Don't Call Him Ab-Soul
Ab-Soul takes us through the inner working of his new album, Herbert, revealing how the embrace of therapy, asking for help, and remaining present, allowed him to reintroduce himself with the most personal and polished project of his career.
Ab-Soul steps out of a car service shuttle like he's returning to an old haunt. Pristinely preserved Jordan 4s hit the pavement the way a kid lands in a sandbox, wreaking of gleeful eagerness, half-smoked Newports, and a charming familiarity.
To my knowledge, and his own, it's the first time the Carson rapper has entered the space that hosted us. But he daps the team up as if reconnecting with dear friends, sending wall-shaking waves through the Okayplayer studio. "Get Questlove on the phone!" Ab says, making his way to the green room.
It's a few weeks out from the release of Herbert, the rapper’s first album since 2016. Titled after the birth name only close friends and family know him by, the album provides an intimate and occasionally fractured lens into the increasingly guarded bubble he’s called home for the last six years. He’s been mostly off the topographical and musical maps for the better part of the time between his last and forthcoming projects. But Ab refuses to call it a comeback. "I never really stopped," he said, pausing to sip a few ounces of Añejo tequila. "Took a little break after my last album 'cause I just felt like it was needed to kind of reset. [Do What Thou Wilt] was pretty dark and I wanted to return brighter, to say the least.”
As the rest of the world gradually resurfaces from their COVID-induced hibernations, the sentiments here are real and far too relatable. For the venerable 35-year-old, however, there’s a touch of grief beyond the collective sadness of what a world-stopping public health crisis wrought. In the time since he released his 2016 album, Do What Thou Wilt, the rapper has been personally touched by tragedy on several occasions. In 2018, he was hit hard by the death of dear friend and longtime collaborator, Mac Miller. And in late 2021, the rapper suffered another loss to his inner circle with the passing of Top Dawg Entertainment affiliate, Doe Burger. “We were literally Huey and Riley,” Ab somberly recounts, lifting his sleeve to reveal an inked silhouette of one of the iconically contentious Freeman brothers from The Boondocks.
Mining morbid realities for meaning is nothing new for the rapper. On his 2012 song "The Book of Soul" he pulls proverbs from biblical verse and indigenous mythologies to make sense of his partner and high school sweetheart Loriana Angel Johnson's suicide. Almost 10 years later, his own attempt, illustrated in the video for the heavy and introspective Herbert single "Do Better," mirrored the manner in which Johnson took her life. While he's rightfully reluctant to detail that particularly dark period during the pandemic, the rapper assured me "the song was made prior to those events," alluding to a mental health bout quietly fought for years.
To recenter, he finally sought out counseling, and though he suspects it's become a little too trendy, Herb's advocacy for therapy as a means of self-repair is louder than ever. "You have to surrender yourself to it and go in with intent," the rapper said, explaining how his sessions with an unbiased professional who had no stake in the outcome of his actions, helped him reclaim his vitality and refocus on the present. “It's hard not to dwell on the past and it's hard not to sweat about the future. But that shoulda, woulda, coulda shit, bro. That's out."
Across the 19-track sprawl of Herbert, the newfound clarity and confidence reveal themselves with each turn of phrase. The writing is sharp, dense, and personal, but avoids taking itself too seriously. The beat selection and sequencing are as lucid and fluid as the rapper's signature delivery. And for the first time in a while, the reinforcements from TDE's in-house team of hitmakers and marketing minds were genuinely welcomed. "I asked for help this time, versus trying to take full control. I was just being open to suggestion and criticism," he recalled of the pivot in his approach to album crafting. He remembers having to "fight for records" in the past, but doesn't seem convinced those clashes were worth the tensions they unearthed. Relinquishing the reigns and entrusting the grand design of Herbert to one of rap’s most decorated regimes unburdened the rapper, allowing all parties involved in the album’s creation to center themselves in their respective strengths. Now embracing a type of collective populism on piecing projects together, there's room for it all. Sounwave, TaeBeast, and Kal Banx, can ensure the album’s never short on stadium anthems (“F.O.M.F” and “Gang’nem,”) while Hit-Boy and DJ Premier ("a dream come true" collaboration for the rapper,) can punctuate the tracklist with connoisseur-friendly frequencies.
Only an hour or so before we spoke, the rapper had just concluded an appearance on Sway In The Morning and was still gassed from getting to freestyle over Kendrick Lamar's "Die Hard." He touted the performance as a rare and special opportunity to try on a labelmate's fit, which is surprising only until you consider how long they have shared the TDE banner, and how hard they've worked to distinguish their styles and philosophies along their respective paths of rhythm.
Though they diverged early on in their careers, Herb and Kendrick are kindred rap spirits to this day. They share commensurate reverence for luminary lyricists and their first musical monikers, Snap G and K Dot, wouldn't feel entirely out of place in the lineup of a Golden Era crew from the Bronx. While Kung Fu Kenny went on to become the label's most exalted writer, The Black Lip Pastor remains TDE's brilliantly-blunted thinking man, conducting galaxy-brained interrogations of cultural constructs, conspiracies, and — most of all — himself.
When it came to confronting Kendrick's departure from TDE, Herb was initially as surprised as most people probably found themselves. And he claims to have learned about Kendrick's choice in precisely the same manner as any pedestrian might have. But Herb eventually learned to trust his teammate’s personal compass, speaking of Kendrick like a proud sibling and ensuring their relationship is as strong and secure as ever. “I romanticized the idea of us all staying together forever, but I felt like if it was for me to know, he would've said something to me about it,” he admits. “I respect him on another level. And, I've learned so much from him. I'm just grateful to call him family. So, I don't care what company he works for.”
So it's on the next chapter for the seasoned and cerebral scribe. But Herb doesn’t see much sense in getting too worked up about what’s coming down the pipeline or anything, for that matter, that might compromise this grounded and rejuvenated form he's taken. While the world gets to know just who Herbert is, the rapper's attention is directed at holding the presence he's honed over the last few years, supporting the hulking, hurting, and agitated behemoth that is his most polished album to date, and collecting some hard-earned flowers along the way. Everything else is best left to the cosmos. “I’m living in the now, brother,” he said. “And right now, we god with an extra ‘O.’”
Executive Creative Director: @anaykapomare
Assistant Director: @Bonzzvito