Wednesday, December 21, 2016

album review: 'do what thou wilt.' by ab-soul

I feel like I should like Ab-Soul so much more than I do.

Okay, that's a misleading statement, because for the most part I do like this guy. His breakthrough project Control System was a great record, with the sort of creativity and ideas that made for thought-provoking listens and could compensate for wordplay that either slid towards corniness or revealed more flaws than can really be excused. I had a lot of hope that on future projects he'd be able to refine his ideas and sound into something that was sharper and harder and more cohesive...

And then he released These Days. I'll be blunt, I was probably too easy on that record when I reviewed it, trying to search for deeper themes or satirical elements that didn't coalesce, and when the hooks just weren't there to match the production or slew of guest verses that were really all over the place, I found myself looking for reasons to like it and coming up short. And ever since then, I've heard plenty of guest verses from him, from collaborations with The Game to Jay Rock to Danny Brown and while so many have praised him, I've been consistently underwhelmed. I don't what to tell you, he's slipped towards corniness more often I'd really excuse and he's still not a consistently strong wordsmith in terms of constructing his bars. Hell, that's one of the reasons why I'm not all that surprised that it took so long for my Patreon voters to push this to the top of the schedule, maybe some of that spark had died out in comparison to his peers who had been more consistent or who had pushed out more interesting projects. But there was a part of me that still had real hope Ab-Soul could pull this off, although his list of guest stars was certainly different than I was expecting. I was more surprised than I probably should be that there was no Kendrick verse - he's consistently shown up Ab-Soul every time he's been on one of his records - but outside of ScHoolboy Q, Punch, and SZA, Ab-Soul seemed to be pulling from outside of TDE for this. I expected Mac Miller, they've worked together before, but Rapsody, Bas from Dreamville, Da$h from the A$AP Mob, and even Kokane, an oldschool veteran who started his career with Eazy-E? So yeah, I was curious - what did we get from Do What Thou Wilt.?

Well, we haven't gotten something like this in a long time, that's for sure, and something that always amuses me when it does show up. Because every once in a while, an artist who is normally taken seriously decides that he wants to screw with his audience, with critics, and anyone else who will listen. These albums are rare, but they definitely exist - and with Do What Thou Wilt., Ab-Soul joins that proud tradition of trolling the hell out of anyone who might take him seriously. Now what this means is that the typical metric for whether or not this record is good goes completely out the window - well, at least to some extent, there is still art that is being created with elements like production and bars that should be considered, but lyrically and thematically this is a different animal, and it's going to take some deeper examination to figure out if this successful troll is in fact successful.

But some of you might be asking why I even came to this conclusion - after all, it sounds like what you'd expect from Ab-Soul's too clever by half hedonism, full of weird references cribbed from religion and philosophy texts blended with sex, drugs, and a lot more sex and drugs. And that's not entirely unfamiliar from Ab-Soul, especially given his previous two albums. But if these days was lodged in a haze of its own making both in the production and content, right out of the gate Do What Thou Wilt. seems more focused. Hell, the first song might be exactly what you'd expect from Ab-Soul going hard as hell, literally taking shots at Jay Electronica for going at Kendrick and full of some ridiculously well-crafted bars against this huge gothic swell with bells and seething guitars - although, like usual with Ab-Soul we get a few corny pieces like comparing his choppers to PF Chang and Benihana or saying that his fur lined boots have him cozy. But by 'Huey Knew THEN', following a pretty basic double-entendre laced weed song with a really unnecessary beat shift, even Ab-Soul seems bored with that style against the wonky horns, seedy keys, an interpolation of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, to say nothing of flows that are very reminiscent of early Eminem - which of course he references later in the song. Granted, this is also a place where he says he's hornier than the brass section of the band, but really, it's outweighed by a solid gritty verse from Da$h which mentions a threat to assassinate Trump and a great hook about blacking out, referencing white lies told behind his back, the pale white horse of death, and... 'even white lives matter when I black out'. And if you think the naked provocation stops there, his next song 'Threatening Nature' against ominous church bells flips and fuses a load of religious and early American iconography that seems half designed to make interesting points - sexism propagated by religious and cultural institutions, putting forward the 'god is a woman hypothesis' and the irony that propagates from that - and half designed to piss people off, like the line: 'with all disrespect I think the American flag was designed by...' well, insert the homophobic slur there.

So okay, is Ab-Soul trying to make a point about feminism... well, no, I would not go there either, because his very next song 'Womanogamous' is about him wanting bisexual girls and lesbians to fuck him because he likes all women where he can stick his thumb in her butt and finger-fuck Mother Earth. And then two songs later we have 'Wifey vs. WiFi/PMS', where he falls straight into your typical bitching about nagging girlfriends, with the running metaphor of his cellphone as actual prison cells and even the point of dialling the letters M-O-M on your phone as '666' - huh. Then you've got 'Portishead In The Morning/HER WORLD' two songs later where he restates he's not a sexist no matter how many times he tells her to suck it, and why go to heaven - there's no bitches there! Of course he then references his callout from Control System 'One time for the women, two times for the ladies, three times for the bitches'. This will come back on 'Now You Know', which is such a tangled knot... okay, first he jacks Elzhi's 'Misright' premise, and then implies the 'mis' in all of these cases is implied negativity in popular conscience even as he's trying to state all the misconceptions society has given him surrounding women - and because of all those apologies, the feminists should be on his dick. You see what I mean about trolling his audience - the consistent contradictions, the blatant lies, the increasingly tangled web, to some level it would make sense coming from Ab-Soul who either through drugs, a warped sense of grief coming after the death of his girlfriend, or sheer manic impulse, the overall message is that he's messing with you! Frankly, I don't think Ab-Soul is a misogynist at all, even with his 'embrace' of the Little Rascals oath of the He-Man Woman Haters club, just baiting easy controversy - which if you go to 'Beat The Case/Straight Crooked' he outright references his own deceptive nature in the name of liability through another canny Eminem reference. And the string of Eminem references does raise the point where this trolling actually starts to hit satire, not just the continuous undermining of institutions through a certain mischievous feminism, but also because while Slim Shady was holding the same sort of warped mirror to the primarily white audience, Ab-Soul's doing it to hip-hop's primarily male audience. And yet even with that, on the last song Ab-Soul says that he's a liar, cheater, devil-in-disguise deceiver, and yet he could be lying about all of that too! Even the title of this record is a masterstroke of deception - all formal language... that was cribbed from proto-Satanist Aleister Crowley and essentially is the message to defy institutions and do what you want. Of course, that line was pulled from 'The Law', asserting that love is the only true law - and thus for Ab-Soul it becomes clear that any underlying theme on this record isn't rooted in religion or feminism or hedonism or nihilism - it's progressive anarchism, and that's something I can definitely get behind.

Of course, if Ab-Soul was looking to make more a point, I'm not sure the construction of this record is the way to do it, because Do What Thou Wilt. really is all over the place. It's not helped by most of the guest performances, because outside of assorted choppy samples, Rapsody's downtempo verse on 'The Law' and maybe Mac Miller's chorus contributions - it's certainly better than his tribute to women on The Divine Feminine - it doesn't seem like his guest stars are entirely on the same page, or are well utilized. The verses from Bas, Punch and ScHoolboy Q aren't bad, but they don't add much and don't seem to fit all that well. Then you have Kokane, who doesn't even get a verse... but BR3 gets one, structured as a freestyle at the end of 'Wifey vs. WiFi/PMS'? None of this helps the feeling that this record is very much a meandering endeavor with its fair share of dud punchlines - that awkward Jewish pun on 'INvocation', the 'beat it like a runaway slave' line on 'Beat The Case/Crooked', and how often it feels like Ab-Soul has to explain half his punchlines, I could easily go on here - and songs that just don't build up to much, especially on the second half of this record. I've always said that Ab-Soul's projects run long, and even though this is shorter than These Days..., the back half of this album, especially when some songs get increasingly disjointed like 'God's A Girl' and 'Evil Genius' and 'The Law', it can drag. And it runs to the detriment of the punchier insight that Ab-Soul does bring to the table, or worse still it makes it appear less like Ab-Soul is pulling a fast one on his audience with the contradictions and more just inarticulate rambling. And the hooks don't quite coalesce either - I dig the melancholic piano against the deeper rumble of the beat on 'D.R.U.G.S', SZA's richer backing vocals on 'Lonely Soul/The Law (Prelude)' with the bluesy guitar chopped to ribbons off the bass, and the buzzy film of 'YMF' with the twinkling melodic flourishes, but it doesn't nearly have the same gothic swell and punch as earlier songs did.

But at the end of the day... I do like this, but I'm reminded of the kid who was so smart he never needed to try in school, got bored, and then spent his education underperforming and screwing with everyone around him. And yeah, there's an art to this sort of trolling, but that's typically when it makes a clear satirical point or is so bizarre it can't really be contextualized, and I don't think Ab-Soul was willing to push that hard in that direction. As such, there's kind of a ceiling on how much I can recommend this, especially considering the moments that really did test my patience, but at the end of the day the tastelessness was tempered with real wit and some subtly transgressive moments I really liked, and I think hip-hop could use some of that mischievous provocation in the Slim Shady mold to come back. As such, for me this is a 7/10 and a recommendation - but a qualified one, because if you're expecting this to have a lot of cohesion or make much sense outside of Ab-Soul just screwing with you, you're going to be disappointed. As it is... I think there's seeds of potential if Ab-Soul wants to take this sort of warped thinking into the structure and meat that held Control System together - he just needs to take that step.

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