Ab Soul’s last album, Do What Thou Will dropped in 2016. In the real world, six years is a long time, especially considering these six years. But in hip-hop, six years often feels like 15. The game changes so frequently that questions about Ab’s emcee status aren’t out of bounds. Herbert, his latest offering, has a lot of pressure on its metaphorical shoulders as it represents a post-Kendrick Lamar era for Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). It hurts to lose your best rapper, but one imagines it feels like a thousand beestings all at once when said rapper is one of the greatest of all time.
Luckily for the TDE, and more importantly for Ab-Soul, Herbert (out Friday, December 16th) shows he’s more than capable of putting the record label on his back and chiseling his name in hip-hop’s upper echelon. Putting it simply, Herbert reminds everyone that when it comes to rapping, Ab-Soul is a problem.
The album starts with a loving voicemail from Ab’s grandmother, which plays into the album’s focus on the man behind the rap name: Herbert Anthony Stevens IV. Ab’s vulnerability as an emcee works to his favor here, as he combines his insightfulness with incredibly clever wordplay. “Getting loaded to the point I ain’t controlling myself/ Couple grams and I’m on the Gram trolling myself/ Like, get a hold of yourself, gotta get over myself/ This message in a bottle ain’t gon’ open itself.”
And that’s just the opening track. Making astute self-observations while maintaining that poetic edge isn’t as easy as Ab makes it sound on “Message in a Bottle” or any of the following 17 tracks. Ab talks about failed relationships, self-doubt, dreams fulfilled, dreams deferred, his inner conflict with religion, California city streets, and he even admonishes other rappers while keeping his skills at the forefront.
Some prefer simplicity in their rap music, plain speaking, and simple cadences over poetic license and devices. But that’s not Ab’s modus operandi. Even on biographical tracks like “Hollandaise” where he remembers what it felt like doing freestyles in Blackplanet chatrooms (to kids reading this: ask your parents or older siblings), he never makes it easy on the listener. Does that have potential drawbacks? Of course. Ab acknowledges those potential pitfalls on “Moonshot”: “I decorate my emotions in metaphors/ Tell stories with allegories so on, so forth/ But who gives a shit? The long-lost lyricist/ N****s got rich talkin’ nonsense, get yours.”
“Get yours.” Anyone concerned with Ab-Soul’s fulfillment as a rapper or as a man, look no further than those two words. They carry a lot of weight throughout the album. Herbert finds the rapper so comfortable in his own skin that he replaces rapping with Auto-Tuned crooning on “Positive Vibes Only.” It’s the only detour on an album created for bar fiends, and it’s definitely a risk. It’s not Ab’s first time experimenting, so while it’s not out of place for him, it stands out like Batman running across a dock while holding a giant bomb.