July 8, 2014

Max Bell carried the cross so you could play Candy Crush

2012’s Control System was an inspired and unforeseen coup. Ab-Soul brought inquisition and introspection, paranoia and conspiracy theories by the oz. There were hits of DMT, witty wordplay, and pineal gland prodding.  It was the Carson native’s claim to the title of ‘Best Behind Kendrick,’ elevating his stature both in and out of Black Hippy. Anticipation and expectations for his next album were high.

Then came Unit 6, his purported album with Aryan Jesus look-alike and Weeknd manque JSMN. Apart from the tepid yet unsettling single “You’re Gone,” (“And since you been good I slipped a present in that drink you drinking”), the rest of the project remains unreleased.

While Unit 6 might be better left locked deep within the vault, forty plus Soul guest verses have seen the light of day since 2012. Some were above par (“Through the Eyes of a G”) and some middling (“Lakers”). However, many more were noticeably uninspired (“Smoke Again,” “Way Up Here,” “Diamond”). They exposed how quickly Soul’s punchline wordplay can turn cringe-worthy, his unflattering tendency of resorting to banal genre clichés when out of his element, and how important production is in conveying the mood necessary for engaging with his ‘third-eye’ theology. Unfortunately, Soul’s fourth album, These Days…, suffers from the above sins and more. The crucifixion is essentially self-inflicted.

Though strictly a TDE release, the album has a marked commercial bent, one that seems antithetical to the man who said he wasn’t interested in clothes and jewelry (“Illuminate”) and bemoaned rappers ‘babbling on’ about money and hoes (“Terrorist Threats”) just two years ago. Granted, money has always been part of Ab-Soul’s aim. But here it’s as much motive as it is material. The life of the mind is often just the life behind clouded Persol shades. When these declamations are placed alongside lean-sipping avowals, the few potentially thought provoking lines peppered throughout are rendered mute. For evidence of this substantial backward leap, you need only see paper-chasing  celebration “Hunnid Stax,” which begins, “People treat you real nice when you got $50 drawers on.” The Corin Roddick (Purity Ring) produced beat is reminiscent of the quasi-dystopian bangers on Control System, but ‘swag’ has supplanted all hints of the sci-fi. Fascination with finances is inherent in rap; it just wasn’t always inherent in Soul’s rap.

Aside from the constant reminders of his newfound wealth (which would fine if they were more inventive), Soul suffers from a lack of focus. In the first verse on opener “God’s Reign,” he moves from third eye canticles to dropping “racks” amidst buxom women. By the second, he jumps from grappling with the loss of his late girlfriend back to drugs and money; the latter weakens the impact of the former. Cohesiveness or consistency isn’t necessary for a good rap song, but even the most frenetic and disjointed tracks on Control System had some sense of, well, control.

While Soul once reveled in the deconstruction of language and benefitted from carefully selected diction, the caliber of rhymes and wordplay here would make Lil Wayne change ghostwriters: “I left these holes in my hand just so you know who I am an alien, extraterrestrial, ET’s a mini me, you understand?” (“God’s Reign”). “Tree of Life” is built around thin metaphor that ultimately devolves into tired currency wordplay and nursery rhymes. The unconvincing “World Runners” is a far from the rallying cry that was “Terrorist Threats,” and “Just Have Fun” is the kind of hackneyed stoner philosophy espoused by ‘chill bro’s’ at every frat house and music festival from USC to EDC.

As far as production, very few tracks stand out. Hi-hats skitter from one to the next. The constant attempts to create swirling atmospherics become numbing and the drums are mostly rigid. The most interesting production comes on “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude,” where pounding percussion backs frenzied, saxophone driven free jazz. And lead single “Stigmata” is perhaps the closest to matching the ominous production on Control System, the hi-hats used effectively, the drums hard-hitting, the choral singing suggestive of the divine, and the bass line subtly baleful.

The album’s lack of inspiration is also readily apparent in Soul’s liberal sampling of other rappers’ styles and aesthetic. He interpolates Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” on “Feelin Us.” He uses Migos’ triplet-flow on “Just Have Fun” and the hook from Nas’ “The Cross” almost verbatim on “Stigmata”. And, aside from the fact that the flow sounds jarring against the track’s soulful backdrop, it’s punctuated by a Chance the Rapper style croon. The entirety of “Twact” is his poor attempt at doing what YG has done for years. Over the sparse, Mustard-lite production he barely elevates himself above his run-of-the-mill compatriots.

Speaking of compatriots, there’s rarely a feature that adds anything to the record. Rick Ross’ verse sounds like it was written and recorded in between naps and cracking crustaceans. Action Bronson remains hilarious, but his verse doesn’t fit thematically with “Stigmata.” Sadly, on “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude” Lamar sounds as if he’s been listening exclusively to post-Relapse Eminem. His rhymes remain sharp, but his anger is beginning to seem unjustified given the continuous outpourings of praise he receives. Outlining the failures of other features seems like pounding in the nails deeper at this point.

The only silver lining of These Days… is that glimpses of Ab-Soul’s potential shine through. On “Stigmata,” there are occasional lines that smack of the insight displayed on Control System: “Watch with the Internet alone I enlighten the whole globe / That’s Itunes from a nigga with astigmatism.” Then there’s the second half of “W.R.O.H.,” where Soul utilizes much of the clever wordplay lacking throughout the rest of the album. He’s still capable of bending minds and language, but seemingly more interested in talking about it than putting it into practice.

Other reviews of These Days… have been relatively favorable. But rating the album as anything more than a poor and unbalanced attempt at mainstream viability is buying into the Black Hippy mythology that many, myself included, have furthered and want to believe in. When compared to his former work and the rest of Black Hippy, the drop in presentation and performance is abysmal. Positive reinforcement of largely failed attempts like These Days… does not strengthen Black Hippy, it leaves the door open for lesser work. Though it makes me disheartened to write any of the above, These Days… hasn’t made me give up on Ab-Soul. It’s disabused me of my illusions, made me aware that the quartet are far from infallible. Hopefully that wasn’t Ab-Soul’s intended sacrifice. Hopefully, he picks himself up off the cross.

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