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.