On his 2012 album Control System, Ab-Soul had a song with Danny Brown called “Terrorist Threats.” It featured Jhene Aiko’s vocals whispering in the background and a synth that was softer than linen. The vocals, on the other hand, were anything but soft. Ab-Soul made reference to everything from Babylon and Hitler causing 9/11 to Obama’s false control on the country with a conviction that almost made you believe him. It was the type of song a conspiracy theorist waits his entire life to be able to force upon anyone who would listen. It was the perfect song for TDE’s neurotic outsider; its self-proclaimed “abstract asshole.”
“Terrorist Threats” seems like a long time ago while listening to These Days… though. Ab’s traded in his bars on government corruption and scathing critiques of society for more lighthearted tropes like his love for substances and whatever the hell getting “twacted” is. Rapping about this kind of subject matter isn’t inherently bad; countless rappers have made successful and critically acclaimed careers out of it. But for one of Hip Hop’s most revered nerds on one of Hip Hop’s most cerebral new labels, it feels like a step back.
You can’t really blame the guy for switching things up this go-round. 2012 was a long time ago. TDE was still on its come-up, regardless of how meteoric a rise it was. On Control System, Ab was in a much different place, still concerned with financial stability and his rapping prowess. Nowadays, he’s earned his stripes, gained a few fans and stacks along the way. In 2014, you can’t really blame Soul for wanting to have fun with them he just should have just gone about it in a different way. Rather then sitting back with a joint and expanding his mind like he used to, now he’s tripping on lean and partying in the club, which isn’t the best environment for a guy who once said he “rise(s) like Lazarus.”
That’s not to say These Days… is necessarily a bad album. While rapping primarily about partying and so on, Ab-Soul’s head is still filled with weird info and races faster than he can rap. His topics may be slightly more banal than before, but the way he raps about them is as captivating as ever. On one of the most forgettable tracks on the album, “Feelin’ Us” featuring Jay Rock and Ravaughn, he still manages to interpolate a Chief Keef hook (more on this later) and reference Toto. But what made his previous work so interesting were the glimpses we could get into his scatterbrained psyche. Multitudes of theories, opinions and judgments were thrown in your face at every turn. Here, Ab’s on guard. His personality is on hold to make way for his dollars. The only track that peers into his personal life, “Closure,” is by and far the best here. “I know it’s getting hard to think about me / I know it’s hard to see me on the TV,” he sings to his deceased ex-girlfriend, Alori Joh, and his current girlfriend. It’s a tear-jerker. He raps slowly, enunciating every syllable like it hurts. It’s a beautiful eulogy for the former, and a loving thank you to the latter.
The rest of the songs here follow a copy and paste aesthetic. Get a hype beat, snag a hot rapper, spit about bitches and brew. Copy, paste, repeat. Rick Ross brags about his empire, Action Bronson makes ludicrous claims that, while amusing as ever, just don’t belong. The other three TDE heavyweights make appearances, but outside of Kendrick Lamar’s balls out interlude (a callback to Ab-Soul’s own solo track on Section.80), even they are afterthoughts. Jay Rock lets you know how dope he is, Schoolboy lets you know how much dope he’s sold. There’s nothing new there. The lowest points come on songs like “Twact,” “Stigmata” and “Ride Slow” as well as the aforementioned “Feelin’ Us” where Ab borrows liberally from the likes of YG’s “BPT,” Nas’ “The Cross,” 2Pac’s “Hail Mary” and Keef’s “Love Sosa.” He uses almost verbatim lines from these hooks in the respective tracks. Copy, paste, repeat. It’s one thing to pay homage or show your influences, but when you have to do it on a third of the album, it starts to look like more of a crutch.
The track “Sapiosexual” begins with a vocal cut of someone saying, “Great minds fuck each other.” There’s no argument that Ab-Soul is a great and singular mind. It’s just a shame he doesn’t put it on display a little more. Ab-Soul’s unwillingness to show his full range on These Days… makes for an uncommon letdown from such a talented individual.
Overall – 6
out of 10
Source: Kevin Nottingham