Review: Ab-Soul, ‘HERBERT’

The return of Ab-Soul has been one for the history books; displaying triumph over a series of trials and tribulations through the world’s darkest period and living to tell the story.

It had been a hot minute since we had last heard from the black lip bastard himself as he took some time off after the release of his 2016 record, Do What Thou Wilt. Right when it looked like it was the second soul brother’s time to return, the world entered quarantine for a deadly pandemic. Coupled with issues of personal loss, drug addiction, and even suicide attempts, it seemed like Soul was constantly faced with a set of never-ending trials that tested his strength. His latest record serves as a relic of victory, proving these seemingly unwinnable battles can be triumphed upon and taken on one at a time.

Titled after his forename, HERBERT is the most personal collection of Ab-Soul’s life within his catalog, marking the shit from his hypothetical theses towards the realm of reality and life.

Photography: Jerritt Clark

Following the release of his 2012 breakthrough record, Control System, it was clear that Soul took a complete left turn in comparison to his TDE-affiliated peers. Rather than throw out the billboard-lurking classics that each member dabbled in, the black-lip pastor clearly had his own knack for deeper concepts through this art, leading him to delve deeper into hypotheticals rather than living in the moment. For the first time since the 2012 underground blockbuster, Soul is in his most transparent state, laying out different aspects of his life that have taken the wheel over his hiatus.

The record starts off on a high note as Soul reflects upon his extended break and how it has intertwined with his career as an artist, leading with a scripture that transitions into a melancholic intro. After hitting the midway point into the tune, the tempo shifts entirely as a monologue on how Ab-Soul’s success didn’t meet industry expectations seemingly fuelled the fire. Soul even goes on to say (“First they love me, then they hate me, then they love me again / I’m scratchin’ my head, I’m rubbin’ my chin / This ain’t the way it was supposed to be, supposedly, I’m close to an end / Don’t push me, I’m close to the edge, I’m no rookie”) as his opening lines to both halves of the record.

From there on out, Ab-Soul locks in, rapping at a caliber we’ve never heard him reach before. The levels of transparency that were reached helped elevate Soul to new heights as he strikes a new balance to loose lyricism and song structuring (a medium that lyrical heavyweights always struggled to hit). For every “HOLLANDAISE” or “GOODMAN” we also see a “DO BETTER” and “FALLACY”, proving that Soul was capable of reaching that medium. However, the real eye-catcher came in the form of a DJ Premier-produced bar-fest, titled “GOTTA RAP”, which felt like a definitive Ab-Soul record. The bold statement in the chorus displays a more assertive side to Ab-Soul as he raps over a Preemo beat in his traditional form (“I like to call myself the God of rap / But really I just gotta rap”).

Sonically speaking, Soul manages to strike all corners as well, ranging across different styles from head-nodding beats to soothing instrumentals. Ab-Soul displays such diversity as he adapts to the mixture of instrumentals, effortlessly flipping them into concrete records with such profound depth. Though the album is at his best when Soul gets his hands on the spacey, obscure-sounding records; the lead singles, “MOONSHOOTER” & “GANG’NEM” serve as fitting examples as they vastly differ in sound but emit the same free-spirited feel on record. Ab-Soul has always thrived along the unconventional records and his presence on HERBERT still shows symptoms of his unorthodox mindset.

Soul upped the ante and bet on himself in a time when he needed it the most, leading to him delivering his best efforts to date. Compared to his last two records—Do What Thou Wilt and These Days—many feared that Ab-Soul hit a bump in the road. But it’s clear the extended time away from music helped for the better as HERBERT shows the Carson pastor take steps in the right direction. One of the best touches on the album were the extended versions of the lead singles. Both “HOLLANDAISE” and “MOONSHOOTER” received changes with “HOLLANDAISE” getting a beat switch transitioning into an extra verse and “MOONSHOOTER” receiving a Joey Badass feature.

Soul pours everything left in him onto this canvas, making for an emotional listen when taking into consideration the struggles he’s swept under the rug. From losing some of his closest friends to surviving a suicide attempt, you can’t help but feel emotional when you see Soul acknowledge these demons on records like “DO BETTER” and “HERBERT”, going as far as revealing: “Trouble on my mind, I was trying not to lose it / Top on my line ’bout new music / Did a little rehab, need a little more / I’m an addict, got some habits, everybody know”. Admittedly, the length of the record can seem like a drag, experiencing a minor drag in the middle, but the intimacy of the record is enough to keep listeners engaged for the full ride.

Ab-Soul runs his campaign for the best comeback of the decade with HERBERT, truly returning in the best form of himself. Soul caters to absolutely nobody but himself, offering an honest perspective on the past, present and future of the Carson native.

8.5 / 10