Ab-Soul has long held a reputation in Hip-Hop for being an abundantly mindful and highly introspective artist. These attributes have been prominently showcased on his outside the box projects such as “Long Term Mentality” and, most notably, “Control System”. The latter was Soul’s debut album, which he released via Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) around a time when the independent label was gathering some of its best early talent.
“The Book of Soul”, one particularly important song off Soul’s debut told the rapper’s story with both eloquence and grit while other tracks like “Pineal Gland” and “Terrorist Threats” showed him in the thick of his trademark fascination with the human conscious, experimental use of psychedelic drugs and an all-around unwillingness to conform to the status quo.
This time period was pivotal in the rapper’s career and has been dissected both in regards to his singularity as a musician as well as his role in TDE’s rise alongside prominent artists such as ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock and, of course, Kendrick Lamar. Nevertheless, this early leg of Soul’s career by no means explains his full story, one that is remarkable and that his newest effort “Herbert” shows he is all but finished telling.
Ab-Soul has stated that in the time leading up to “Herbert” he experienced heavy bouts of mental ailments such as depression and other internal struggles that brought him to his very breaking point. While many of the songs on his newest album were said to have been recorded during these difficult times, some also came during a time of relative relief for the rapper. Regardless of what songs materialized when, this album does not feel like a mix of different ideas and feelings bundled together into one loose package.
Rather, for the most part, the flow of “Herbert” feels natural. More confident and exuberant-feeling tracks boost the project from one section to the next while comparatively more difficult ones such as “Do Better”, challenge the upbeat moods of the record in such a way that not only gives it balance but also shows an emotional range that is surely appropriate for all that the artist has been through.
This approach rivals that of “Do What Thou Wilt” and its predecessor “These Days…”, both records that, while certainly possessing their own level of topical study and skillful proficiency, and both of which stand firm as strong albums (particularly in the case of “These Days…”), did not quite bring the listener into the rapper’s true mindset. Instead, these projects dug around said mindset to merely reveal its more outward appearance and perhaps even a mirage of what could have really been seen if Soul had taken further steps into exploring many of the more interesting aspects of these works.
On “Herbert”, Ab-Soul gives listeners an eighteen track album that comes off as sincere, purposeful and uncovered. He begins the album with “Message in a Bottle”, a song that is immediately reflective, both from his inward perspective as well as from the way others view him – or at least how he perceives them to.
With lines such as, “First they love me, then they hate me, then they love me again”, and recordings from “The Joe Budden Podcast” (Rory and Mal era) placed in the track to help describe how Hip-Hop as a whole views Soul, “Message in a Bottle” accentuates one aspect of the artist’s self-perception.
As he looks inward again, perhaps more intentionally this time, Soul speaks on his struggles with self-doubt, feelings of insufficiency and more in a clear, vulnerable way on “Do Better” when he raps,
“Lord forgive me, amen
Wear the crown of thorns for sport
I’m just waitin’ for a stone to hit me
Relationship on the rocks, my family all concerned
My homie still on the block, gettin’ it off the the curb
I’m stricken by survivor’s guilt, I’m gettin’ it off of words
Come on, Herb”
Soul also reflects on the reclusive state of mind his troubles have cast him into with the line, “Hidin’ from the same world that made me who I am” which he follows with a sentiment of a depressive episode, saying, “Deep rest, can’t even get out of bed.”
This track, undoubtedly the darkest on the album, also references Soul’s late friend and collaborator Mac Miller as well as the loss of Doeburger, the latter of whom was someone closest to Soul and whose passing is a frequent topic on “Herbert”.
On “Gang’Nem”, Soul professes his dedication to those he loves and came up with, both living and deceased. The beat on this track features sweet, old style backing instrumentals placed on top of a sample that has been morphed into a slow, curving whine and slow paced drums. It is an ode to loyalty and features bars such as, “Since a young’in I’ve been on some ride or die shit / I got secrets I’ma die with.”
Tracks like “FOMF”, “Hollandaise” and “Church on the Move” all bring a more energetic, braggadocious and at times celebratory tone to the album as Soul commands the mic with sharp flows and ample attitude. Aided by able and often high-flying production these songs not only balance the mood of the record but essentially tip the scales toward making this a more tall-standing record all around.
“Herbert” is ultimately a view of one man’s heavy burdens and difficulties surrounded by declarations of overcoming. This album is not only a testament to hope and strength, it is at its core a robust and competitive feature from an artist who is all but down and out.