Barbershop deliberation has broadened its conversational arc in recent years, temporarily laying rest to the Kobe-or-LeBron debates and the mysterious absence of Tim Duncan in exchange for who’s the best MC in TDE? Kendrick, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, or Ab-Soul? Close scrutiny of the anatomy of many crews past will reveal rotten cesspools of yes-men, and nepotism. But Soulo is no Silkk The Shocker, although most would readily describe him as offbeat, a MC known for freely spanning the entirety of human civilization in his subject matter; From Moses to Moscato, slavery to Sativa, politics to the pineal gland.
The only thing that delves deeper than Ab-Soul is his rabid fan base, which is why the Internet came within earshot of spontaneously combusting when rumors of conflict within the TDE fortress surfaced, commencing when Soulo threatened to leak These Days… material early. “You can’t rush greatness” is what Top Dawg tweeted, only to be met with 140 characters of acrimony why TDE CEO was throwing shade on Ab’s long-awaited parade. “SOULOs work needs to be out” barked @TheHosht. “Give the people a taste then!” belted @EssayasAbraham. Metaphorical rifles in hand, the #LetAbCook war campaign went into full swing, finally deaded when the fans were given a Twitter treaty by way of being assigned with picking the release date: June 24 they decided.
And soon “Stigmata” dropped, the shot heard around the world. Brimming with Ab’s trademark self-confidence, the song is both momentous in appeal as well as scope. In retrospect, the song was prophetic of what was to come with These Days…. First lady of TDE, SZA, joins Ab in the launching festivities, and her crawling vocals on “God’s Reign” mesh well with Soulo’s imaginative wordplay. Working within his default state, every word issued is simply a window to higher meaning, every bar seemingly the output of a notebook meticulously slaved over and slashed with red stigmata-stained ink. Same story for “Tree of Life,” where Ab sidesteps the tired route to punchline excellence in favor of nifty rhymes that sometimes breeze past even the most scholarly dome at times.
For all of their thematic differences, ScHoolboy Q and Soulo are rivaled by few in terms of chemistry, and “Hunnid Stax” is a welcome résumé addition for a tandem known for esteemed bangers like “Druggys Wit Hoes” and “SOPA.” Q is the guardian demon that allows the self-proclaimed righteous man to tap into the more devilish and materialistic aspects of his being. However, fellow Black Hippy official Jay Rock aids Ab in the much more memorable “Feelin Us,” an instant laid-back Sunday afternoon anthem perfect for whip excursions.
Although fans reserved great expectations when they read Lupe Fiasco’s name on the official tracklisting, “World Runners” is a gratifying experience. Linking up with longtime collaborator Tae Beast, Ab scorches through different flow schemes before finally handing the baton to Lupe for a well-orchestrated victory lap. While many will not be shocked that the Lupe collab will reign in plenty of votes for best track on the album, “Nevermind That,” featuring Rick Ross may less likely until the play button is hit. In quite the most unlikely of collabos, the song is a persuasive argument that Soulo is not simply a product of the TDE machine, but a standalone, elastic artist who is not enslaved by comfort zones.
Through the extent of his previous releases, Soulo donned the disposition of an artist alienated from the ever-changing whims of listeners while padlocked to his own creative headspace. Control System was a brilliant balancing act of black-lipped intellect and righteous party anthems, but most importantly, all USDA organic certified. For the most part, These Days… remains faithful to custom, but on songs like “Twact,” Soulo is caught adrift in an artificial lane as he flounders alongside DYNC3’s terrible DJ Mustard impression. J. Cole hands over one of his most generic-sounding beats on “Sapiosexual,” and Soulo provides little in which to salvage it. His attempt to reel in more casual female listeners with twerk-happy rhymes while keeping his street disciples in tow, are unsuccessful in both regards. It is these rare misses that slightly drag down instant winners like “Ride Slow” and prevent Ab from securing the second XXL rating for his squad.
Ab’s creative leaps are sometimes jarring at the onset, such as “Closure” featuring Jhené Aiko, a track that will be deeply unsettling to the National Association of Backpacker Excellence among others. He trades witty rhyming for harmonizing about a strained relationship, nonetheless the track is a refreshing reminder not only of his extensive musical gifts, but his ability to relay his personal struggles with everyman appeal.
Ultimately, criticism for These Days… will revolve around a somewhat dumbed down realm compared to what fans are accustomed to in Ab’s material. But Soulo is thinking long-term, and if he continues to release profound, well-rounded material, his name will no doubt be included in Top Five Lists across the board. “W.R.O.H.” caps things off with a bang, and after the music quiets down Ab goes a round with battle-rap king Daylyt. Daylyt puts up an impressive fight, but Ab’s astonishing, how-did-he-think-of-that wordplay is thrilling to say the least. Though Ab used Jay Z lyrics to decode his verses on “Stigmata,” he may someday not only succeed in his personal quest to run laps around Hov, but rivaling his hero’s catalog as well.—Kellan Miller