In Elementary and Middle school, my school afternoons were pretty much always the same: my grandmother would pick me from school; I would go to her house; I’d start packing to leave at 5pm and proceed to stare outside the window waiting for my mother to take me home. I know, people worry about the entertainment kids are exposed to at a young age but being a little kid watching the evening news, seeing stories about car accidents and home invasions was pretty damn unnerving to my 8-year-old self. As I was waiting and hoping nothing bad happened to my mother on her way to pick me up from work.
Nothing ever happened, so my childhood fears were never realized. But, the paranoia that even the most mundane things like driving home from work could keep my mom from seeing me became a back of mind thought that has never left my mind—establishing early in life a firm belief to assume the worst in most situations.
Ab-Soul’s latest album is called Control System and has an unfortunate tag of being connected with paranoid conspiracy theories and drug side-effects. But, that stuff is one part that isn’t the heart of this album, nor his strength. All of that outer wrapping is just another way to frame someone disillusioned with the world, but still willing to ask thousands of questions to better understand it.
Also lost in focusing on conspiracy theories and drugs is how much of the fun of the album can be. Ab-Soul can go from quoting 2 Chainz’s “Spend It” to saying “shitted in a creator the last time I was on Saturn” on a song called “Pineal Gland”, which is could be about the drug DMT, but Soul himself thought of a more a “crazy nightmarish dream”.
And, outside of Schoolboy Q’s “Hands on the Wheel”, the one-two-punch of “Mixed Emotions” and “SOPA” are the most fun Black Hippy songs from this year. They are able to keep the mood joyous all while trying not to give a clichéd tribute to DJ Screw and still incorporate left of field references to Dr. Evil and “_____ taught me” in a song ostensibly about the “Stop Online Piracy Act”.
Ab-Soul can be fun, but he’s best when it comes to issues of the heart. “Lust Demons” manages to reference Trick Daddy’s “Sugar” and conveys that a rapper actually enjoys having sex, which beside Lil Wayne and Danny Brown is something that plenty of rappers actively struggle to do. Because after a while the casual “suck my dick” and many variations on the phrase used by rappers makes them sound like they’re disinterested in both sex and the song they’re rapping on; neither Ab-Soul nor Jay Rock display that problem on this track.
But, best song on the album that touches on this topic is its penultimate track “The Book of Soul”. It’s part auto-biographic tale of Ab-Soul dealing with Steven-Johnsons syndrome. The troubles it caused him in his young life and his relationship with Alori Joh, who committed suicide earlier this year.
I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, and still before the first verse is over, I want to stop the track and go back just to make sure what I’m hearing is true. The details Ab-Soul goes into are so raw and exposed that when he says he isn’t going to cry, I couldn’t say the same. The song is not only about his love of Alori Joh, but also his determination toward achieving his musical dream.
That desire to never give up, and not letting anything get in his way is fucking inspirational, and that he even acknowledges this drive was getting in the way of his and Alori’s relationship (“You wanted to go on dates, but I had a Sounwave beat tape trying to beat Drake”) is something that can be missed when listening to the song, but its inclusion makes the song more powerful. This isn’t a song of pity, it is something more than a tribute; Ab-Soul is trying to do the ridiculous task people say casually of learning from your mistakes and past experiences, but he shows that task is never easy.
I guess the reason I began this with that moment from my childhood is that I didn’t need to worry about my mother, but I still did. The conspiracy theories could put some distance between people and album, but it shouldn’t. As, the album comes to an end, Ab-Soul is still asking questions, because after an hour of questions and self-examinations the world hasn’t given him the right answers or reasons to stop asking questions.