Ab-Soul – Herbert: Review

Mentally exhausting but exuberantly rewarding, Ab-Soul’s new album Herbert takes us through hurdles as Soul reflects on life and emotional imbalances that have placed him into a zone where the focus was his mental health. 2014’s Stigmata felt like a linear direction of drug-infused beats built with the complexities of perfectly quaffed glass, and Do What Thou Wilt felt more of the same, just lesser in sonic appeal and construction. But that isn’t the case with Herbert, an album that feels more like the dark undercurrents beneath the percussion getting refined and letting it control are more linear approach instead of flip-flopping between the overly experimental and the “Ab-Soul, Asshole” that we’ve listened to since Longterm Mentality. It’s an evident relic of the past with its jazzy, at times lightly funkadelic tones that give us similar tendencies akin to the audacious and beautiful “Illuminate” from 2012’s Control System. It isn’t devoid of lyrical grit, where he can shift the parameters of his flows, keeping you engaged as Soul never diverts into songs that wane too much into darker experimentations.

As a lyricist, Ab-Soul’s content is kitschy compared to most populous rap in the above or underground scene. It may have been why he never got an Interscope Records co-sign, allowing him to get down to the nitty-gritty and deliver songs where his sleeves ache, and his grief is on full display like he did with “Closure” off Stigmata. That’s still prevalent here, along with more reflections that sees Ab-Soul constructing his multi-layered persona with vitriol. We hear it in the twinkly “Fallacy,” which details Ab-Soul’s hiccups and moments where he succeeds. It’s in the emotionally complex “Herbert” and “The Wild Side,” which shows us who he has been throughout the years – someone constantly on the side of the road where there’s an obstacle with every step. It’s a blissful melancholy that gets highlighted over beautifully resonant and sometimes minimalist (comparatively) production, continuously boasting the thematic prowess of Soul. Ab-Soul is one to knock out of the park more consistently when the nature of the tracks wanes on personable instead of flaunting and flexing, though there have been hits within that realm, like “Hunnid Stax.” We hear the essence of it on the gripping and smooth “Hollandaise.”

Time passes, and what you thought you knew may have been incorrect from the get-go. Recently, Edie Falco remarked in an interview about her role in Avatar 2: The Way of Water – when she filmed, what she thought it could make on opening weekend, etc. – Falco noted that she believed the film was released and flopped. Similarly, Ab-Soul’s mild silence since 2016, only appearing as a featured artist or short, fulfilling singles, reminded me of a pre-2015 Ab-Soul, where the focus on experimentation had him flying too close to the sun. Unlike Icarus or Falco’s thoughts on Avatar: The Way of Water, Ab-Soul didn’t flop and had been bettering himself, growing as an artist, and finding meaning on his journeys. We see that with the beautifully constructed and focused concept album that imbues the essence of who Soul, musically and spiritually.

Containing a spiritual connection brings confidence toward having a multitude of producers board the ship to give us something as coherent as listening to screamo with freshly clean ears. There is an underlying distinction in styles as it transitions, allowing for seamless continuations of narrative greatness. The production boasts the content getting reflected, whether mellow or more boisterous, like “Positive Vibes Only.” Unfortunately, as slick as the beat is, the track doesn’t have the lyrical frontness and feels too lost in its production to make anything out of it, unlike “Hollandaise,” which brings a lot of ammo. It isn’t like the nuanced and ever-growing sounds of “Art of Seduction” and “Do Better.” It’s a flurry of simplicity that retains depth with how it gets constructed, unlike the overly styled beats of past songs like “D.R.U.G.S.” and “Sapiosexual.” Here, there is a fine line between the two; sometimes, you can’t distinguish what hits and doesn’t at first. When Ab-Soul chooses production that goes the extra mile, like “Go Off,” that sense of doubt washes away swiftly as you hear Soul command the beat and take it to the next level. Unfortunately, featured rapper Russ doesn’t match the quality writing from Ab-Soul and Big Sean, but he’s only a quick slight that doesn’t deter from the quality of the final product.

Herbert is a fantastic return for Ab-Soul. He’s less reliant on creating an expansive piece on a limited canvas, instead aiming for something more constructive, linear, and oozing with melancholy; you can’t help but feel attracted to the lyrics and sounds. It’s a fantastic record that I’d wish released early because of the distinctively wrought process of dropping year-end lists during the first week of December as if it’s some desolate month with little to offer, yet, we’ve gotten two incredible hip-hop albums.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

SZA – SOS: Review

Continuing to succeed in her sonic expressions with a diverse palette of sounds, SZA defines how we receive the music by the album title. Layered with emotional and thematic elements, CTRL saw SZA commanding the stage and giving us a concise and consistent range of work that doesn’t make you overthink to understand who she is presenting. She has control. It’s the opposite of the follow-up SOS; it takes you through various soundscapes, some that we haven’t heard from her prior. It’s SZA exploding with all these ideas built through the last four years and offers a reflection of an artist who’s yearning to get heard. It’s like she is on an island with creators, just making music day after day, but nothing is getting released, so she issues her own mental SOS so that she can let it out and we can further understand her artistry. There is crisp sequencing, allowing the album to hurdle through missteps deriving featured artists or simplistic percussion a few times; the minor hindrances don’t over-shroud the lot of fantastic music SZA gives us.

Subtleness may be what SOS lacks, but it isn’t driving the strengths, meaning it doesn’t break the album. SZA keeps her sleeves bare with emotion as she laments and vents about her world, which correlates with sheer relevancy, giving SOS a grander platform for musical resonance. From the beginning, you are not getting hints; you get directness without a curtain failsafe to shield her when she makes a listener uncomfortable, if that. After the title track, we get a stream of consciousness that envelops us through these auspicious, musically metaphorical dualities that boast her person in reflection with the lyrics she delivers. “Kill Bill” sees SZA using the film Kill Bill as a means to create these allusions to situations that have done her wrong; she likens herself to Beatrice Kiddo leading down her path of destruction, which may ultimately see her having to confront her ex’s new girlfriends. Similarly, there’s “Gone Girl,” a starry R&B Ballad that gives us an inside look at the mind of SZA as she contemplates leaving her lover and emphasizing her ghosting by using allusions to the novel and film of the same name.

SZA’s stream of consciousness continues to add weight to her shoulders, buoying a robust response from the listener. One of which keeps you engaged through her songwriting, which outshines the production more consistently than not. Using the title SOS as this allegorical meaning toward delivering an explosion of sounds adds credence to the quantity and varying styles on the album, but more so the latter. Though not inherently bloated, this fresh consistency blooms through all but two tracks, even if there are minor sidesteps. “Far” is one of three tracks that allow itself to feel distant from the pack on a sonic level as opposed to its lyrical textures, which adds to the sentiments getting delivered on SOS. That strong flow of SOS gets slightly drowned by two of the features, which aren’t as complementary, either in style or with the quality of their verse, leaving the songs emptier. Don Tolliver and Travis Scott are the featured artists I talk about; they add little to the 23-track macrocosm of riotous emotions within her delivery, becoming more of an afterthought that could have gotten removed for crisper consistency. 

Fortunately, these two hindrances don’t take away from the explosive work SZA gives us, especially with its song transitions. Continuing to explore contextual verbal duality, SZA begins a wave of beauty with “Gone Girl,” shifting into SZA delivering a rap verse on “Smoking On My Ex Pack,” then turning into this vibrant dream-pop collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and rising further on the monstrous punk track “F2F.” “F2F” takes you back to the early 00s, when burgeoning female punk artists let their angst get heard effervescently. You get taken aback instantly, mainly because it’s something different, and its flows. Though predominantly R&B, some tracks come to you never feel perturbed due to an understanding of SZA’s concept that allows them to come to you freely.

SZA’s vocals naturally assimilate to each style she exhumes, whether it’s punk rock, soft singer-songwriter pop like on “Blind” and “Conceited,” or grand R&B powerhouses like “Notice Me,” “Shirt,” or the bravado of “Low,” with the thematic potency of songs akin to “Irreplaceable.” It shows an exuberant amount of confidence as she commands who she is, especially in her day-to-day life. Unfortunately, some of these tracks don’t get overly creative with the drum patterns, leaving many songs to rely on their building blocks of sounds and vocals to keep you engaged. SZA can take anything she’s given by the horns and steer it toward greatness, and it’s been evident pre-CTRL. “Good Days” is one of a few examples that makes you realize percussion is second nature to the synths, the strings, and an array of melodies that offer a spacious atmosphere for you to get lost in and contemplate. It may be a potential problem that can come from having a deep platoon of producers helping you deliver consistency on a canvas, some of which may add more than needed, like the slim sonic redundancy of “Far,” but SZA beautifully pieces it together. 

SOS is a fantastic collection of songs that delivers upon its concept with emotional splendor; you’re never cashing out as you want to keep this album on repeat. I was one of those to feel that I couldn’t stop leaving it on loop, as the melancholy, sometimes minimalist production, gives us an open space to dissect SZA’s lyricism. Definitely, worth holding out for your lists to give it a chance to break through, and it will, like it did with me.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning: Review

It’s been five years since Isaiah Rashad delivered a full-length project. As we would find out, he had been through some personal issues like relapsing and going broke, eventually trying to better himself – post haste. His new album, The House Is Burning, speaks on his quietness, delivering tracks that explain his absence and his growth as an artist. 

The House Is Burning is a metaphor that sees Isaiah Rashad’s home burning as he sits there, wondering if he should proceed to leave or not. He mentions in an in-depth interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, claiming: “And if it all burns down, you still going to try to figure it out, right? Because if not, you might as well just lay in that motherfucker. You got to start over.” From start to finish, you get a sense of where his head was the past few years. It becomes a driving force for the music on the album, even though it may drive them off the deep end. This album is about new beginnings; however, these new beginnings sometimes come with scattershot ideas that find themselves back to square one.

This is the case with the lusty song, “Claymore.” It features St. Louis rapper Smino and Isaiah Rashad falling head over heels for their significant other. The implementation of stutters in the verses exemplify these notions, or rather it could be the relativity I have as I stutter when under the same pretenses. “Claymore” is the third most bombastic song on the album, after “From The Garden” and “Lay Wit Ya.” 

“From The Garden,” featuring Lil Uzi Vert, feels like when the cool teacher resorts to scratching his chalkboard because nobody was paying attention. It could be a problem with Lil Uzi Vert consistently escaping his comfort zone and delivering these awkward and poorly misguided flex raps. It hinders any chance of having an urge to return, despite Isaiah Rashad’s smooth verse. It isn’t like “Lay Wit Ya,” which brings back memories of classic Memphis bounce with tweaks consisting of modern sonic textures. “Lay Wit Me” took a minute to grow on me, but it relays the vibrant sound of the south, which both artists command – Duke Deuce more so than Isaiah. Nevertheless, these aren’t the album’s strengths.

The music on The House Is Burning is a mix of different southern hip-hop influences and elevating them to fit the tonal mood he is feeling. He has tackled nuances of bounce in the production, but it never sounded as fully formed as it does on his new album. It makes the soft-spoken songs have the weight needed to imprint a lasting thought. For example, “THIB” speaks on looming shadows create from an absence of an inner Hyde, while Jekyll remains hidden from fright. It adds validation to the hiatus and contrasts this smooth confidence in his other tracks. 

This self-assured nature stems from his insane talent, which has allowed him to stand out amongst his peers. Unfortunately, this confidence is as self-assured as a filmmaker is with the final product of their film — neé David Lowry and The Green Knight edits. Isaiah Rashad has one constant – referencing himself as Mister Miracle and the confidence that comes from that doesn’t overpower the artist inside. There is no denying that The House Is Burning sets aflame his emotions and lets them culminate in the air, but it replicates a mostly broken-calm demeanor. Isaiah Rashad isn’t creating a fully formed narrative that extends from start to finish and instead delivers his feelings on a silver platter. The structure resembles a thought-out project that has its head on straight, albeit missing a few sparks.

The feeling comes from the songs: “From the Garden” and “Hey Mista,” which feel like placeholders. Fortunately the song, “Hey Mista” is a fun song that shows us an Isaiah Rashad that we’ve been missing, aka someone making music and having fun in the recording process. “Hey Mista” is resonant of Conner4Real’s verse known as The Catchphrase Verse, which shifts hip-hop dynamics because nobody had that many catchphrases. As Isaiah Rashad mentions in the liner notes of the song, he made it purely out of fun, as that second verse became a culmination of bars that make him chuckle. It’s fun to have, but it doesn’t fit the big picture despite coming across as unique and entertaining.

The producers Isaiah Rashad works with have somewhat of a telekinetic understanding of his style and vocal delivery without feeling redundant. It goes in tangent with Rashad’s mental process when creating a song. He mentions in an interview with Pitchfork – creating music is like mental gymnastics for him. There is an inner voice that speaks on his love of music, while the other steers him to rap about non-important personal issues, which detracts from the personal side on his last album, The Sun’s Tirade. It makes The House Is Burning feel unique on its own merits.

All of his projects have been different from the previous, and he shines on each project. It isn’t his best work to date, but it offers insight toward a progression with consistent appearances and drops from Rashad. It was as enjoyable as fresh apple pie on a Sunday morning, but with few sections filled with bitters. And if this is your first time listening to Isaiah, there is no better stepping stone than The House Is Burning.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.