“I want to try and touch as many bases as possible. I want something on there for everybody. There will be a lot of references to the vibe of today, the sound of today and the subject matter of today.”
“Movies made for ‘everybody’ are actually made for nobody in particular. Movies about specific characters in a detailed world are spellbinding because they make no attempt to cater to us; they are defiantly, triumphantly, themselves.”
– Roger Ebert
Crafting and maintaining an identity as a rapper in 2014 is not an easy feat, especially when your contemporaries consist of Kendrick Lamar and Danny Brown. That Ab-Soul calls himself “abstract asshole” then seems like a calling card; while Kendrick turns a handheld camera on gang violence in Compton and Danny Brown spiritedly relays what may be the most poignant story ever told about buying Wonder Bread, Ab-Soul waxes poetic, making a strong enough case for rap’s lyrical legitimacy that it could convince even my grandmother that hip-hop is actually a worthwhile art form. This is not meant as a slight against Ab-Soul’s abilities as a lyricist and rapper — which are exceptional, as evinced by his 2012 album Control System — but even if “abstract asshole” is less a business card epithet and more of a self-aware observation, exactly what “image” is Ab-Soul abstracting on These Days…?
Image and imagery themselves — specifically religious — are recurring motifs on These Days, at least nominally. There are tracks called “God’s Reign,” “Tree of Life,” and “Stigmata” in between tracks titled “Hunnid Stax,” “Just Have Fun,” and “Sapiosexual,” yet despite their distinct sonics and subjects, each of these songs are scattered with provocative yet aimless philosophical musings, almost every line a groaningly clever proverb thrown like a prophetic thorn at a dank basement dartboard. There are as many vague “sacred” references (“Your soul sits on your third eye, soul sits on the throne,” “I carry the cross, if Virgin Mary had an abortion, I’d still be carried in the chariot by stampeding horses,” “Figure deal me I’m filthy I know it’s greedy out here/ I told you that, but I made my way through it like Moses did with his staff!”) as there are lines that start with “These days…” But what exactly these lines mean when placed in various popular rap contexts (trap, neo-R&B, cloud rap, hardcore, etc.) is as delphic as his self-proclaimed “smoked” soul.
All of that said, These Days has its rapturous moments. Opener “God’s Reign” — with its serpentine hook courtesy of label-mate SZA entwined with Ab-Soul’s sharp contrapuntal verses — is its strongest track (and one I keep revisiting), revealing what could have been a much more focused and fluid album without sacrificing Ab-Soul’s signature stream-of-consciousness lyricism.
Part 2 of “Dub Sac,” an otherwise weak simile-studded trap joint, finds Ab-Soul at his most reflective, calling into question his other material’s ostensible “introspectiveness.” Over a spacey lounge beat studded with crisp snares, Ab-Soul meditates on his own journey as a person and as an artist, soberly recollecting: “Niggas chased my uncle there, through God’s grace the gun jammed/ I found comfort in this pleasure, meaning I slept the best through the gun sounds/ These Days it’s a little different, between me and my past I put a little distance/ Egyptian cotton, thread count vicious/ Started as a dream, manifested into little Kendrick.” It is a rare crystallization of every theme (God and his place in human life, “These days,” nostalgia, riches, dreams, being overshadowed by Kendrick), and it is ample evidence that Ab-Soul is at his best not when he’s “being abstract,” but when he’s taking concrete narratives and expressing them through abstract imagery.
These Days is full of potentially enlightening ideas, and its beats and hooks are often mesmerizing, yet Ab-Soul spreads himself too thin here, his abstraction resulting from a kind of undertaken emaciation, a renunciation of tangible substance in favor of nebulous spiritual impressionism rather than from a perspective-driven distortion of this album’s strong central themes. Of course, these problems wouldn’t matter much if they didn’t distract from its “high” points. By getting too caught up in dizzying samsaric ruminations, Ab-Soul loses sight of transcendence, keeping These Days from being truly triumphant in its own right.