Thursday, July 3, 2014

Ab-Soul - These Days Review

TDE's self-appointed domination this year hasn't quite lived up to the hype thus far. The three release this year, Isaiah Rashad's Cilvia, SZA's Z,  & Schoolboy Q's Oxymoron, haven't landed in terms of the quality the famed record label has once been such an advocate for. The former two can be forgiven due to their early development and status in the studio. Schoolboy Q's much-hyped second album however, can not. Lacking in obvious depth and a meaningful subject matter over a cohesive set of songs, Oxymoron felt more like a Pop Rap crossover, appealing to the masses in as many varied way as the Hoover Street rapper could conceive, alienating his die hard fans in the process with trivial mainstream content. Ab-Soul, the pseudo-intellectual rapper, aims to avoid the same pitfalls that Q has faced, substituting however, drugs, girls and fame for his high art, all-seeing third eye messages that come off as eye roll-worthy. While there certainly are numerous instances of these trite, ritualistic messages sewn throughout These Days, there are a decent amount of intriguing, sometimes stunning sequences that come off as memorable as Oxymoron's highest points.

The first thing many see pertaining to These Days, Ab-Soul's second album is its cover. Tastelessly depicting the afro-rapper, weary and bloody, as Jesus reincarnated, carrying his cross across a barren desert. It's not that the message is offensive, it's that many have done it before, including, in much grander fashion, fellow elitist rapper Kanye West. Ab-Soul's apparent 'edginess' is forced and tip-toes a line even he is nervous to pass. His viewpoints often share these same sentiments. Take “I say cuz around Bloods, I say blood around Crips. I'm twisted.” from opener, God's Reign. It's embarrassing and screams of '2edgy4me' meme similarities. Thankfully, while there are many other instances of his self-entitled enlightened quotes, some more laughable than others, Soul brings some seriously clever wordplay and insightful lyrics, all coming from a rapper who's faced more than his fair share of hardships. See the closing 18 minutes, an impromptu battle rap, for Soul's off-the-wall witticisms and World Runners, with fellow spiritual rapper Lupe Fiasco, for a look at the world through a man with limited vision. Unfortunately though, lyrically-speaking in relation to his previous affair Control System, the serious topics are few and far between. The back-to-back Nevermind That & Twact are two prime examples of a rapper whose become far to comfortable with his place, and wealth, within the rap system, choosing to fault it rather than staying true to his roots. It’s unfortunate to because Ab-Soul, for all he’s critiqued about, has one hell of a life story to tell.

In much the same way as Ab-Soul's lyrical ferocity is strictly hit or miss, the production falls under the same umbrella. There's a nice variety to be had here, and it isn't necessarily because of the unusual format of the album, with segments of songs sandwiched at the ends of certain tracks because the artist, and more importantly label, couldn't promote a 20+ song album. It just so happens that when the production quality is at its peak, most creative, and most free-flowing, is when Ab-Soul is too. Mac Miller's beat-making alias Larry Fisherman pulls in a stunning exposition of top-notch sound distribution over the grimy, eery Ride Slow, which is comprised of two separate entities, each their own monster. It's here that, corny lines about fossils aside, we get Ab-Soul at his most creative, especially when paired with eccentric rapstar Danny Brown. And finally, the dramatic centerpiece on These Days, which only leaves the heart-driven listener thirsting for more, Closure. Once again, we're guided by miraculous production, which masters the art of simplicity and drives home Soul's message and emotion that much more, finally coming to terms with the catastrophic death of his then-girlfriend, Alori Joh.

The same formula applies to the second half of Just Have Fun. While the track itself remains one of the most enjoyable listens on the record, it’s the bottom portion that really captures lightning in a bottle, reciting an old gospel hymn over a live acoustic guitar that evokes such pain and emotion, something a large portion of These Days is either actively avoiding, or painfully missing. This is, regrettably, These Days’ biggest downfall; Ab-Soul’s avoidance of serious issues regarding his intriguing life in lieu of regurgitated topics of conversation in the rap community. Some have proposed that Soul’s intention was to mimic mainstream Hip-Hop, thus turning the album into a parody of sorts. While I see their intention, the motive just isn’t there. There’s no overall message to be had, no grand statement about the potential pitfalls in rap he’s impersonating, and it just honestly feels as if this was the record the Carson native wanted to make. While many of the tracks labor between decent and good, some great, I can’t say the same for the album as a whole, which, more than any other inclination, would mean that this would have faired better as a mixtape; a record devoid of a demanding subject matter, intended to release un-attached songs collectively. Just look at Dub Sac as a microcosm to the album. On one end we have a track about weed, on the other a look at the streets, neither in relation, sonically nor lyrically, and that is what most of the album relegates to.

As a mixtape, Ab-Soul’s These Days is one of the best of the year. As an album, it’s one of the least cohesive, with not a touch of meaning for the piece as a whole. Following the record’s conclusion I was left wondering what exactly he was trying to get across, if anything, especially thanks to the towering messages presented on the cover. He wants us to compare him to Jesus, yet he raps about money, drugs and hoes, while simultaneously stating he’s better and above all that ludicrous behavior? It’s hard to take the TDE affiliate seriously when, in one song he’s damn-near crying over the loss of his long-time girlfriend to suicide, opening up emotionally to all of us, bearing the burden, yet follows that with Sapiosexual, with its chorus “let me fuck your mind,” spilling over the speakers as the listeners are attempting to gather their feelings from the previous. More than anything else, or at the very least, Ab-Soul gave us a handful of tracks this year that can be relished, whilst littering the gaps with filler of nonsensical content that amounts to nothing more than adding to the cover’s distasteful message.  

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