opinion byDREW MALMUTH
Since releasing Control System, and establishing himself as an adept practitioner of TDE's conscientious/vicious aesthetic, Ab-Soul has maintained that he doesn't pay attention to expectations. As the familiar Rap trope goes, he's just going to “do him.” He observed in a recent interview that “in being a man, if you aren't comfortable being yourself you should try to work on that.” Being yourself and doing what others expect of you is very often the same thing but, based on These Days..., Ab-Soul is better than most at parsing the two influences. In observing the tendencies of his label mates, one might have expected Ab-Soul to drop an album that refocused his strengths, isolating and juxtaposing his incisive wordplay and woozy revelry into a statement of purpose. But These Days... says to hell with that conceptual packaging. Ab-Soul has said that the recording process was focused on him doing what he wanted to do. Against all odds, it seems to be just that. With Good Kid and Oxymoron, the writing was on the wall in terms of what was to be delivered. Ab-Soul hasn't followed suit. Still, there is not an unfettered path between individuality and achievement. He may not have conformed to what people expected, but that decision is as interesting as it is problematic.
Around pockets of the brilliance that Ab-Soul is capable of, the majority of the album finds a comfortable but less than enthralling sweet spot. Ab-Soul has said that in the album “there will be a lot of references to the vibe of today, the sound of today and the subject matter of today.” He delivers in that regard, offering a vibrant selection of contemporary hip-hop touchstones: gauzy beats built from well-crafted synth lines; sprawling, bedroom R&B inflected choruses; guest verses from the likes of Action Bronson, Danny Brown, and Earl Sweatshirt. The album's “capturing the current vibe” approach also gives Ab-Soul free reign to follow his tendencies toward pastiche and reinterpretation. He's clearly a hip-hop nerd, still pointing to Canibus as an early influence and still reformulating his own lines into new contexts (“I ain't got no gavel” and other call-backs abound). He has made an album that allows him to swerve between playful homages to hyphy (“TWACT”) and atmospheric love ruminations (“Closure”), all the while tucking vicious lines alongside flips of Drake (“niggas talk more than bitches these days/ and the new drugs got a nigga trippy these days"). This grab-bag approach to album construction is arguably at the heart of TDE's early work. Ab-Soul has stuck with it, and he has watched his label-mates embrace tight conceptual albums while pushing past him into the spotlight. Ab-Soul is right to stick to his proclivities, but his resolution does not save These Days... from its inconsistencies.
After the solid opener “God's Reign,” the next portion of the album feels sluggish. It'd be wrong to immediately criticize “Hunnid Stax” for fetishizing money (when people who aren't rappers do it we call it initiative), but it's unfortunate that the subject is worked out in an uninteresting way over a boilerplate beat. “Dub Sac” starts to tap into some of the subtle energy that made Control System a rewarding repeat listen. But it runs up against “World Runners” and “TWACT” – two tedious cuts that see Ab-Soul stepping resolutely out of the spotlight. It's a misstep, especially considering that the album has its revelatory moments when Ab-Soul takes control of the creative direction. “Nevermind That” sports an unremarkable beat, but Ab's verse turns the affair into a dizzying spectacle. He notes that he is “the one to blame for fucking up the frame of mind/ of many minds/ but might I mind you these are minor things.” “Just Have Fun” is the most successful realization of Ab-Soul's playful virtuosity. The first half explodes in various directions, bouncing in and out of a stuttering beat from Like and Blended Babies. Then the final section (“These Days...” on the Deluxe Edition) kicks in and, over an uplifting, soulful break, Ab-Soul unleashes a twisted moment of passion. The rest of the album has flashes of this captivating segment – Ab's verse on “Stigmata”, Kendrick's interlude, “Ride Slow” – but the moment ultimately serves more as an example of what Ab-Soul can do than a representation of what he has done.
These Days... may be most striking in the sense that it's not particularly striking. With Kendrick in the world of Kanyes and Drakes and Schoolboy Q trying to catch up, Ab-Soul's scope is noticeably understated. All the better, some might say, and generally they would be right. But These Days... isn't the kind of sharp-to-the-touch effort that one associates with excellent rappers who eschew the mainstream. Gone are some of the lines that made Ab-Soul into a fully-formed human being: “Labels callin for everybody except for me/ like I ain't got the recipe/ like this ain't my destiny/ you know how much my family expect from me/ especially considering I'm literally chasing a dream.” He appears in fits and starts, keeping the album afloat when it starts to sag. Ab-Soul likely has his reasons for wanting to “loosen up a bit” and avoid a “concept-driven perspective.” But These Days... doesn't make any of them clear. It's the start of a conversation; and one can only hope that he plans on finishing it. B