Dec 21, 2022
Web Exclusive

By Chris Thiessen

There is something irresistible about the comeback story. We love to see people succeed and better themselves. Perhaps it’s simply taking joy in other people’s joy, or perhaps other people’s self-improvement gives us the push we need to keep moving forward ourselves. Probably, it’s both. So when confronted with an album like HerbertAb-Soul’s first record in six years in which the Carson rapper outlines his mental health battles, including an attempted suicide, and comes out the other side trying to “Do Better” and embracing “Positive Vibes Only”—our first instinct is to celebrate with all enthusiasm. This instinct is right. Still, we have a cultural artifact to engage with that exists separate from these events. And sometimes, as in the case of Herbert, there is less to be enthusiastic about in the finished product than in the growing process.

It’s worth noting first that more often than not, Herbert sounds fantastic. Ab-Soul is energized, working with over 20 producers across the album’s 18 songs who guarantee that, though the record is bloated, it never falls into a homogenous stupor. The chopped up soul samples of “Goodman” and the DJ Premier-helmed brassy boom-bap of “Gotta Rap” give Soul confidence, as he booms triumphantly on the latter, “I’m still standing behind every word I speak.” On more introspective beats, like the woody percussion and lush Zacari sample on “Do Better” or the melancholy jazz piano loop and sax flourishes on “It Be Like That,” Soul takes the opportunity to reflect, express regret, grieve, and hold on to hope: “Lord knows it’s been like that/But it don’t gotta end like that.”

In these moments, Soul is making the best music of his career—mature reflections on the past that offer a path forward. And though it often feels like he’s preaching to no one but himself, just trying to get up the nerve to live well in the moment, these moments resonate most of all. Unfortunately, many of Ab-Soul’s previous lyrical pitfalls continue to plague Herbert. He obsesses over being the sequel to hip-hop’s greats, calling himself KRS Two and 3Pac. He references conversations with Jay-Z and interpolates Grandmaster Flash, Nas, and Kendrick Lamar. He’s studied each of them closely, and though he’s about 15 years into his career, it still feels like Ab-Soul is chasing them, hoping that the flattery of imitation will gain him favor with hip-hop heads and classic MCs. Instead, we’re left with punchline lyricism that wants to be clever but spoils otherwise solid tracks with unfortunate wordplay like, “​​You’re very venereal, I’ma set you men straight.”

That song, the opener “Message In A Bottle,” begins with Ab-Soul’s grandma sharing the scripture verse “For what shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” It’s ironic then that the album’s greatest flaws are the ones where Soul seems to lose a piece of himself by playing for laughs or streams or old school clout. Keeping in mind that this record is released on the same label that dropped good kid, m.A.A.d city a decade ago, one could be forgiven for expecting something similarly transformative and cinematic to unfold from the opening homily. Yet, Herbert falls short of this, leaving plenty of room for Ab-Soul’s continued push to do better. (www.txdxe.com/collections/ab-soul)

Author rating: 6/10

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