Out of all the members of the red-hot Black Hippy collective, Ab-Soul is the rapper most deserving of the group’s name, even though he is the least well known. Where Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock are mostly traditional street rappers-- albeit with unconventional perspectives and unorthodox flows-- Ab-Soul is the one with the progressive politics, the heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism, and the crazy hair. He even sings. After Lamar’s Section.80 and Schoolboy’s Habits & Contradictions, Ab-Soul’s new release Control System arrives with the added pressure of sustaining Black Hippy’s excellent run. Because Ab-Soul lacks the flash and bang of his TDE brethren, the album feels a little bit like a let down compared with its predecessors. But give it a couple of listens, and the album’s subtlety, smarts, and emotional power start to really resonate.
Rare for a rapper these days, Ab-Soul hails from the suburbs, and even rarer, he’s upfront about that fact. One of Control System’s many refreshing aspects is the fact Ab-soul hardly ever makes overblown threats about carrying a 9mm in his Levis or murking other rappers. But nor he does come off as a wimp or a condescending pacifist. “Terrorist Threat” flips the typical gang-bang scenario into only a half-joking call for all the armed thugs from America’s ghettos to unite to overthrow the industrial military complex. Benefiting from an on-fire assist from Danny Brown, the song is Occupy Wall Street meets Boyz in the Hood. Ab-Soul also shows how he’s mastered the Black Hippy prerequisite of rapping brilliant about drugs. “Mixed Emotions” and “Pineal Gland” are wacked-out paeans to the holy trinity of weed, booze, and codeine.
But Ab-Soul is more than simply an able carrier of Black Hippy’s torch. Just like the other rappers in the group, he brings his own issues to the table. One of these is gender disparity. “Double Standards” is probably the most honest and illuminating hip-hop songs about misogyny to come out in a while. Laid across a velvety beat from Sounwave, Ab-Soul’s verses express fatigue with the way too many men treat women via witty, incisive rhymes like “To my niggas having, bitches, it’s what you just do / To the bitches having niggas, this what a slut do.” It doesn’t take much these days to thwart expectations of what a rapper will say about women, but on “Double Standards” Ab-Soul pretty much knocks those expectations out of the park. To add to the album’s surprises, take “Empathy,” an R&B slow jam nearly completely sung by Ab-Soul, and “The Book of Soul,” a tribute to Ab-Soul’s old flame and frequent Black Hippy hook singer, Alori Joh, who died earlier this year, that’s as close to a tear-jerker as you will ever hear on a rap album.
Control System is one of the better mixtapes to come out this year, but that’s hardly an endorsement of Ab-Soul’s commercial prospects. Unlike his buddy Kendrick Lamar, it’s hard to imagine Ab-Soul jumping on a Drake track or hanging out with Dr. Dre. He’s too willing to expose his complications, sing over a jazz-sample, or speak truth to power. He might turn out OK, though, because one can see how well he fits in within Black Hippy, whose commercial prospects as a whole remain pretty golden. To forge an uneasy comparison of Black Hippy to Wu Tang, Kendrick Lamar is Method Man, Schoolboy Q is Ghostface, Jay Rock is Raekwon and Ab-Soul is GZA. The others sold more albums and had more radio hits, but the GZA released Liquid Swords, a front-to-back masterpiece of an album that every true rap head adores. To be sure, Control System is not that album, but in its meanderings and digressions it bears the promise of something great.
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