Welcome to “New Music with Nick.” In this column, I will be reviewing some of the most notable new album releases across various genres, focusing on hip-hop, R&B and pop music. Join me in exploring the ever-shifting landscape of the streaming era.
Ab-Soul: “HERBERT” (December 16, 2022)
Herbert Anthony Stevens IV, better known as Ab-Soul, has gone practically his entire career being overlooked. Key figures in the genre understand his greatness — and he certainly understands it himself — but the mainstream audiences have never really given him the credit he deserves. Soul has always played a very particular role as an abstract, misunderstood lyricist, and unfortunately, that’s a role that hardly leads to widespread acclaim and appreciation. Ab-Soul marches to the beat of his own drum and has provided hip-hop with lots of great music and innovation.
As Top Dawg Entertainment’s abstract and oftentimes over-the-head lyricist, the Carson, California native has never really been one for following what’s orthodox. Ever since his first mixtapes dropped over a decade ago, Ab-Soul has been grappling with random conspiracy theories, conceptual wordplay and the ills of society. Typically, Ab-Soul reflects deeply on the outside world, finding some of the most idiosyncratic aspects of society to judge and analyze.
“HERBERT” sees more of Ab-Soul’s energy being focused on himself instead of the crazy and broken world around him. No matter what the topic of an Ab-Soul album, you can tell that a significant effort went into it. It’s truly a very thoughtful album, as all of his work tends to be.
The album comes following a massive hiatus of almost exactly six years after the release of “Do What Thou Wilt.” Judging from the content and specific references within “HERBERT,” the last six years have clearly been a lot for Ab-Soul. He has been dealing with trials and tribulations of personal tragedies and mental healthissues that even led him to an attempted suicide. The music video for “Do Better”, a profoundly moving song, narrates what he has been going through and his will to do better in life. A wide variety of issues and feelings are addressed throughout the album, and they are done with a lyrical precision that few rappers can provide.
Musically, the album really has some great moments. The aforementioned “Do Better” is a great song and one of the key foundational storytelling pieces of the album, with sharp bars over a beautiful sample. The deeply sentimental mood of the track makes it one of the album’s highlights.
“Goodman” might be the album’s best song, with an intensely impassioned delivery and punchline-heavy bars over a fantastic soul sample, complemented with a great closing feature from TDE executive Punch. “Gang’nem” and “Moonshooter” bring an eerie atmosphere and choppy experimental flows with a methodical delivery. “Hollandaise” and “Church On The Move” provide lighthearted fun, with high energy over entertaining production. These tracks have an overall feel-good energy while still maintaining the strong lyricism. The experimental “Bucket” is captivating in its sharp writing, minimalistic production and laid-back smoothness.
However, the album jumps around at times in quality — a few tracks range from mediocre to downright awful. “Positive Vibes Only” might be the worst song I have ever heard from Ab-Soul. It’s just terrible, from the abysmal vocal editing to the production that sounds like it wouldn’t make the cut for a low-budget 2004 Nintendo game. I have no idea what he was thinking on this one or why it made the album.
No other songs were this awful, but another handful like “The Wild Side,” “Art of Seduction,” “Fallacy” and “It Be Like That” became boring after a couple of listens. A couple of the intended high-energy hits also fell a bit flat for me. “FOMF” and “Go Off” both had something preventing them from really clicking for me (such as Russ’s terrible verse on “Go Off”).
It absolutely could have been a better album. Certain songs did not need to be on here, and certain songs felt either unfinished, in need of more work or just not up to Ab-Soul’s typical standard of quality. Still, I am not overly disappointed with the result. There are still many redeeming qualities to this album, and a couple of these songs will stay in a long-term rotation for me.
The TDE rapper has had a bigger impact on the genre than many realize or would like to acknowledge. A prominent lyricist of the modern generation, Ab-Soul has created some of the most quality abstract hip-hop records of the last fifteen years. Projects like cult classic album “Control System” have inspired top lyricists, influenced the underground and provided a glimpse into just what Soul is capable of when he’s at his best. The West-Coast, experimental and conscious sound of Ab-Soul has become unique to the path he’s paved himself for many years now.
In the end, it’s so great to have Ab-Soul back to releasing music. He’s truly a sensational lyrical talent who provides so much to hip-hop. It will always be exciting to listen to what’s on his mind, no matter what he’s talking about. “HERBERT” is a critical point in his arc of growth as both a person and as an artist, and it’s wonderful to see this development come to fruition in his work.
Favorite Songs: “Goodman,” “Bucket,” “Do Better,” “Hollandaise,” “Gang’nem” “Church On The Move,” “Moonshooter”
Album Score: 70/100
Check out this Spotify Playlist and like it to check out some of my favorite songs of 2022.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.