As hip-hop collectives go, there are few generating as much hype as Black Hippy, the Los Angeles-based outfit of Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Kendrick Lamar. Though his last official album release was 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick Lamar remains rap’s poster child as the perfect union of respecting hip-hop’s eccentric traditionalism, employing next-level lyrical dexterity and having an uncanny ear for listenable production.
Schoolboy Q has fashioned a niche for himself as one of the most sought-after party rappers in recent memory, with hit singles such as “Man of the Year” and “Collard Greens” receiving heavy rotation on Top 40 radio stations. Jay Rock, who was the first member of the collective to be signed to a major label, is an underground icon in the Los Angeles hip-hop scene. His brief cameo in GKMC’s “Money Trees” was heralded as one of the best guest verses of 2012 by Complex magazine.
Which leaves us with Ab-Soul, the mysterious man who seems to always wear sunglasses and maintain a low profile. His latest release, These Days… hit iTunes on Tuesday amid relatively little fanfare for a Top Dawg Entertainment release. Ab-Soul has yet to fashion out a memorable identity for himself, and despite being on his third album with These Days…, Ab-Soul remains a bit of an enigma.
Ab-Soul’s persona is actually nothing new — dozens, if not hundreds, of underground rappers struggled to strike a strong balance between “getting a message across” and maintaining popular appeal to get them over into the mainstream. The Carson, California native clarifies “Ab-Soul, abstract, a—–le,” and These Days…, if nothing else, is abstract.
The woozy, reedy-voiced Ab-Soul bounces around broad concepts like outer space, ounces of marijuana and “fifty dollar drawers,” among other things, but fails to bring a requisite focus or message to the tracks. The album itself is akin to Ab-Soul’s musical persona, lacking any cohesion or specific direction, choosing instead to remain in a self-indulgent, exclusive brand of intelligence that seems to only make sense to the rapper and his closest, reefer-reeking fans. The tracks on These Days… oscillate between uninspired tropes about a drug-addled lifestyle like on “Twact,” or jarringly awkward treatises on falling in love with someone’s mind on “Sapio Sexual.”
It’s telling when an album’s strongest tracks involve other artists. In Ab-Soul’s case, he squanders the opportunity to exhibit versatility and instead is completely overwhelmed by stronger verses on his tracks. For example, “Hunnid Stax” chops a haunting vocal sample from Lana Del Rey and interpolates a menacing bass line. Soul borrows lines from — of all rappers — Big Sean while sounding consistently uncomfortable extolling the virtues of his newfound wealth. Guest rapper and labelmate Schoolboy Q, on the other hand, raps like he never left the studio for his latest effort Oxymoron. The South Central Los Angeles native sounds almost gleefully comfortable firing off some appallingly misogynistic lines. Content notwithstanding, the track is an absolute banger.
Unfortunately, tracks like “Hunnid Stax” are the exception and not the rule. Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar both sound in fine form and almost seem to sound better than usual when pitted against Ab-Soul’s self-indulgent abstractions. These Days… does little to improve perception that Ab-Soul is the odd man out in the group, and though Ab-Soul does have a credible stable of followers who appreciate his head-in-the-clouds approach to intellectualism, it’s hard to imagine any new followers latching on to the rapper’s latest effort.