Ab-Soul, real name Herbert Stevens IV, has always had a wizard-like mystique to him. Hidden behind dark glasses – light sensitivity the result of a childhood bout with Johnson-Stevens Syndrome – and rapping a mile a minute, the wordsmith seemed to inspire awe among even his peers at Top Dawg Entertainment and fellow members of Black Hippy, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q.
This mystique was present during the early-to-mid 2010s when Ab-Soul consistently released music, but in the last six years of silence, it’s grown further. Where was Ab-Soul? Was he okay? Would he even release music again? Ab-Soul verses have always been deeply personal, revealing obscure, even occultist, personal philosophies. However, 2016’s strained Do What Thou Wilt. saw the MC fall further into conspiracy theories, hampering his relationships and music. The silence that followed was concerning.
On Herbert, Herbert Stevens IV comes back to reality. It’s a marvellous return at that. Interspersed by verses that are vulnerable, regretful and braggadocious all at once, set across softer production, Herbert makes for uplifting listening, despite the pain present on the record. Like the artist himself, it’s immeasurably more sanguine than the darkness that existed in his earlier projects.
Herbert begins with a voicemail from Ab-Soul’s grandmother asking what’s to be gained from success if one loses their soul on the way. Its opening track, ‘Message In A Bottle’, starts with a boom-bap beat, the first nod to the older generation of rap, before production transitions to a sparser, distorted, almost shoegaze sound, over which Ab-Soul touches on loss, expectation and the way he views himself – all concepts that will shape the next hour.
‘Hollandaise’ is another song of two halves. The first is dotted with deliberately goofy, forced puns, contrasting the heavy material being discussed. Then the beat switches up, Ab-Soul transitioning into a more energetic flow.
‘Moonshooter’ sees Ab-Soul enlist Joey Bada$$, two of modern rap’s oldest souls. The production is soothing, the hook disarmingly simple, setting the perfect stage for Ab-Soul and Joey to drop three great verses, at one the former touching on the juxtaposition between professing otherworldly powers and self-doubt: “I decorate my emotions in metaphors / Tell stories with allegories, so on, so forth / But who gives a shit? The long lost lyricist / N***** got rich talking nonsense.”
‘Do Better’ was the album’s lead single and is already one of the stand-out hip-hop tracks of the year. It’s the best song on Herbert, comfortably – a testament to its quality more than any weakness in the other tracks. The Zacari feature is beautiful. The song is painful. The visualiser was brilliant, as was the artwork. It all becomes more meaningful, sad and impressive with the news that Ab-Soul reportedly tried to commit suicide last year.
“Most of what you’ve heard, I wrote before … it,” he revealed in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I just wanna make it clear: You see me smiling, but it’s not funny. I think that’s just my way of healing from it.”
On the one hand, it seems surprising that so much of a record this grounded and self-aware could be written before attempting to take your own life; on the other hand, it proves how unpredictable, delusional and ultimately fallible the darker corners of the mind can prove. For all the progress, that was just last year, and Ab-Soul references the difficulties of 2021 later on the record with ‘Positive Vibes Only’.
He seems to be in a better place now, and that’s wonderful to hear.
It’s hard to say from afar, but Herbert Stevens IV has always seemed like a person who was too clever for his own good, drugs and conspiracies only exaggerating this separation from the norm. His need to prove intelligence and humour slightly hinders the writing. A forced bit of wordplay is never too far away, and whether intentionally corny or not, it’s still corny nonetheless – but it’s a small mark on Ab-Soul’s record, a long-running theme in his work.
What’s also comforting about Herbert is that in returning to reality, Ab-Soul hasn’t settled on making a mediocre record. I’m sure some will be upset that one of rap’s great innovators has made a record closer to the straight and narrow. However, idiosyncrasy and experimentation are still very present.
An Ab-Soul record will never be a curated, flawless piece of artwork like, say, a Kendrick album, but, at his best, Herbert Stevens offers a rawness and honesty unrivalled, and it’s good to have him back.