March 5th, 2014
Having spent 2011 and 2012 listening to so much new, free hip-hop that I almost lost track of who I was and where I laid my head (in case you were wondering: a man who writes about comics on the internet; Glasgow), I made a decision early at the start of 2013 to cut back a bit. While this means that someone like the Bottie Beast is probably better placed to give you an overview of what’s going on with hip-hop right at this point in 2014, it also means that I’ve had a decent amount of time to really dig into the albums and songs I did check out over the past few years.
With an album like Ab-Soul’s Control System, it’s just as well that I had time to spare because otherwise I might not have got my head around how good it really is.
As the member of the Black Hippy crew who does the most to live up to the back half of that description, Ab-Soul risks being obscured by some of the more traditionally appealing rappers in his posse. Schoolboy Q’s perfectly titled Habits and Contradictions provided an early warning that the current era was going to belong to the TDE crew, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city received so much praise that it kicked off a discussion about what rap fans mean when they label something a classic.
Still, now that the smoke has started to clear – well, shit, as I type this Q’s Oxymoron is currently setting fire to my speakers but let’s deal with that in a separate post – it’s Control System that’s stayed with me. Ab’s too stoned and too subtle to make an album full of straight bangers, but there’s something about the raw fluidity of his rhymes that just gets to me. The way he can get stuck on a series of punishing homonyms for most of a verse before switching his flow up to effortlessly hit series of breathlessly off-kilter punchlines suggests the movement of a mind that’s still in the process of making itself up. This sits in stark-contrast to Lamar’s ever-more impressive verbal gymnastics: the power of good kid, m.A.A.d. city lies in the fact that it always seems like Kendrick knows what he’s doing, while the genius of Control System is that it makes you feel like you’re thinking these thoughts for the first time every time.
The cracks in Ab-Soul’s voice have as much to do with this as words he’s speaking. See, for example, the slight break that occurs as his voice raises at the end of the line “Hennessey and Coke, 1800/We mixing dark and light like it’s the 1800s” in ‘Bohemian Grove’. This slight inflection makes the sideways synaptic shift from drinking to the history of slavery sound like an accident, like a connection that Ab-Soul was unaware of until he’d made it.
‘Terrorist Threats’ is an even more impressive performance on this front, with the early barrage of big picture chants giving way to a stream of fixed details, and climaxing in an impersonation of Danny Brown’s vocal mannerisms so convincing that it summons Brown himself out of the void. Carefully as this may well be, when you’re listening to Brown’s tooth-rattling poverty rap it feels more like a by-product of Soul’s imagination running away with itself, inspired by that massive, glacial beat:
From start to end, the production on Control System has more to do with the old idea of hip-hop as “soul on ice” than it does with the sounds so many of TDE’s contemporaries thrive on - Ab-Soul’s already shown that he can ride out the protean rush of a Rustie production, but he’ll always sound more at home rapping against traditional instrumentation that’s been locked in to a robot rhythm, its full range clipped to better emphasise the cold snap of synthetic drums.
‘Terrorist Threats’ exists at one end of this spectrum, the one where you can’t see for the breath in front of your face, and where piss freezes before it has a chance to hit the ground. The ethereal, Star Trek style vocal wailing ensures that this environment seems more sci-fi than street, and this harsh spectacle inspires Soul and Brown to spit fire, but they never threaten to damage the jagged contours of the tacks itself. ‘Mixed Emotions’, meanwhile, presents both lower and upper caps soul in their partially thawed states. Broken horn samples drip like ice water off the chill of the beat as Soul details his lean-flavoured dreams, imagining himself buying drinks for everyone in the bar then sitting there “like a fucking star”, quietly trying to re-freeze his soul before the feelings kick back in.
The only question that’s not answered in that song is what sort of emotions he’s leaning away from. Control System progresses from playful statements of intent (‘SoulHo3′, ‘Track Two’) to trip tracks both psychedelic (‘Pineal Gland’) and anti-social (‘SOPA’) by way of broadsides against all sort of authority, from the Whitehouse (the aforementioned ‘Terrorist Threats’) to predefined gender roles (‘Double Standard’). By the time you get to the ever-escalating, deadpan bravado of ‘A Rebellion’, which climaxes with Soul deciding that he’s going to take out god like an unusually chill Frank Miller hero, you can no longer ignore the hurt that’s beaming out through the smoke.
Control System‘s penultimate track, ‘The Book of Soul’, is the only point on this where both the music and the vocals are entirely free of ice – though the climax to the aforementioned ‘Double Standard’ comes close – so it makes sense that this would be where Soul finally catches up with himself.
Just months before the album’s release [Ab-Soul's] girlfriend and frequent collaborator Alori Joh jumped from a radio tower. “Book” is framed as a letter to Joh and offers a detailed account of their seven year relationship, all the blemishes and the beauty and of course the end. At one point he talks himself out of a plan to fall off a fucking tower trying to find her and as he does his voice cracks at the exact pitch of a man being destroyed by his own words. I’d call it the bravest rap performance in many years if I even thought he was performing. He’s not, not exactly. This isn’t Soul imagining or recreating emotions for tape, but him giving listeners a real time document of the actual grieving process. I don’t know how he found the strength to say these things into a microphone, I just hope doing so helped relieve some of his pain.
I can’t see myself offering a better write-up of the song than that any time soon so I won’t bother trying. What I would ask is, what effect is Soul trying for here, putting this song at the end of an album where he has seemed to outsmart himself at every turn, and has summoned up the spirits of over rappers at various points only to end up trading lines off with them (the Danny Brown trick having been replicated with the rest of the Black Hippy crew throughout Control System’s running time)?
In context, ‘The Book of Soul’ feels like an attempt by the artist to disguise his own intention; a plea to bring back Alori Joh so painful that Soul had to hide his true intentions from himself.
When Joh fails to materialise on cue – the break between “I live to let you” and “shine” was surely the perfect moment – all that’s left for Ab-Soul to do is to plead with the listener, and with himself, not to let themselves be “dethroned by these systems of control.” The mind flashes back to the climac of an earlier song, ‘A Rebellion’, in which Soul was heard crooning “I know I’m all alone on this one/Who’s bold enough to rebel?”, only to be met by this response from his lost beloved: “That’s the joint/That’s the jam/Turn it up/Play it again.”
Some things are outside of even this rapper’s powers, though, and ‘The Book of Soul’ finishes with a sense of certainty that no amount of spins will bring a different outcome. All that’s left for Soul to do is to call round the boys, and try to get rowdy in the hope that he can stay strong…