And then there's the party song 'Feelin' Us' featuring Jay Rock's laziest verse in a while and a direct imitation of Chief Keef's flow, the sort of ignorance I don't like anywhere close to Ab-Soul? Hell, there's even a track featuring Rick Ross on this album doing his standard sub-par bragging surrounded by pitch-shifted vocals and Ab-Soul imitating Drake's rap/singing dichotomy.

But it's on that track where things start to get interesting, because there are quick static-filled cuts to Ab-Soul spitting with a lot more creativity and energy, almost suggesting that it's a commercial track hiding a much smarter MC, and that lends some credence to the idea that this record might be parodying or satirizing that sort of commercial rap, like The Roots did on '...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin'. But both satires and parodies work by taking the material in offbeat or over-the-top directions, and I'm not sure this record delivers that consistently. 'Dub Sac' isn't really a typical weed track, but it does fall in the line of a typical brag track, and an unfocused one at that. 'World Runners' is about chasing one's dreams and dissing those who aren't hustling, but again, neither Ab-Soul or Lupe Fiasco's verses here are all that interesting beyond some token Prince and Illuminati references, which barely adds any deeper meaning, and the ghostly production and pitch-shifted vocals didn't exactly make it all that special. I actually liked 'Just Have Fun' and 'Ride Slow', the latter featuring Danny Brown with some flashy lyrics, but really, they're just drug and brag tracks, and aren't even really over the top by Danny Brown standards - solid material, but nothing mind-blowing. The real disappointment for me was 'Sapiosexual', a song talking about women attracted to intelligence, but once you get past the nifty premise, Ab-Soul doesn't do anything with it in terms of lyricism and the track feels like just another sex jam, this time with a Middle-Eastern inspired melody.

So here's the point: for this to be a satire or parody, there would need to be the moments where he drives home his point, or goes so far over-the-top that he makes his point implicitly - but that only happens sporadically. Instead, we get a somewhat detailed exploration of some of Ab-Soul's other favourite topics, namely religion. And here's where we get the better tracks of the album, or at least those with a little more lyrical ambition. 'Tree Of Life' is probably one of the best ones, both through the religious and ecological parallels, and I really did like 'Stigmata' and the opening track 'God's Reign', but both songs feel like they lack the visceral punch or at least the vibrant lyricism I got from previous records. Because let's be honest, there's a lot of material that could be mined if Ab-Soul wanted to draw a parallel between himself and Jesus - but outside of a few scattered references and 'Closure', a song tackling both his deceased girlfriend and current relationship, the overarching themes never really coalesce. Instead, I get the disconcerting feeling that Ab-Soul intentionally dialed back some of these tracks down for commercial airplay in terms of his content  - and sure, there's nothing wrong with making some party bangers, but they could at least have a little more creativity than this. And what's really frustrating is that on the final track, there's a 20 minute clip of a rap battle between Ab-Soul and Daylyt, and Ab-Soul mostly holds his own with some really creative and interesting wordplay - some of which is better than what is on the rest of this album. And on top of that, if he's looking for more of a commercial sound, TDE production isn't always the way to go - I'm not saying it's bad, far from it, I really liked the breezy haze of 'Tree Of Life' and 'Just Have Fun', and whenever this album dips into some soulful elements like on the latter track and Kendrick Lamar's Interlude, it sounds great - but the hooks are not especially great or lack that immediate melodic punch that would really stick. I did like the dusty darkness of 'Stigmata' and the ominous synthesizer tones of 'W.R.O.H.', but for an album that might be stepping towards a more accessible sound, they don't exactly fit.

And that's honestly my biggest issue with this record: there are a lot of disparate elements and intentions with this album and none of it seems to coalesce into anything substantial beyond some solid if unremarkable drug tracks and a few steps towards introspection, and Ab-Soul never really approaches the insight or nuance he brought on Control System, especially when it comes to politics or unique subject matter. If that previous album was written about mind-expanding drugs, These Days was recorded while on them - and thus, it feels distant, unfocused, hazy, and a bit of a mess. The instrumentation and some of the tracks seems to imply a serious, more underground tone, but the rest of the record feels aimed at a much lower common denominator. And most of those songs really lack the hooks or interesting flavour to make them stand out or really bang. And while I'm not drawing a comparison to any of the other artists on TDE right now, I will say that Ab-Soul certainly doesn't shy away from making those comparisons to his labelmates - which might not be the best thing to do with a project that's a fair bit shakier than Control System. But that said, I like the production, Ab-Soul is still an interesting lyricist and songwriter, and there are more hits than serious misses on this record, so I'm going to give it a very cautious 7/10. I can't and won't call it a great record, but it is interesting and definitely worth consideration, so it's worth a listen. 

No comments:

Post a Comment