Jul 14, 2014

Ab Soul - "These Days" album review by Niles Cavanaugh

So this is how I had an existential crisis while attempting to review Ab-Soul's newest album These Days... for the past couple of weeks.

Going even further back, I was always intrigued by the idea of Ab-Soul as an MC. I caught onto him around the time his second independent album Control System was released. That had a number of good songs, but my mind was blown at the lyrical dexterity he showed on the track ILLuminate. I was slightly disappointed when I didn't get that same feeling with the rest of the album. It was solid, but not captivating. It's also worth mentioning that the four members of TDE supergroup Black Hippy each have their own shtick of sorts. Kendrick Lamar is the regular kid in a violent environment. ScHoolboy Q is the former gangster turned party animal. Jay Rock is the (still active?) gangbanger that can be found in all red. Soulo's thing is apparently conspiracy theories and skepticism heightened by marijuanna and DMT. I personally aren't into conspiracy theories so some of the themes used in his lyrics generally won't connect with me. I also wanted to hear him over more varied beats, as he falls into the modern-day hip-hop pit of using trap beats (almost think dark synths and that ever-present snare drum) but with much more lyrical skill and varied content than your average trap rapper.

So coming into These Days... I was cautiously expecting progression and grown from the Carson, CA spitter. Maybe turn down the almost paranoid theories in his lyrics while simultaneously turning up a more varied beat selection. And it started off well enough. It opened with God's Reign featuring TDE's first lady SZA on a hook that's hauntingly lovely. Soul was very introspective lyrically and clearly wanted to set the tone early. This was easily one of my favorite tracks.

Then we run into a conundrum that has been brought into the world by the advent of social media and new promotion tactics. The next three songs Tree of Life, Hunnid Stax and Dub Sac had already been released via TDE's SoundCloud in previous months. Hunnid Stax featuring label mate ScHoolboy Q, was released fairly recently as a way to get people hyped for the album. The other two were posted months ago. While still all solid tracks, it just feels like they copied and pasted songs onto the album in a rush to get it out. I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you hear too many songs on an album before it drops, it changes how you process the overall project. So even if these three songs were all good, I still got a "been here before" type of vibe.

The next song is actually new and one of the best of the album. World Runners has Soulo channeling his inner Kid Cudi with a spacey vibe, albeit with more rapping. It also features a surprising Lupe Fiasco and his frequent collaborator Nikki Jean on backup vocals. Unfortunately the next three songs are lame. Nevermind That features some dope guitar work on the beat but also is very MMG-centric, even featuring the disgustingly over saturated Rick Ross. TWACT is a party jam featuring a DJ Mustard beat that I think is mediocre. Just Have Fun is the best of the three, a trippy drug journey, but it's still underwhelming. It's like we had to pay for the quality of World Runners with three subpar tracks in a row, as is the industry. Kendrick Lamar's Interlude features a similar jazzy beat by Terrace Martin which is bogarted by K Dot, hence the title. It's companion piece to Ab-Soul's Outro on Kendrick's Section 80 a few years back. THIS IS THE TYPE OF BEAT I WANT TO HEAR SOULO ON!!! It's outside the box and old school. I feel he could have a West Coast rakim-lite type of career if he went more down this route. This is one of my favorites. It's followed by the somber yet spectacular Closure which has Soulo singing for the most part and assisted by Jhene Aiko. I'm not mad at this instance of rapper singing at all. A very necessary change of pace type of track which is followed by Sapiosexual produced by J. Cole. This song was made for the clubs and radio and it shows. Hard. Not amazing. It then flows into another exceptional yet previously heard track Stigmata that has one of my new favorite MC's Action Bronson and also Asaad. It's heavily influenced by The Cross by Nas, although more layered instrumentally. I almost don't care that this song was released already, I still love it. Feelin' Us includes a very smooth vibe and a Jay Rock sighting (or hearing for that matter), which is always welcome. RaVaughn (Ne-Yo's latest Motown and Compound Ent. Signee) sings the hook which adds to the cooled out ambiance of the song. Easily one of the tops songs on the album and also a candidate for a single & video. Ride Slow is the penultimate song, a "spooky," as Soul puts it, song that also includes Danny Brown and Delusional Thomas. At over seven minutes long, it's bloated but still solid if you can sit through it. Speaking of bloated, the album concludes with W.R.O.H. which clocks in at 23 minutes. It's actually a misleading time since it contains a song of regular length that serves as a good finale. it then goes silent and leads to a recorded battle of sorts against Daylyt. This could have easily been a bonus track on a deluxe version or something and doesn't serve much purpose here. I wasn't all that interested in it in the grand scheme of things but it was kinda cool.

So, Ab-Soul delivered a solid album. One thing you'll notice is this album has A LOT of features. I feel like Soulo is good to the point where he doesn't really need that many guest artists. That seems to come with the territory of most modern-day hip-hop albums on major labels. My main conflict is this: Ab-Soul is extremely skilled and talented. Some say he's the best on his label, but around 60% of the time when I hear his own songs, I can't help but want more. I kinda got what I wished for on this album lyrically at least. He stepped away from the conspiracy theories a little bit and made an album that was lighter on terms of lyrical content at least by his standards. I couldn't help but feel sometimes he was trying to somewhat replicate ScHoolboy Q's vibe in hopes of reaching the same (commercial) success. That doesn't necessarliy work because like I said before. These are two different MCs with two different personalities, but what if this was just another side of Ab-Soul that we haven't seen previously? Additionally, I always griped about his selection of the same type of trap-ish beats. I hoped to hear him on more jazz-inspired or sample-heavy beats, but what if that's not him? What if he's doing exactly what is right for his skill set and abilities as an artist and I'm constantly wanting Soulo to fit into my criteria for what a dope MC is? Yeesh. Anyway this is a good album. Not spectacular, and too many cooks can spoil the broth sometimes in terms of guest appearances, but this is a good step forward and knowing Ab-Soul, he can build from this and continue to grow.

Rating: 3.85 out of 5.
Jonathan C. Ramsey
Jonathan C. Ramsey

Multimedia Journalist, Founder and Chief Editor of WTM Host of A-Side B-Side Podcast and more. I like to talk about stuff and write it down. Sometimes to a microphone. Either way, I need you to feel this.

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