Jonah Bromwich isn’t paranoid. They really are out to get you.
Ab-Soul isn’t a paranoid. Paranoids are unsure, constantly waiting for the chance to react to their suspicions. By contrast, Ab-Soul stays recruiting, sure that if he can unite all the gangs in the world, they may stand a chance against the military.
That’s the gist of “Terrorist Threats,” the early centerpiece of the TDE member’s Control System. Despite its psychedelic trappings, the song is laser-focused, as a coherent worldview emerges from “the typical black boy in the good old U.S.A” — so identified to hasten the recruitment of the likeminded. The goal of the song is a movement, the goal of that movement is freedom, separation, the clarity that comes from the perspective of an outsider. There’s no point in hating the president. Ab-Soul is as amused by the political circus as the clowns hope we are during Barnum and Bailey.
Control System is a dark, confident album, on which insinuations occasionally give over into rebel thoughts. It aspires to mad science, glowing like experiments conducted in the green glare of night-vision goggles — off-kilter but never out-of-bounds. That’s why circadian rhythms and Buddhist tradition are evoked on “Pineal Gland.” Even party songs like “Mixed Emotions” are tinged with chemicals and dressed up in lab coats. Whenever he gets explicitly political, Ab has something prescient to say — see “Beautiful Death” when he changes the most famous Tupac lyric from “Changes” to acknowledge the present reality of class struggle.
When ‘Soul doesn’t rap about his mission directly or obliquely he’s frequently experimental. Though not as naturally adroit as Kendrick and Schoolboy, he makes up for it with a willingness to try different types of tracks. “A Rebellion” is more of a chant than a song, as a dark refrain is only broken up a couple of times by confessions of violent dreams, of killing cops, of killing priests, of killing God. On the flip, “Empathy,” there’s only one short rapped section, and all the rest is come-ons and a steady pulse. These tracks and others like the Kanye-sampling “Nothing’s Something” are relatively empty but they’re promising musical frameworks for what, in the future, could be substantive, interesting songs
Occasionally, Soul’s Black Hippy companions join in and the chemical reactions are relatively easy to diagram. Ab’s dark political leanings and geometric learnings dissolve in Schoolboy’s relentless hedonism on “SOPA” and combine nicely with hyperconscious Kendrick for some mantle-donning on “Illuminate.” Then there’s the “Black Lip Bastard Remix,” a posse cut which is everything you’ve been wishing for if you’ve been following these guys. It’s a vicious showcase for what Jay-Rock calls the “four-headed dragon” complete with parking garage collages of enemies that echo Arya’s prayer, a realization of Archimedes axis movement, gunfire, drugs and multiple battling deities.
Control System is the weakest of the recent TDE albums but, as you can see from ”BLB,” that’s going up against some serious competition and the metrics don’t really tell the story. What’s important to realize about Ab-Soul is that he’s a character in his own right. He may not have had enough to say to fill seventeen tracks but the aforementioned “Terrorist Threats,” “Pineal Gland,” and “Beautiful Death” are worthwhile, important songs which he owns.
And then there’s the “Burdock Root” sampling “Book of Soul.” The autobiographical track is perhaps the most important on the album, on which Ab-Soul is fully humanized by a crippling disease and a tragic love story, both of which are free of cliché and compelling. By showing himself to be vulnerable, Ab-Soul avoids the weed-carrier plight of being a less talented echo of his fellows. As he says on “Black Lip Bastard,” “Solar system, grab a space shuttle and stay subtle.” That’s Soul’s system and he’s sticking to it–an individual lane that functions perfectly in the middle of the superhighway that’s growing to become the most interesting movement in rap.