After what felt like the longest two years ever, Ab-Soul returns to rap with the long awaited release of These Days…
“What? It ain’t no more to it! Soulo eatin’ now! Tell ’em Puff said so.”
Well, Puff Daddy himself couldn’t be closer to the truth. With the long awaited release of These Days…, Ab-Soul can finally relax and “eat” in peace. 2012’s Control System was undoubtedly one of the best rap releases of the year, but ever since then, Ab-Soul had yet to be active in rap due to his label Top Dawg Entertainment being more focused on riding the coattails of Kendrick Lamar’s modern-classic Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, participating in the frequently delayed and treacherously promoted Schoolboy Q album Oxymoron, and also focusing on their two new signees on the label, a young rapper Isaiah Rashad and the first lady and vocalist of TDE, SZA. Finally, though, the coin landed on Ab-Souls side, and he is up to bat yet again with his next project, These Days… .
Control System was absolutely brilliant. The project was dedicated to raising politically and socially charged questions about the underlying confinements of life itself, diving into the shackles placed upon society from the government, social stigmas, double standards, relationships, the streets, and spirituality. It was vividly thematic, ablaze with clever wordplay and unorthodox flows, and ultimately made the listener ask questions–questions that exist in a personal light, about the “control systems” that might be in place in their own life. As great as this record was, it is worth saying that it could also prove to be a burden on Ab-Soul, as it is a tough job to follow it up; and in spite of all the glowing, limb-shaking highlights on These Days…, it’s an album that might be a considerable feat for rap in 2014, but the moment you place it next to it’s predecessor, you realize Ab-Soul may have already defeated himself.
These Days… is still fantastic in it’s own right, though. It might be lacking the cohesive, thematic glue of Control System, but it is still somewhat blended and fluent in it’s own right. If it has any underlying theme to it at all, the project’s frequent and excellently executed biblical references and ideas come to mind, with the single “Stigmata” comparing Christ’s physical pain and suffering to the metaphorical struggle of Ab-Soul’s life (“I’m more than a man, I’ve died and rose again/Left these holes in my hands, so you know who I am”) and even the album’s opening track “God’s Reign” has Ab-Soul reflecting on his personal losses and struggles and blaming them on God’s wrath, leaving him “scared to move These Days” as SZA croons on the hook.
Other highlights come from records like “Hunnid Stax” where the more playful side of Soul comes to life, as it is one of his bangers obnoxiously referencing money and sex. Not without a chopped and screwed Lana Del Rey sample and a drug-influenced Mac Miller hook, Schoolboy Q finally jumps in for his own view on these lavish luxuries. “Nevermind That” boasts a well placed and unexpected Rick Ross verse over a droning and scattered trap-influenced beat, “Closure” occupies the emotional crooning song on the album (Control System was not without this either, for example, “Empathy”) and the leaned-out, Tupac-interpolated “Ride Slow” comes equipped with a squeaky verse from Danny Brown and low, spacey uncredited hook from Earl Sweatshirt. The largest highlight of the album is the answer to Kendrick Lamar’s “Ab-Soul’s Outro” off his 2011 project Section.80, where Ab-Soul offered an almost free-verse, spoken-word powerful verse over strings and brass instruments. Kendrick responds with a similarly structured “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude” on this album, and after a very Kendrick-deprived year, we are blessed with one of the hardest verses Kendrick’s spit in a long time. With bars like, “Be another example, I’ll take the whole industry hostage if I have to/I’ll sabotage this game, a good kid? Yeah that’s only in my mama’s eyes/I seen a dead body at five and that shit made me traumatized”, it’s hard not to appreciate this masterful track. Ab-Soul hops on for a short verse, and boasts “I’m obviously ominous to my competition/and if I ain’t better than Kendrick than nobody is then!”, which is a statement that’s pretty hard to disagree with.
The downfalls of These Days… are often moments where Soulo tries to spread himself too thin as an emcee. If it’s him trying to approach a rip-off DJ Mustard beat on “Twact” or if he’s trying to be overtly clever on “Tree of Life”, or even whatever you’d classify the abomination that is “Sapiosexual” as, this project’s worst moments are where Ab-Soul is either trying too hard or walking too far away from the “point”. “W.R.O.H” isn’t exactly a bad listen, but the fact that you put a 23-minute battle rap at the end of an album might be bold, but it’s also going to drag on at some points and make it impossible to hold the attention of the A.D.D tendencies of today’s average music listener. I hate to be the guy to keep holding it up to Control System, and I understand these are different projects meant to do different things, but from a strictly musical and sonic standpoint, once an artist sets a standard, the painful truth is that it’s going to be disappointing when that standard isn’t even remotely revisited on the successor.The most glaring issue I see with These Days… is something my high-school English teacher taught me. When writing any creative pieces or essays she would challenge us to ask a simple question at the end of our writings to assess it’s substance and see if it stuck true to our assigned prompt or personal visions. She would have us ask “So what?”, and as good as this record is, it’s still glaringly obvious that after all that These Days… has to offer is laid flat on the table and assessed thoroughly, I can’t help but ask the same question.