- Top Dawg Entertainment
By Adam Depollo, Online Arts Editor
Published June 25, 2014
It’s been two years since Top Dawg Entertainment signee Ab-Soul released his last album, Control System, to generally positive reception in 2012. The interim between the previous release and the Carson, California MC’s most recent album These Days ... was a period of professional growth and personal tragedy for Ab-Soul and labelmates Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q, among others. Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city dominated the rap charts while earning five Grammy nominations — including Album of the Year — and definitively putting the Top Dawg label on the map. Riding the wave of Lamar’s success, ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart with “Collard Greens” and “Man of the Year” receiving heavy radio airplay. The glow of the label’s success was dimmed, however, by the February, 2012 suicide of Alori Joh, a young singer who contributed to several TDE tracks, including “HiiiPOWER” off of Lamar’s lauded section.80. The loss was particularly hard-felt by Ab-Soul, who was a longtime friend and sometimes lover of the late chanteuse.
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Ab-Soul thus approached the release of These Days ... with two heavy burdens weighing him down: the pain of Joh’s death and the pressure to live up to his labelmates’ success. While the powerfully emotional “Closure,” featuring Joh’s friend Jhené Aiko, seems to show that he has tackled the first of those two challenges, it’s hard to walk away from this album feeling that he’s succeeded in the latter.
There are certainly reasons to like These Days ... Ab-Soul clearly has an ear for structure, opening the album with a string of four tracks — starting with “God’s Reign” and ending with “Dub Sac”—that flow effortlessly into one another while exploring his vacillating opinion of his own success. “Just Have Fun/These Days,” “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude” and “Closure” serve as an excellent emotional midpoint for the album, separating the trap-heavy first half from the more philosophical, forward-thinking conclusion. The features, including Danny Brown, labelmates Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q and even Lupe Fiasco, are also generally impressive, Kendrick’s aggressive verse on “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude” being a particularly notable example.
Track-by-track, however, Ab-Soul just doesn’t bring anything innovative to the table. He consistently fails to produce memorable lines on just about every song, with the exceptions of “Closure” and “Ride Slow,” while his verses just seem lazy on a number of tracks, including “Feelin’ Us” and “World Rulers.” Add in some liberally borrowed flows and lyrics from Migos (“Just Have Fun/These Days), Chief Keef (“Feelin’ Us”), Drake (“Just Have Fun”) and Nas (“Stigmata”) and, from time to time, it gets hard to distinguish the real Ab-Soul material from a smattering of trap and classic West Coast tropes. The most interesting verse on the album isn’t even an Ab-Soul verse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kendrick’s rhymes on “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude” — a carbon copy of “Ab-Soul’s Outro” from section.80 — blow almost every other verse out of the water.
With These Days ..., Ab-Soul hasn’t succeeded in stepping out of the admittedly imposing shadows of Kendrick Lamar and even ScHoolboy Q, but that’s not to say there’s no way he could do it. He has some excellent taste in beats — see the Curti$$ King-and DJ Dahl-produced “Tree of Life” or “Ride Slow” by Larry Fisherman, a.k.a. Mac Miller — and when he pulls on more deeply personal material for his lyrics, as he does on “Closure,” he can put together impressive tracks that really have something to say. Mix those skills with his ear for album structure and I could imagine hearing a truly excellent Ab-Soul album a few years down the line. For now, though, Top Dawg Entertainment is still the Kendrick Lamar show.