Ab-Soul Hit His Lowest Point. Then He Made the Most Liberating Music of His Career

Culture
The journey to Herbert, the TDE rapper’s first new album in six years, is one of overcoming grief, depression, and tragedy.

AbSoul.

Ab-Soul.Courtesy of John Jay.

Lounging in a Lower East Side Manhattan lobby on a nippy December afternoon, the Carson, California rapper Ab-Soul is still feeling electric after a big night in which he bumped into and was embraced by his all-time favorite rapper, Jay–Z. On social media, Jay’s greeting, “You young God, what’s up?” made the internet take notice. (As a video of the run-in spread, Soul got a text from Charlamagne Tha God jokingly saying that he would have taken the $500K.) The hug came right after Soul saw the Brooklyn Nets play the Washington Wizards at Barclays, where he had a literal highlight: Sitting just behind the net, he caught a tipped pass while holding a drink. “Excellent play by him,” said the Nets’ announcer, who might have been even more impressed if he knew Ab-Soul is legally blind. 

“The ball is just in my court,” jokes Soul, 35, delighting himself with a double entendre typical of his raps as he kicks his crispy Jordan 4s up on a lobby table and soaks up these fleeting moments of virality on his phone. Draped in a black hoodie, he shows off DMs with the Nets’ courtside reporter. “I’m having a great day, man.”

He’s excited about more than just his quintessential New York night. He’s in Manhattan to promote his first new album in six years, Herbert, which just dropped. (The title is a nod to his government name, Herbert Anthony Stevens.) Unlike his more heady, thematically-driven previous albums, he began making this one, his fourth, trying not to overthink everything and beginning with no concept other than to make heartful songs. The result is easily his best work to date, a mix of the cocksure wordplay that made him a standout (even alongside acclaimed lyricists like his Black Hippy brethren Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, and Jay Rock) and deeply personal verses born of his own struggles over the last few years with depression, physical challenges, and the death of a best friend. A new album was originally ready to go in 2020, but it was derailed by the pandemic. During lockdown, he had too much time to think about what he had been going through. “[The pandemic] is probably where it was the roughest, where it was the darkest for me,” he murmurs, about the pandemic. “We all kinda had to sit with ourselves, in solitude. A lot…” He trails off. And yet, this painful introspective period proved to be a creative gift of sorts, as they resulted in Herbert’s revelatory, soul-baring songs.

As he pushes aside the chemtrails of giddiness from his big Brooklyn night to focus on the project he’s devoted years to, he divulges some nervousness about how Herbert may be received. “This is the first time I ever felt pressure about releasing a project,” he admits. “Like, it might be too long, I might have missed my window. I’m getting old. It’s moving fast, there’s so much new music every day. Will they still listen?” 

It’s a good question. It’s been ten years since he won acclaim with his first album Control System, which helped Top Dawg Entertainment become a premier hip-hop label. He released two more albums, 2014’s These Days… and 2016’s Do What Thou Wilt, and he’s acutely aware of their mixed reviews, though he doesn’t seem disheartened. He paraphrases the critics’ reactions: “‘Control System was hot, These Days maybe not, Do What Thou was tight at first.’ Watching comments, they love me, they hate me.” He then imitates one of Kendrick’s lines from his most recent album: “I can’t please everybody.” 

Herbert’s opening track, “Message In A Bottle,” samples a clip from The Joe Budden Podcast where Budden notes that the music industry may not think of Soul as a success. “Joe was lowkey representing me,” says Soul, explaining why he would use a clip that highlighted his commercial shortcomings. “In the culture, ask about me. All of them know me. I’m a rapper’s rapper.” That part checks out. Kendrick Lamar referred to him as a “wizardish genius” and ScHoolboy Q once admitted, “I write a line, and I bring it by him.” Beyond TDE, Russ once tweeted that Soul was one of the best rappers ever and Lupe Fiasco wrote a ridiculously wordy review of his last album and called him a “master of form.” 

Despite all that praise, none of his albums have gone platinum, not even gold. He’s never scored a Top 10 record, nor had a charting hit, not even as a feature. Unlike his TDE labelmates ScHoolboy Q and SZA, who have larger deals with Interscope and RCA, respectively, he’s a proudly independent artist signed solely to TDE. A self-professed “conscious rapper”—more likely to muse about Huey Newton or theology than a new watch—his rap style might be extinct on the charts and endangered at large. Like the other end of the spectrum of blog-rap-era artists (Danny Brown, Joey Badass, or Big KRIT), he’s a gifted writer, not a chart-topping hitmaker. Their fans will readily point out that Ab-Soul and his contemporaries have made classics…but look distraught when it’s pointed out that these classics are relics of Obama’s first term. 

Courtesy of John Jay.

Nowadays, he’s a word-of-mouth wordsmith navigating a world of algorithmic playlists—unlikely to top RapCaviar, but his sharp pen can hold down smaller playlists like Spilled Ink. He’s also a drunk poet, a righteous bastard, blind but full of visions. “Genius idiot, best description of myself,” he once rapped. Despite his philosophical headiness, expansive vocabulary, and penchant for switching flows, the key to his music is in songs like Control System’s “Book of Soul,” where he detailed his childhood bout with the painful skin condition Stevens–Johnson syndrome that damaged his eyesight, and falling in love with his high-school classmate, Alori Joh, who he dated on and off for seven years before her 2012 suicide left him heartbroken.  (Herbert dropped on her birthday, December 16.) Every rapper should have a confessional song that counts as their “realest shit I ever wrote,” and Herbert has several.

One of those is the single “Do Better.” Over a haunting sample of a live rendition of Nick Hakim’s “The Green Twins,” Soul looks in the mirror and recounts being stressed, depressed, and stuck in bed as his family grew concerned. “Got to do better, I got to do better, I got to,” he chants. In the song’s video and cover art, he’s shown jumping off a building. “I took [my depression] and I went to work with it, that’s the point,” says Soul of the song. He adds that therapy, which his mother encouraged him to seek out, helped as well. “I got out of bed, I went to the studio, and I created something out of it. It’s not a sad song, it’s to motivate you. People saw the visual [of the suicide] and took it [that way]. The video was inspired by true events, but the song was written before the events the video was inspired by.” In it, after he jumps off the roof, the scene rewinds. The second time around, several hands prevent him from jumping.

But yes, there was a suicide attempt at some point. In conversation, he’s vague about what exactly transpired, but he’s candid on Herbert’s DJ Premier-produced cut “Gotta Rap” as he rhymes: “I even tried suicide, and I don’t know why/I know better than most that the soul don’t die/Took a leap, shattered my leg and lost some teeth/But I’m still standing behind every word I speak.” The majority of the album was written before his suicide attempt, but he reworked songs like “Gotta Rap” after. “It’s my testimony, I guess that’s what I do,” he says. (He would later give details to Charlemagne in an interview, revealing that he jumped around 50 feet off a freeway overpass by his mother’s house. He shattered his foot and needed all of his front teeth replaced. He now walks with the slightest of limps.) 

He gained the confidence to testify about his hardships thanks to the support of his family and friends. He’s close with his extended clan. When he told his Aunt Kuzee his album title, she laughed. The family’s archivist, she pulled out a photo she had been saving of a young Herbert as a baby with headphones on, a vast record collection behind him (his family owned a record shop). He had never seen the photo before, but instantly knew it had to be the cover. 

His TDE family held him down as well. “Moosa [TDE founder Top Dawg’s son] is pretty much my boss now,” he says about Anthony Tiffith Jr., who is now the President of TDE and whom he still considers one of his closest friends. “We went to school together before I knew his father was Top Dawg. Before he knew he wanted to be in the music business. This is the person that I cried with about the losses we took. For him to turn around and tell me that I should share my testimony is deep because I know I can trust him, because I literally cried with him about it. I got that kind of family and strength around me, and I’m very grateful.”

One of the things Soul cried about was the death of Armon “DoeBurger” Stringer, his best friend from childhood who was killed during a home invasion last year. (In the music video for “Gang’Nem,” Soul is shown getting a tattoo of a hamburger made of $100 bills.) “I felt like half of me was gone,” he says of DoeBurger’s death. “He was my right hand. We were Huey and Riley from the Boondocks. I’m hurt every day. I’ve taken a lot of losses in my life, that one right there was a make me or break me situation…I am not broken.”

Putting his album together in the midst of all of this tragedy was a challenge, but his team helped. Instead of picking songs on his own, he narrowed his songs down with TDE’s “usual suspects” (Top Dawg, Moosa, his manager Matt) as well as producers (Boi-1da, Hit-Boy, his cousin Sounwave), playing tracks and quickly discarding them if the feeling in the room wasn’t unanimous. “I didn’t fight for a record this time, I didn’t want to argue, I removed my arrogance completely, I tried to strip away the ego,” he explains. “It was hard for me, getting out of my comfort zone. I asked for help, I tried to utilize my resources.”

For the track “It Be Like That”—a mature record where he takes account of his regrets and mistakes—he used another resource: His ex-labelmate, Kendrick Lamar.

“Kendrick sent that to me, just to let you guys know how close me and him are. He sends me records sometimes that he feels I should try,” says Soul. (He adds that vocals from Lamar also appear on the title track.) “It was an exercise. I said on this one, I don’t want no punchlines, no metaphors, no double entendres, I want to be simple as possible, straight to the point. It was probably the most difficult song for me to write on the album and it’s the most simplistic song.” 

As hyped as he is for his new album to finally release, he’s still facing creative uncertainty—his career is sailing into the fog of being a middle-aged rapper with a cult following. 

There are more challenges ahead. Although he was cured of Steven-Johnson Syndrome as a kid, his cornea is scarred. His vision is still a constant concern, at some point he’ll likely have to get a cornea transplant. “I am legally blind, not completely blind, I see well enough, as well as I walk by faith,” he says. “I have family and friends that make sure I don’t run into too much.” 

But if his vision is so bad, how did he ever catch that ball at the Nets game?

“You remember the movie The 6th Man with Marlon Wayans?” he asks, about a 1997 movie only someone over 30 would remember. “They were a college basketball team, his brother died, he was like a ghost and he was helping the team. I’m talking to the homies. We’re laughing about [me catching the ball] because everybody like, ‘Man, you ain’t really blind, man. You’re lying.’ They was like, ‘Yo, your man [DoeBurger], he was the 6th Man.’”

In these trying times, we could all use a little help.

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