Ab-Soul is Finally Ready to Share His Truth
N THE PARKING lot of Anderson Memorial Park in Carson, California, just south of Compton and north of Long Beach, Ab-Soul chain-smokes Newports and speaks gently. We’re close to the houses he grew up in alongside his mother, aunts, and paternal grandparents. “I kinda like to call it the ghetto suburb,” the rapper, 35, says from the open back seat of a Tesla SUV. “Because it is a suburb, but it’s got all the other stuff, too.” And yet, as is typical of neighborhoods in the southern half of the county, it doesn’t look precisely like either: There are plenty of single-family homes, and some of the lawns sit pristine and manicured. But there are neglected stretches without commercial or residential development, and freeways snake in every direction, bisecting neighborhoods and pumping smog into the air.
He’s here to give his first proper interview in many years, in advance of his fifth album, Herbert, the first new LP he’ll release in more than six years. Even by the glacial standards of Top Dawg Entertainment, the independent label he signed to in 2008, Soul has been out of sight and mind. Until promotion for Herbert began, he had appeared on a total of eight songs since Donald Trump took office. And yet he betrays no nervousness: He seems calm, centered, and eager to talk about his career, which pieces of regional styles do and do not bleed across state lines, even the chronology of some of his tattoos. As soon as his security detail arrives, he unfolds his lanky frame from the Tesla and walks, with a slight limp, over some gentle hills toward a cement picnic table.
Herbert is Soul’s best album by a chasmic margin, both more urgent and mature than everything that precedes it. While there’s a ready-made narrative about the record as therapy or redemption after an impossibly trying period in his personal life, Soul is quick to undercut it. He sees Herbert as something of an obligation. “Telling the truth is hard,” he says, “but those are the sacrifices. It’s your testimony: You could help someone else. A lot of people who follow me tell me I saved their life. I make sure to tell them: ‘No, you saved mine.’”
On the album’s cover, a young Ab-Soul — that would be Herbert Stevens IV — sits on the floor in overalls, a credenza full of records behind him and headphones dwarfing his toddler head while he claps and smiles at what he hears. He says this is representative of music’s centrality in his life, though not a typical scene. “In my household, there wasn’t really music playing,” he explains, because the family would listen to songs all day while working in the record shop his grandparents owned. From the time he could move his shoulders to Off the Wall, he understood that what music he heard was governed by business concerns and consumer whims. It also meant that his relatives, experts though they were, didn’t have the time or inclination to guide him through new genres after hours. “Different artists would pay for in-store play,” he recalls. “If it was rap playing, it would be the clean version. I had to find hip-hop on my own.”
He grew up on the cusp of technological eras. Early on Herbert, he brags that he recorded his first demo on cassette and recounts rapping to loops that he’d downloaded on BearShare, an early file-sharing platform. In his adolescent years, the cratering CD economy was affecting the family business and constricting major-label budgets, especially those granted to rappers. Stylistic rifts between sects of hip-hop fans became more ideological than ever, with snap artists from Atlanta, the emerging “ringtone rap” stars of trap music, were seen as emblematic of some kind of decay. So, Soul gravitated to the most verbose, formalist, showily technical music available to him. He wrote a verse to a Twista beat and developed an appreciation for Snoop Dogg, but discovering rappers like Canibus online activated his brain.
Soul pored over their labyrinthine rhymes, obsessing over double and triple-entendre. He began “keystyling” — imagine a rap battle, typed out — on websites like Black Planet. On one of those message boards, he met a man from the Twin Cities named Lawrence Fuller. Roughly six years his senior, Fuller — who would go on to carve his own distinguished career under the name Metasota — was sick of seeing this talented kid get eaten up in battles. So he slipped his AIM handle and started tutoring him. “He was like, ‘I’m tired of you getting bullied in there,’” Soul remembers. So Fuller typed out a punchline and diagrammed how it worked. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the younger rapper remembers it to this day: “Cause cats be forfeiting like their wardrobe for half of the week,” he raps back to me, over pronouncing the forfeit/four-fit wordplay. It’s almost comically prototypical for rap of this style in that era; it’s also exactly what he needed to focus his efforts. “From there, we’ve been ill. I just needed a template.”
Ab-Soul’s musical pursuits did not stay trapped inside. At a Carson park much like Anderson Memorial, he and his then-girlfriend, the late singer Alori Joh, were discovered at a talent show; that led to him signing with a small local label named StreetBeat when he had barely graduated high school. But it was the next contract that would reshape his life. As Soul would rap on the introduction to 2007’s Long Term, TDE president Terrence “Punch” Henderson “saw more in [his] music than metaphors and punchlines.” The two formed a fast relationship, and Soul joined the label despite the thorniness of L.A. street politics. Years later, in his verse on Danny Brown’s “Really Doe,” he notes that he’s “paid by the Bloods” despite being “raised by the Crips.” When I ask him if his signing with TDE drew any sideways looks on his part of Carson, he says, “For sure — but I felt like the scope was larger. We saw how red and blue makes green, if you will.”
Armed with the lessons learned during Watts native Jay Rock’s first foray into the major-label system, as well as Compton-bred Kendrick Lamar, who was quickly becoming one of the most sought-after free agents in the industry, TDE went from local curiosity to national brand before making a serious impact on the charts. Then, in 2011, Soul, Lamar, Rock, and South Central upstart Schoolboy Q, known collectively as Black Hippy, was tapped by the L.A. indie legend Murs to go on the Paid Dues Tour. It couldn’t have come sooner. While the quartet was on the road, Soul’s grandparents’ record store closed its doors for good. “We’d been on the verge,” he says, “but it was like I got a job right when I lost another.”
In 2012, Soul released Control System, the album that would serve as his introduction to most rap fans around the country. Though Lamar and Q had signed joint agreements with Interscope, Soul’s record was issued by TDE alone. “I wasn’t so much worried about the numbers,” he says today of being the odd man out. “I just wanted in.” But he wrote and rapped as if he resented this underestimation. (From 2011’s Longterm Mentality: “Labels calling for everybody except for me/Like I ain’t got the recipe, like this ain’t my destiny.”)
Much of Control System is venomous. Soul’s punchline-first style exists on a razor’s edge; his diction is so clear and pacing so languid that he ends up working to oversell underwhelming lines or sinking deep into dorm-room philosophy (“Just imagine if Einstein got high and sipped juice”). But he is a magnetic vocalist, and the eventual effect of those conspiratorial asides is to earn Soul a place in a well-established rap lineage. He’s not exactly Ras Kass, who grew up in Carson, but the two could be cousins. Control System ends with what was -— at least until this year — the best song in Soul’s catalog. “The Book of Soul” chronicles his relationship with Alori Joh and his grief over her death by suicide just months before the album’s release. The song is harrowing but never sentimental; Soul makes the shrewd decision to pair his raps with Tommy Black’s bright, jazzy Bobby -McFerrin flip. He also, finally — at the tail end of a 72-minute album — uses the conspiracy bars to wrong-foot the listener. “I guess the Mayans wasn’t lying,” he raps. “2012, my world ended.”
When Soul talks about his life, he draws long arcs, ebbs, and flows of happiness and stability. While Control System was a creative success and made him a dark-horse favorite among Black Hippy fans, he isn’t proud of how it warped his personality. “It created a level of arrogance,” he says. “I felt I had a style I’d created that the people gravitated to. I was getting recognized by my idols. That made me feel like, ‘I did what I came to do.’” And so, while his next record is nowhere near as pointed or emotionally engaged as Control System, he speaks about that period of life with some warmth—especially given who was around as he wrote and recorded it.
These Days…, which came out in 2014, is indebted to the fuzzy molly rap that dominated rap radio in the early 2010s (and, at times, to the DJ Mustard beats that were sweeping L.A. around the time of its release); it frequently feels like a body high that lingers long past its welcome. Though Ab-Soul interpolates Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” and Nas’ “The Cross” on consecutive songs, little of the natural tension one would expect to flow from Soul’s omnivore streak makes it onto the record. But much of These Days… was finished in the home studio of a man who would become one of Soul’s close friends: Mac Miller. The Pittsburgh native, whose Studio City home too briefly became a hub for L.A.’s most interesting rappers, had reached out to Soul on Twitter, telling him he was a fan. The pair clicked immediately. “He was a genius,” Soul says. He played a lot of instruments on his own; he really had a sound he was crafting. That was my brother, man. He extended his home to a lot of us. He did it out of love, and that’s something I can relate to.”
Soul had always rapped about drugs, but in the mid-2010s, their place in his songs became worrisome — stark revelations on pieces meant to unnerve the audience did so all too easily, and some records conceived as party fodder ended up having the same effect. (“The drank made me slow,” he raps on “Gang’Nem,” an early single from Herbert, “but my mind was on Mach 10.”) “D.R.U.G.S.,” from 2016’s glitchy, sullen Do What Thou Wilt., is sincerely upsetting; you imagine close friends, after being emailed the demo, reaching out to be sure he was O.K. It sounds as if some did.
After the release of Do What Thou Wilt., everyone in Soul’s orbit knew it was time for a recalibration. The album “was very dark and dense,” he says. “My team felt like, you know, maybe we should try some contrast. Try some brighter beats, some brighter ideas.” The plan was to take a little breather, then get back in the studio to recapture some of the buoyancy that balanced out Control System, or push him into new territory altogether. But weeks turned to months, and before he realized it, Soul had gone more than a year without making music. “Of course, my team was on me, like, ‘What’s good? When’re we gonna get back in?’” he remembers. But he didn’t know any better than they did.
At some point in 2018, Ab-Soul began working, slowly, on the songs that would eventually become Herbert. Though he willfully shut out all contemporary rap — “I didn’t want any flows, no beat selection” from anyone else to encroach on his process, he says — he invited more feedback from his inner circle than ever before. “I dropped the arrogance for this album,” he explains. “I didn’t argue [when someone was unimpressed by a demo]. As soon as someone was like, ‘Ehh,’ I pressed next — I dropped the, ‘Ah, man, you didn’t hear what I said?’” This does not immediately strike one as a good idea. Creating a comeback record — to which you’ve given your name as a title — by committee after a long and fraught hiatus seems destined to make it an album of compromises and dull consensus. And Soul admits that this change made it harder to get back into a rhythm than he expected. “I wanted to challenge myself to just craft freely — I didn’t want to go in with a theme or a concept. It was difficult.” So he courted those notes from friends and collaborators; when producers asked him what sorts of beats he was looking for, he asked what they imagined him rapping over.
But finishing, Herbert was interrupted by something far graver than lukewarm feedback to some skeletons. While he is understandably reticent to talk about it in detail, Soul confirms what is implied by the video for “Do Better” — that he attempted suicide. He does not say explicitly when this attempt occurred but nods when I cite a lyric about 2021 being the worst year of his life. “Most of what you’ve heard, I wrote before … it,” he says, his voice trailing off after he settles on that last word. And so, the limp. “I just wanna make it clear: You see me smiling, but it’s not funny. I think that’s just my way of healing from it.”
Herbert veers from warm soul to turn-of-the-century Timbaland steel, the nakedly emotive post-DJ Premier strings that trickled down through rap’s underground to, well, DJ Premier, who furnishes the breakneck album closer. These never feel like disparate parts; the sequencing does not smooth the transitions so much as make them seem instinctive. It externalizes Soul’s insecurities but does not wallow — it mines his past for vivid detail without growing sentimental.
In the parking lot, Ab-Soul moves on to other topics before circling back to his gratitude for the support system that has seen him through his recovery; he gives the kind of platitudes that everyone understands are insufficient, then smiles at their insufficiency. He returns to the notion that putting Herbert into the world could benefit people who are struggling. “We’re all going through things, all of us,” he says as we walk from the picnic table back to a different idling truck. “Me sharing my testimony — if it doesn’t help, it might let you know you’re not the only one going through it. That’s what ultimately gives me the courage to put it out there.”