There was a strange amount of secrecy revolving around Ab-Soul’s new album These Days…, to the extent that the Los Angeles rapper was still hosting listening parties and clarifying his independent label status the weekend before the album’s release. Coming off critical acclaim behind his last full-length, Control System, and the recent launch to superstardom of his Black Hippy-collaborators Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q with Interscope albums in a (widely misreported) deal with Top Dawg Entertainment, the hype doesn’t seem off-base. But it is noteworthy that this is not an Interscope release like Lamar’s and Schoolboy’s, and likewise, some of the hype has featured undertones of fear that These Days… might be D.O.A.
Though it is a “lowly indie rap album,” the actual product looks, sounds and feels like an event. Spanning 15 songs and nearly 90 minutes, These Days…, which Ab-Soul has explained simply is meant to reflect his current life experiences, is stuffed with high-profile features and producers who push the boundaries of good taste like the cast of Ocean’s 13. These include: Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller (whose home provided the setting for much of the recording), Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Purity Ring, J Cole, Action Bronson, Isaiah Rashad, Danny Brown, Jhené Aiko, Lupe Fiasco, SZA, Joey Bada$$, Rick Ross, Puff Daddy and a sample of Lana Del Rey. And it isn’t just the cast that extends the album’s attempted reach, but These Days… comes complete with a glut of styles and tones to appeal to both fans of Ab-Soul’s self-proclaimed “genius idiot” flow and commercially viable diversions.
The latter category features “Twact,” a druggy, boozy and more druggy anthem that has a sophomoric appeal aimed at the casual suburban rap listener, complete with a Slick Rick tag for good measure. “Feelin’ Us” needs no further explanation than its uninspired title, while “Closure” offers up a rare sung hook, just weird enough (a Shlomo sample that gives it that woozy, slow-motion quality) to complicate chances the song has for taking off. The album begins with polarizing elements competing against each other in the same song, a theme that holds throughout the entirety, down to a concluding near-half-hour of unneeded banter.
Much has been made over the album cover and its equating Ab-Soul with Jesus, something that only makes slight sense when you are at Kanye West’s heights, and even then, more people hate him for it than love him for it. On “Kendrick Lamar Interlude,” it is clear which TDE affiliate could get away with such an album cover, though Lamar is getting angry to the point of self-parody, as if trying to be rap’s R. Lee Emery or Sam Kinison. Jokes aside, Lamar’s return of the favor, to mirror “Ab-Soul’s Outro” contribution on his Section.80, gives the kind of continuity between the labelmates that allows larger possibilities, whether to create a movement or a mythology.
But Ab-Soul has also noted that there isn’t some kind of hidden meaning or overall connectivity beyond the song’s space and time; thus you get songs spanning from goofy asides about “fucking your mind” side-by-side with vulnerable and honest soul-searching (pun intended but only to mimic Ab-Soul’s similar puns). Just examining the three opening songs and where they begin versus how they end, Ab-Soul’s gift and his biggest hurdle are one and the same. These songs all jest by the time they finish, bits that include coughing from weed, the words “Soul-ution” and “Soulutely,” and a short spoken message from Puff Daddy. These days, there is almost always as much reason to be thinking deeply as there is to escape. That Ab-Soul tries to do both makes for a pretty entertaining ride, even when he technically falters. Ambition changes the definition of success, making this Ab-Soul record a better experience that can be picked apart.