My Own Lane
It took two years of waiting in the wings and watching his TDE labelmates soar on the charts for Ab-Soul to deliver a new album. Is it finally his time to step into the spotlight?
Words Dan Rys
Images Tom Medvedich

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of XXL Magazine.

The sun shines brightly on Ab-Soul as he steps out of the Google offices in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood with a big smile on his face. The Top Dawg Entertainment artist has just been told that his album These Days..., which came out this day, just reached No. 1 on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart. Ab couldn’t be happier.

Wearing his ever-present pitch-black sunglasses with his long bushy hair pulled back under a camouflage baseball cap, a white tee and faded blue jeans, Soul lights up a Newport and heads up Ninth Avenue. A large black SUV waits up the street to take Soul, his girlfriend, model Yaris Sanchez, TDE Co-President Dave Free and TDE’s director of digital media back to the Mondrian SoHo hotel, where he has a few hours of down time before more interviews clog up his schedule again. The midday Manhattan traffic mirrors the hectic solo press run Ab’s been on while promoting his third album. This is something he hasn’t done since the release of his last LP, the critically acclaimed Control System, which dropped in May 2012 on TDE. That LP announced Ab as not just a dope MC but also as one of the next big hip-hop artists to come from Top Dawg.

In the past two years Ab, 27, has watched several of his TDE labelmates and Black Hippy group members achieve solo success while he’s toiled away on his own project and recorded a slew of guest appearances. After some public ups-and-downs, Ab finally released These Days... to positive reviews and a No. 1 spot on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart. But is that enough for the soulful MC?

ab-soul xxl magazine feature these days
Photo Credit: Tom Medvedich

Although he was born in Los Angeles, in Los Angeles, Ab-Soul, a.k.a. Herbert Stevens IV, and his folks moved to Germany where his father was stationed in the military. By the age of five, Ab’s parents had divorced and he and his mom had moved to Carson, Calif., to live with his grandparents, who helped raise Ab and his baby sister.

A stern disciplinarian, Ab’s mom remarried about seven years after the return to California. His stepfather was a builder and used to show young Herbert how to lay tile and get his hands dirty. Ab’s father, who moved back to L.A. a few years after the divorce, was never very close with his son. “I’d see him here and there,” Ab says earlier while walking around Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood before heading to Google. “He came to my graduation, stuff like that. My mom kicked me out one time, and she took me to go stay with him for a second. That was very interesting. But I never had any resentment towards him, probably because I had father figures already.”

While growing up, Ab’s grandfather and great uncle owned a series of record stores in the L.A. area including the famed V.I.P. Records in Long Beach, immortalized in Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” video in 1993. Soul was essentially raised in one of the shops, Magic Disc, on E. University Drive in Carson, where his mother was the manager. She had a cradle in the shop for her kids. (Magic Disc closed down in 2011 and V.I.P.’s flagship Long Beach location downsized to a smaller location in 2012.)

It was at Magic Disc that Ab was able to get his hands on early Eminem and DMX albums. Soul would then pick up most of his hip-hop knowledge from his friends, reciting the verses to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Crossroads” at school and writing his first rap to the beat and flow of Twista’s “Emotions” at the age of 12. But two years prior, in the fifth grade, Ab-Soul contracted Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a condition that nearly killed him before doctors could stop it from spreading. “In the morning when I woke up, I couldn’t open my eyes,” he says of that first day contracting the disease. “It felt like there was paper on my face, like my face was melting.”

Steroids helped him gain back the weight he lost but made his cheeks chubby. The skin on his lips grew back darker, hence his self-proclaimed nickname “Black Lip Pastor.” He’s had a series of surgeries on his eyes, causing him to wear sunglasses with the eventual inevitability of a cornea transplant in the future. “I felt like all that helped me build character and confidence in myself,” Soul says of his “peculiar” physique.

Rather than feeling sorry for himself, the fledgling rhymer found reprieve as a teenager on BlackPlanet, one of the earliest African-American social networking sites, which featured forums and chat rooms where Ab type-battled with other aspiring MCs. Around the same time he met and recorded with Mark Spears, a local producer who made beats on a PlayStation.

As a senior in high school, Soul decided to pursue rapping more seriously and signed a deal with Street Beat Entertainment shortly after graduation in 2005. He also took a jab at higher education, briefly attending two different community colleges, Harbor College and El Camino College, before losing interest and deciding to focus completely on rapping. Over the next two years Ab grinded away at his music career until 2007, when he reconnected with Spears, who had recently moved to Carson. Spears, now known as Sounwave, had been working with the then-bubbling L.A. hip-hop label Top Dawg, which was also based out of Carson. Sounwave brought his old buddy to meet TDE Co-President Terrence “Punch” Henderson and soon signed on with the fledgling TDE movement. “I had a good conversation with Punch,” Soul says of that first meeting with TDE. “I came back the next day and Jay Rock and Kendrick were working on a record, and I just fell right in line.”

A year later, ScHoolboy Q would join the outfit, and TDE’s group Black Hippy was born.

Ab-Soul doesn't shy away from much; the majority of his life story is etched in ink all over his body. But among the myriad tattoos, Soul also has a small inscription on his right wrist that says “Established in ’04”. The tattoo is one half of a matching pair he got with his longtime girlfriend, Lorianna “Alori Joh” Johnson, on their seventh anniversary together. The two had met in sixth grade and began to date during their senior year in high school, eventually getting into the music business together. She’d also been signed to Street Beat; her voice is the first heard on Soul’s first TDE mixtape, Longterm, in 2009, and she appeared on projects with all four Black Hippy members.

Joh was found dead in February 2012 after jumping off a radio tower in Compton. “The last time I saw her, she told me she loved me, and I told her I loved her more, and I kissed her,” Soul says later in the afternoon while sitting on a swing next to Sanchez on the shaded patio of The Mondrian. “And that was my last memory of her.” Police ruled Joh’s death a suicide. There was no note or any indication left as to why she had jumped. “That was a very, very traumatic time for myself,” Ab says, choosing his words carefully. “It felt like half of me was removed.”

Much of Soul’s reaction to her death was detailed on the crushingly honest track “The Book Of Soul” off Control System, which laid it all out on wax. “She’s gonna stay alive through me,” he says about that song. “I can say that me writing those words have helped a lot of people get through similar situations. So that gives me a lot of strength, a lot of comfort.”

Reality raps have always been what set TDE apart, but Soul has something else to him, an effortless, down-to-earth cool that allows him to fit in with rappers as diverse as Rick Ross, Lupe Fiasco and Danny Brown, all of whom are featured on These Days... “Lyrically he’s talking about some shit that nobody else is talking about,” says JMSN, a Michigan-born producer who collaborated with Soul last year for a full-length project, Unit 6, that was shelved due to what both described as label politics. “And as far as swag-wise, I think he just has an attitude that not a lot of rappers have. He’s like the lead singer of a rock band, almost.”

Still, the 2013 XXL Freshman has a ways to go before he catches up with some of his TDE labelmates, like Kendrick and ScHoolboy Q. For one, Ab never inked a deal with a major unlike K.Dot, who is signed to Interscope Records via Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records in addition to TDE, and Q, who is signed to TDE and Interscope. This left These Days... without the support and backing that comes with the power of a major label.

“Everybody want Soul, man,” he says. “I’ve been in all them buildings. But I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can focus strictly on my art form and not have to worry about these type of things. I think a lot of people might want to go into these buildings more than they might want to deal with what happens afterward.”

What Ab has signed up for is a crew that can still count itself as the hottest in hip-hop, a long-term mentality that could set him up to be a force on the scene for years to come and an album that landed him his highest first-week sales yet. “I just really wanna see the rest of the world,” Ab says. “Go to Africa, see the Pyramids. I think that’s probably my next major accomplishment if I could just run more of the world.”

These days, that no longer seems like much of a stretch. —Dan Rys