Talib Kweli is a widely acclaimed hip-hop artist and activist. A former member of the legendary hip-hop trio Black Star, as well as Idle Warship and the duo Reflection Eternal, he has collaborated with Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Norah Jones and Neil Gaiman, among many others. Kweli is the founder of the Javotti Media label, which released his sixth solo album Gravitas in February 2014. You can follow him on Twitter here and his website is here.
Every once in a while a hip-hop collective takes the world by storm and reminds us that power does indeed come in numbers. I recall how DMX, Eve and the Lox used to push each other creatively in the Ruff Ryder heyday, or the focus of Roc-A-Fella Records became laser-sharp when State Property and Dipset were brought into the fold. West coast legends like Snoop, Kurupt, Daz, Rage and RBX paid homage to the sour of their city, but still had BARS. In fact, the first incarnation of Death Row cast a huge shadow over LA hip-hop that was hard to break out from under for years. Enter Top Dawg Entertainment.
When I was signed to Warner Brothers, Jay Rock was my labelmate. I got to see how the Top Dawg crew moved back then, and I was impressed. A couple of years later, a pre-Interscope Kendrick Lamar visited my home studio with LA group U-N-I, and I knew he was a force to be reckoned with. However, my son, 16 years old at the time, said that Ab-Soul was the member of TDE that he really liked. In fact, when Ab-Soul and Jay Rock stopped by to record with me one night, my son was starstruck. He wanted to hang out in the studio but there was far too much weed smoke in the air.
My son got me into Ab-Soul, and the mixtape Longterm 2: Lifestyles of the Broke & Almost Famous was my favorite project. Soulo was able to exist in the industry and see the world with Kendrick, yet somehow maintain his everyman presence on every track. What set him apart was how much he refused to stunt, and his focus on the similarities between himself and regular folks rather than the differences. I was interested to see how that would play out once people start checking for Ab-Soul more and he has a bigger roll-out. Schoolboy got a chance to have his moment. Ab-Soul would be next.
Ab-Soul is an important lyricist. When I told him that his song “Terrorist Threats“ with Jhene and Danny Brown was being used to motivate Dream Defenders in Florida, he beamed with pride. He told me that injecting messages into music that people turn up to was his mission, and he wastes no time doing that on his new album These Days… On the first track “God Will Reign ft. TDE’s SZA,“ he mixes lyrics about having “your lady with literature in her Louis bag” with lyrics about how big his girl‘s tits are. Ab-Soul is more yin and yang than good and bad, and you can hear him sincerely trying to take these gangsters to church.
The second song, “Tree of Life,“ continues the airy, sparse vibe, and Soulo raps about being content to sell out the small downtown Manhattan club SOB‘s and chill in Time Square with his crew, which, as an MC from NY, I can appreciate. By the time “Hunnid Stax ft. Schoolboy Q“ comes on, it’s not only clear that the tracks were chosen because they had the right amount of room for us to truly experience Ab-Soul‘s high pitched melodies, but that Soulo is most comfortable on tracks featuring the support of his immediate circle.
As much as Ab-Soul refers to things like pineal glands and third eyes, he also refers to drug use. His music accurately reflects a generation that grew up doing heavier drugs than my generation did, a generation that realizes things absolutely need to change but may be popping too many pills to actually do something about it. The conflict in Soulo’s lyrics is the constant wish to change the world and check out of it at the same time. This is not a personal criticism; the best art does a great job of exploring our inner demons and contradictions, and this is what makes Ab-Soul a compelling MC.
In the running for my favorite song on the project is “World Runners ft. Lupe Fiasco.“ Lupe is a passionate MC who brings out the best in those on the track with him, and even though his verse is simple, he is not slouching, it is a studied simplicity. I also like when Ab-Soul is not scared to sing.
“Twact ft. Jinx and Short Dawg“ is a requisite LA club single in the style of DJ Mustard. Other than Soulo being from LA (Carson), this song didn’t fit this album to me. Soulo is not rhyming about things he never rhymed about before on this record, but as a fan this is not the record I come to Ab-Soul for. Any halfway decent MC in LA can do a record like this proficiently, I want more from Ab-Soul. But hey, this may end up being one of his biggest songs ever, so what do I know? This will probably be one of my favorite songs once I hear it in the club environment a few times, you know how that go.
It’s the small things that Ab-Soul holds onto that make me love him as an artist. He’s not flashy, he has his own uniform look, he turned his nickname into a catch phrase and he insists you do not forget the hyphen in his name. He turned his vision problems into part of his repertoire by rapping about them honestly: “It makes sense I take interest in the third eye, due to my lack of sight, I guess it‘s a sacrifice.” But running throughout that song, which is called “Just Have Fun,” he also has Juicy J-style ad-libs like “shake that ass, ho.” Soulo wants you turned up for the movement. This is clarity of vision, and when this clarity is his focus is when he shines the most.
“Kendrick’s Interlude“ features a searing, chest-thumping verse from K Dot himself, with Ab-Soul adding a refrain of “life’s in a traffic jam.” This song is straight-up spoken word by young MCs, and it is truly refreshing. The track is certainly more jazz than hip-hop, complete with a great saxophone solo that’s more Grover Washington, Jr. than Kenny G. I’m proud of Soulo for having the fortitude to go beyond hip-hop on this album — people need to hear the entire canon of black music in our art more often. This is the song I would play for hip-hop fogeys who feel like the newer generation has nothing to offer. If Ab-Soul is already thinking like this, imagine where he will be in 10 years.
On “Closure, ft. Jhene Aiko,“ Ab-Soul shows us his sensitive side, and like Kendrick rapping about Sherane, he raps very intimately about a personal relationship. Singing things like “I liked you better when you didn’t like me” he sounds like a stoned Prince, with Jhene providing light background support rather than a hook-verse-hook format. “Sapio Sexual“ is a bit more pimpish than“Closure.” The track has a sparse Dr. Dre-mixed-with-Timbaland feel, and Soulo delivers verses that are half “Mind Sex“ by Dead Prez and half “Talk Like Sex“ by Kool G Rap. These combinations actually work real well.
“Feelin‘ Us ft. Jay Rock“ began to replace “World Runners“ as my favorite song the moment I heard it, and this is the type of album that will have you switching like this constantly. The track sounds very ’90s r&b, which somehow makes it very timely, and Ab-Soul and Jay Rock go off. This song is another example of how Ab-Soul sounds most comfortable around his TDE cohorts. I related to his stories of tour life here and I immediately wanted to hear what a Jay Rock album with a huge roll-out would sound like. Jay Rock has never slacked on a guest spot.
The songs featuring Action Bronson and Danny Brown (“Stigmata,“ “Ride Slow“) are slow, dark and serious. The beats are designed for you to focus on the bars, and the bars are vicious. This entire project is spaced-out and grounded, sloppy and tight, conscious and ratchet, all at the same time. It’s a very delicate balance but Ab-Soul has proven to be determined to walk that tightrope, and for that I salute him. You can’t be all things to all people, but if you are good at being yourself, everyone can find their own piece of you to relate to.
I wrote this not as a reviewer, but as a fan of Ab-Soul. As a musician, I feel I have the most right to critique other people’s music, but the least incentive to. I am interested in expression, not analytics. However, I hope my two cents will encourage you to give this album a chance if you were on the fence about it. Ab-Soul is just getting started, and when it’s all said and done he will be one of our powerful voices. Get on board now.