Posted in Album of the Month, New Albums, New Tunes

AOTM January – Ab-Soul : Herbert

As we start of a new year of what I imagine will be another year of fantastic music, I like many am still mopping up the spill over of late releases in 2022. An easy choice for this month’s album of the month would have been either the new Stormzy or Little Simz releases which are both exceptional. But they have had a lot of well deserved coverage and I’m sure most of us are well into their releases being in heavy rotation. Instead I’m bringing to the table and album that is complicated, and I’m confident is going to be a challenge to at least 2 of the 4 of us. Why? Because it’s an album that I think shouldn’t be missed. The album I’ve chosen is Ab-Soul’s ‘Herbert’. 

Ahead of the ‘why’, it’s important that we delve into the ‘who’. Cards on the table, though I’d like to say that I’m a big fan of hip hop and have a fairly extensive knowledge I don’t actually know that much about Ab-Soul or his music. With the exception of his membership in Black Hippy and being signed to TDE my knowledge stops there. Most recent articles focus heavily on his debut album ‘Control System’ and how his conspiracy theory lidded rhymes made him popular with underground hip hop heads and built him a strong following that lauded after him over his next few albums. All of this passed me. Though he’s signed by TDE, they have released his music independently whilst the majority of TDE artists such as Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, etc. have released their music through major labels such as Interscope. Previously happy with his underground path, Ab-Soul has admitted on numerous occasions recently that this latest release carried a heavy amount of pressure to break him into the mainstream. Part of the plan was to move away from his conspiracy theories and create an album that was personal and more of a reflection of him. 
Like the 3 others on this blog / podcast I have approached this album and artist with no history and previous impressions. Impressed by the initial singles I was expecting a well produced collection of solid songs.  What I found is an album reflecting an artist’s internal and external turmoil, raw emotions, and a journey. 

Not long after the release of Herbert, Ab-Soul confirmed in and interview with Charlamange that after completing the majority of the album he tried to commit suicide by jumping off of an overpass close to his mothers house. He largely blames substance abuse and the loss of his best friend for the attempt, though suicide has haunted Ab-Soul over the last 10 years with both his ex girlfriend Alori Joh as well as previous collaborator Mac Miller both taking their lives. Digesting this and the time of when many of the songs were recorded brings an immediacy to many of the tracks and exposes layers in the lyrics that I missed on the first few listens. 

In a recent NPR interview he talked about ’the disconnect with the people around him that matter the most’ and how he dealt with this. Much of it is channeled through ‘Herbert’. The album is a journey, a musical memoir, it has a district start, middle and end. Songs interweave into each other as Ab-Soul works through his journey to getting to where he wants / needs to be. 

Starting off with ‘Message In A Bottle’, the album is perfectly set up laying out his frustrations and ambitions. Whilst ’No Report Card’ gives us a hint of his state of mind through the recording of album with the chorus of ’so-low, don’t go so low, may day, grade a, no report card’ whilst dropping hints of frustration through lines like ’solar system, I’m sick of planet earth’. 

Released last April, ‘Hollandaise’ was the first single from the album. It was the track that made me sit up and pay attention to Ab-Soul. I love the swagger and confidence of Ab-Soul on the track. It reminds me of Jay-Z on Reasonable Doubt. The beat also throbs of the Cali hip hop I grew to love in the early 90’s. It also sets Ab up perfectly for the next track ‘Moonshooter’. 

My favourite track of 2022, Moonshooter is as close to hip hop perfection you can get. There are so many lines I love in this song, but the stand out has to be: ‘Hopped of the porch like, “One of these days I’ma hop out the Porsche”, caught up in a daze’. I’m not sure why, but it always sticks with me and makes me smile. The song alone paints such as great picture, and the video adds a next level to the track as it depicts two young boys and the mischief they can get up to on an average day. 

‘FOMF’ is the first song that I struggled with on the album, it’s not my bag. With that, I can imagine the younger (under 40) listeners will really like this track as it’s got the trap feel that all the youngsters are into (I’ve shuttered whilst writing that). I can imagine a bunch of youth’s bouncing around to this will mobile phones in the air…. doing a trap dance to it. 

Ab quickly won me back with ‘Goodman’ which samples one of my favourite tracks ‘Am I A Good Man’ by Them Two that we featured previously on Spin It or Bin It. It sits nicely at the midpoint and sets up ‘Do Better’ perfectly. 

Whilst ‘Moonshooter’ was my favourite track of 2022, ‘Do Better’ is my theme song for 2023 as Ab highlights how he can always improve as the brilliant sample of Nick Hakim’s ‘Green Twins’ haunts the song. 

Though the first half has a positive feel, the second half is a stark look into Ab-Soul’s mind at the time of recording the track. Do Better, thought touching on suicide, was recorded before his suicide attempt. Ironically it feels like he wrote it after. Soul has highlighted that his suicide wasn’t a direct attempt. It was driven by being under the influence and effect of his own drug use. Ab’s line of ‘Doing drugs was just a war with boredom but it’s sure to get me’ sadly foreshadows real life events that were soon to follow.  We’ve talked on previous podcasts about the recent trend of artists, especially hip hop artists opening talking about mental health openly. For me this song is a glowing beacon towards the positive on a very dark subject, though I question its’ dynasty if events had ended differently. 

‘Gang’nem’ slightly sidetracks the emotional flow of the album, but is special. I recently was listening to a conversation with Talib Kweli and Yassin Bay where they were discussing the concept of reality rap. Hip hop is a product of its’ environment and as it has taken over the mainstream I think some listeners forget about its’ roots. ‘Gang’nem’ taps into the gang affiliations that Ab-Soul grew up with and brought me back to hearting tracks of gang tales in my early days of getting into hip hop. Not to glorify gang culture, the track gives us a reminder that within much of metropolitan America, gang culture is still prevalent. 

‘Wildside’ gives us a midway break through ‘Herbert’, though as we get to the second half I find the album hits some bumps in the road. For the brilliance of some of the songs in the first half of the album there are flaws in the second half. ’The Art of Seduction’ isn’t my personal cup of tea, whilst ‘Bucket’ and ‘Go Off’ aren’t to the level of the album and find themselves lost in the over all feel of the album. ‘Fallacy’ brings you back into the fold ahead of the James Blake produced ‘Herbert’. The title track is a reconning as he faces into his demons and layers of positivity start making their way into the album. 

‘Church On The Move’ brings light to the album, it’s one of my favourite tracks on the album. I can see this as a single. The opening lyrics are a statement of intent. 

“I sip my drink, I do my dance
Don’t throw no stones, don’t hide my hands
I played my part, I play it well
I trim the fat, still tip the scale
I fought that fight, I fall like Hell
I ran that race, I tripped, I fell
I got right back up (yeah)”

‘It Be Like That’ and ‘Positive Vibes Only’ continue to bring us to the light of the album as the inspiration of his journey continues to break through, ahead of the DJ Premier produced ‘Gotta Rap’ which brings his boom bap MC credentials to the table as he states: 

“I even tried suicide and I don’t know whyI know better than most that the soul don’t die
Took a leap, shattered my leg and lost some teeth
And I’m still standing behind every word I speak, peep”

Ab-Soul has highlighted that the track was originally recorded before his suicide attempt, but it was important to re-wrote the lyrics of the song inline with where he wanted to leave the album. 

Ab-Soul has created an album that serves the listener with some fantastic tracks that are catchy and should lead to streams, social media trends, and other tick box exercises that most artists and labels now focus on. As an album, Herbert is unintentional journey that unearths the path that he has fought through in real time. Though he’s a seasoned veteran of hip hop, you get the feeling that he is an artist with a new drive, and this album is the start of what could be an incredible run as an artist.  

Presenting this album for our monthly review is risky, I get that it’s not everyones bag. Guy’s not going to like the language, Joey will think some of the lyrics are throw away and lazy, and David will need to spend more time than he perhaps has to dig into the lyrics (though when he does they will click). What I can guarantee is that when you commit to this album it’s an album that will stick with you. 

5 thoughts on “AOTM January – Ab-Soul : Herbert

  1. Hey great write up Nolan. I know we tend to always say that but this is a great introduction to the album. I agree with lots that you’ve said … and disagree with other bits. Actually, maybe I don’t disagree with those things, I just have a different opinion, which is a thing!

    Like you, I had literally not heard of Ab-Soul until you started to hype him and the early tracks off this album. Due to a VERY busy start to the year with the mega-flu, I’ve not done too much research into him either. Other than to listen at length to this album.

    As often is the way, my experience with this album has been a proper journey. Look, I really didn’t like this when I first listened to it. There are clearly stand out tracks … and they really do stand out cause the strong tracks are awesome. I just didn’t get along with it as a ‘body of work’. But as always, we persist, we listen and we live with albums for an extended period of time to ensure that we develop a real opinion, a real relationship with the album.

    Due to the small people in my life, I’ve more or less only listened to this in the gym or on headphones will cooking. But as I got to the gym a lot and do all the cooking in our house this has actually meant a lot of listening time. My gyms sessions are around an hour long so the long run time of this album actually works pretty well.

    For the sake of clarity and brevity here are key observations and opinions in bullet point form;

    – Is there any rapper on the planet who doesn’t claim to the greatest rapper ever? Seriously, it’s getting a bit cringe. Surely they want people to engage with their lyrics as early as possible … this shit feels like a massive distraction from engagement

    – The album doesn’t actually feel as long as it is … which is a compliment

    – But it does feel like there are more than 18 tracks, by my count there are 6 tracks that have another mini-track, interlude or skit at the end of them so if you’re listening without paying attention to the track number of track titles it can feeling fragmented and bitty. For me this takes away, it does not add to the experience

    – And boy are there some standout tracks, Hollandaise, Moonshooter, Do Better, Good Man, Gang ‘nem and Church on the move are absolute belters. That’s 6 standout tracks, more than most albums. I bet you all feel the same, probably with different tracks but there is a lot to like here

    – But there are also a lot of tracks that I could easily remove … or … could have / should have been a 60 second skit. They don’t deserve a 2, 3 or 4 minute run time and once again detract from the experience not add to it. The James Black produced track is the best example, sonically it’s really interesting and it does play a role in setting the mood of the 2nd half of the album … but it’s nearly 4 mins FFS!

    – And Nolan is going to hate me for this … but Gotta Rap … doesn’t make the cut on the 10 track tight AF version of this album that I created. There are a lot of rap-cliches on this album, perhaps the one I have least patience for is the DJ Premier produced Gotta Rap. Rappers have to be really careful with Primo tracks, unless you bring something really special you sound like everyone else on their one Primo produced track. The fact that it’s tagged on to the end of the album after the obvious narrative end to the album (Good Vibes Only) I think is testament to it being an after thought.

    – My 10 track album …

    – This version get’s straight to the point! It’s 38 mins long, 10 tracks, all killer no filler. For me, the tracks flow better into one another and the narrative makes more sense.

    – One thing I am 100000000% with you on Nolan is Church on the Move. BOOOOM!

  2. Great write-up Nolan, something we perhaps take for granted, but one that’s already making me think about my feelings on this album. There’s some great context in there and a deeper dive into who Ab-Soul is when he made this album.

    Is this the first AOTM that none of us have any history with? It’s not quite that – given the Yves Tumor and Genesis Owusu albums I brought back in the days of S1 – but this is the first that’s come from the world of hip-hop and the first in a while. I was actually really surprised that Ab-Soul was new to you too brother Nolan. You wouldn’t be surprised I’d never heard of him!

    So what have I made of Herbert? It’s been quite the journey for me, but from a high opening, through a number of troughs, and back up to somewhere I didn’t quite expect I’d be a couple of weeks ago. I seem to have a similar experience – Kendrick, Skyzoo, Ab-Soul, RTJ – where on the first few listens I find so much to love about things. Perhaps its the newness, perhaps the fact I’m not remotely a ‘head’ so everything sounds so fresh and I’m not really comparing it to so many albums or tracks or MCs that you would. Because the first impression was great. There was so much variety in there, from the old school brightness of Gotta Rap, to Moonshooter’s standout soul feel, the brash trap of Hollandaise, or the slow lurch r’n’b of Wild Side, or slickness of Go Off. I really enjoyed diving into a new artist again and hearing so much going on.

    But…. and I’m sure you expected a ‘but’ brother Nolan, things started to fall apart (as the Roots would say) from there. Once you got to live with the album more, not only did it feel more disjointed, but songs that were bright, edgy and clean started to lose their lustre. In something that will surprise no one, it was the trap-influenced tracks that I struggled with first. Go Off (with its sleazy feel, just doubled down on the beats), FOMF, which I agree with Nolan, the kids will love, but it ain’t for me. Then even Hollandaise, which if I could bottle the last minute of, I would love so much. It’s just the first 2+ minutes that I couldn’t really live with. Give me when that brass drops though!

    There were gems in there though. Beyond Moonshooter’s obvious elegance (and its fantastic video), there’s the slow-mo soul of Goodman, and Ab-Soul’s wrestling with his own soul. Church On The Move’s amped-up samples and positivity, the James Blake-tinged Herbert, with its soul-bearing reality, and It Be Like That’s nice two-part structure from bleakness to positivity, and the old school joy of Gotta Rap. Do Better is one of the album’s best tracks – and takes on even more context when you watch the stark video. I think the openers of Message In A Bottle and No Report card banged, and also set up the album well, covering a lot of the themes that dominate – the hood life he knows, but can’t figure out if he wants to stay in or escape, his thirst for success, even bitterness it’s not happened (yet), his fragile mental health and drug abuse, suicide touching his life so darkly, and his almost overwhelming obsession with the ‘scene’, hip-hop’s history and his place in it.

    Because there is a lot to like here, but all the promise seems to be so often diluted and dismantled by some loose programming and perhaps an unwillingness to pare back the album to something more focused. Herbert is ultimately – to me – an ambitious and earnest album that just can’t quite live up to its own hype. Ab-Soul talked about taking the tracks and listening to them in the studio, and his TDE crewing going with ‘the vibe’. That may well work for that group, but 18 tracks feels overstuffed and trying to throw every idea at it when perhaps some control would’ve been a better result. There is a sort of three-part structure of the big opening 4 tracks, a slower, more diverse middle and then the final 4 bang again. But in there I just find it doesn’t really gel, so it’s no surprise that my ‘version’ of the album ends up with an 11 track, 41 minute length that feels a better fit for me:

    Other things grate, which is a real shame given Ab-Soul’s clear skill with words and styles. In the hands of a Kendrick or a Sudan Archives, hopping genres and styles, often within the same song, works when it’s a tight narrative, but here sometimes it just feels muddled, either spoiling the vibe, or even worse, on Bucket, ending up in an irritating skit about CDs jumping. Is he trying to say he’s old school and experienced, when he’s also upset he’s not made it like he should by now? His self-anointed titles – KRS Two or ‘The God of Rap’ are some gambles when you still haven’t cracked it, and feels like setting himself up for a fall. And finally, his obsession with referencing every single bit of hip-hop that he possibly could in pretty much every track (from Jay-Z to Kanye) starts as quite fun, and ends up wearing thin very quickly for me. I GET IT, YOU KNOW HIP HOP.

    It’s a real shame, because there’s a pretty good album in there trying to get out. And with all the struggles he’s been through you want it to be a success. Because by GOD he’s had a tough time. He’s got skills, he’s got years, he’s got a good crew around him. But its’ perhaps harsh but not completely unfair to say its overindulgence feels a bit desperate at times, as his contemporaries have got major label success. But overall there’s still quite a lot to like about Herbert. I’m just not sure I’ll have much of it in my life in 6 months.

    But it’s definitely got me thinking. And that’s what you want with music, isn’t it?

  3. Thanks to Nolan for a great write up and two my brothers for excellent additions. In fact, having just read Guy’s, I don’t know if there’s actually a lot I can add, because this line is EXACTLY what I think:

    “Herbert is ultimately – to me – an ambitious and earnest album that just can’t quite live up to its own hype. ”

    I’d add that I’ve found this a really frustrating album, because the gap between the highlights and the stuff that doesn’t work is, for me, vast. I was fascinated when Nolan chose and quite excited to hear other tracks because of Moonshooter being such a GREAT track. I was incredibly disappointed when I first started listening to it, and to be honest, it’s taken a really, really long time to work out what I actually feel!

    I think we can all agree that it’s a very uneven record, and it’s been fascinating seeing Guy and Joey’s alternative playlists. I’m probably closest to Guy on this, but even then, I think I would struggle to find 10 tracks that I really love on here.

    It’s a shame, because when he’s really shooting for the moon (excuse the pun), he can sound incredible. There’s a cinematic, widescreen, sad, thoughtful kind of hip hop that sounds both classic but also fresh. Those tracks for me include Moonshooter, Do Better, Church on the Move and Fallacy.

    But there are also tracks I really, really dislike, and as Joey has mentioned, sometimes it just feels quite lyrically lazy. I don’t love opener Message in A Bottle, but it’s ok, but I really really don’t like Hollandaise, so it makes the first part of the album a bit of a challenge. Things really pick up when Moonshooter arrives, but I’m immediately turned off again by the worst track on the album, FOMF, which both musically and lyrically is a real low point.

    This is what I’ve found so hard – I don’t ever really feel I get to experience a run of tracks that just really gets me going. I trip over stuff I don’t like, waiting for the next really good track.

    Listening to Guy’s version of the album, suddenly it made a whole load more sense, and I also got a much better notion of a) what he was aiming for with this album and b) what’s going on thematically.

    In short, it’s a schizophrenic album, not sure whether to lean in hard to its soul searching and desire to find hope in some pretty bleak stuff, or whether to lean on to some of the lazier rap tropes. That’s a shame, because there’s some real diamonds on here and he’s a real talent.

    One thing’s for sure, I’ll be listening to Guy’s version of this album from now on! Look forward to podding on this later 🙂

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