Ab-Soul ‘Do What Thou Wilt.’ 1 Listen Album Review
When I was young and impressionable, Cartoon Network introduced me to a little boy with a big laboratory—he was considered a genius. His mind worked differently, it was more advanced; while other kids played with toys he was building robots. Dexter’s Laboratory taught me early that the title of "genius" wasn’t bestowed to just anyone, but only to those with an exceptional intellect. So when I was introduced to Ab-Soul, the genius of TDE, exceptional is what I expected. It didn’t have to listen to him string words together for very long before I saw the light, how he was a bright wordsmith that cared about lyricism. If he wasn’t a genius, he had the kind of talent that made him appear as one.
It’s been about six years since the first time I heard Ab-Soul. He was broke and almost famous back then, but all of TDE were young, starving caterpillars with the potential to become much more. One by one their potential evolved into true artistry. The biggest leap of progress for Soulo was showcased in 2012 with the release of Control System. It was an incredible album from start to finish, a true display of one of TDE’s most potent pens. I’ll never forget how he begins the second verse of "ILLuminate," confidently declaring a feeling of being able to rhyme circles around Jay Z—it was an outrageous boast, but one that he would have to back up. It was an exciting time, a feeling that all the momentum he was building would lead to something major.
After These Days..., I didn’t know what would happen to Ab. He dropped the ball during a crucial possession; a fumble when the masses expected a touchdown. Part of why I’m anticipating Do What Thou Wilt. is seeing him as an artist with something to prove. He is truly in an underdog position, his back against the metaphorical wall, but what will he deliver? He’s a gifted writer with a perspective that’s unlike any other artist in TDE—unlike most artists in rap. Going into Do What Thou Wilt., I’m hoping to hear the exceptional writer, the lyricist who will prove why he should be able to wear the crown of a rap genius. Not everyone can rule the tops of Billboard charts, but only the mightiest pens are able to be heralded in the underground. If Ab is truly one of the best rappers alive, this is his chance to prove it. Considering TDE’s outrageous release schedule, who knows when he’ll get another chance like this.
The cover of Do What Thou Wilt. is already special: a picture of Ab-Soul without any glasses. This is the first time in his career that he has been photographed staring into the lens, staring into the eyes of his listeners. I hope that it’s a metaphor for him dropping his guard, the last time he truly opened up was “The Book Of Soul”—one of the most beautifully tragic songs I’ve ever heard. With speculation comes excitement, and I’m anxious to hear what Soul will deliver.
In usual 1 Listen fashion I’m not allowed to pause, rewind or fast-forward any songs on the album. I must listen to each one and write only my gut reaction. Let’s catch these bars.
1. "Raw (backwards)" (ft. Zacari)
Shoutout to Red Bull, my drink of choice for this review. We've got some stuttering vocals. Ab is declaring raw backwards on all the rappers. I love the title, and I love the aggression. He’s rather calm, but he’s hyped. The locksmith is a quote. An O(verly) D(edicated) nod, word to "P&P." Bars are being delivered, every line is potent enough to be on a glass table in The Weeknd’s balloon house. Zacari is letting it be known no more wack shit all 2017. The beat is cool, nothing too astounding, but if he’s rapping like this he could rap over 5th graders doing the "Grindin’" beat on their desks. Couple of flow switches. I love that Ab-Soul is Kendrick’s lyrical goon. The Jay Electronica jab makes me wonder if we will see the two lyricists really spar. Jay Elect versus Ab-Soul is like Obi Wan vs Anakin, far more interesting than Drake and Kendrick. Quote me. The electric guitar is a nice touch. The outro beat switch with the choir in the background is like being lifted toward the light. Ab labeling his subject matters sounds like courses I should’ve taken in college. “I’m not talented, I’m skilled.” A line.
2. "Braille" (ft. Bas)
We’re off to a good start. Red Bull got my eyes open. I won’t use this opportunity to shade These Days..., but that intro made me feel better than half that album. Kind of a strange follow-up, the aggression has been replaced by a bit of bounce. Ab is like a thief the way he’s hitting the pocket. With all his genius, Ab’s hooks aren’t the craziest. It’s like an attempt to make something catchy, but you’re more likely to cringe than repeat. Bas' album has grown on me, but out of all the Dreamville artists I would expect Omen to team up with Soulo. Well, the verse didn’t make me leap out my seat and wake the neighbors… Beat just slowed down, took us to Castlevania. Pitched-down vocals, chanting, this feels like walking blindfolded into an Illuminati meeting. I wonder how many times have rappers mentioned Helen Keller… “Are you niggas dope or just doing dope,” oh we know the answer.
3. "Huey Knew THEN" (ft. Da$h)
The first single that I barely remember. One of those songs you like, but you never go back to. Loving these ominous keys. Flava Flav soundbites are always accepted. This is exactly what I expected from a Soulo single, a snow flurry of bars and a simplistic hook that doesn’t try too hard. I wonder what song Obama would play by Ab-Soul—probably "Druggys Wit Hoes." I can’t remember the last time I had to do a 1 Listen when I had to listen so hard. Some of these bars are light jabs, but it sounds like he’s sneaking some heavy hitters in there. Da$h has one of those voices that tells you he carries a razor underneath his tongue. Would love to hear homie link up with Mobb Deep—random, I know—but someone make that happen. His verse was rather short. This one is solid.
4. "Threatening Nature"
Has Ab-Soul’s production always been charcoal black? I guess you have to make a song that begins with “The Devil’s after me” more twilight than sunrise. The album so far has less light than a vampire's coffin. No complaints, just an observation. Wonder how Ras Kass feels about this album? Still immature enough to chuckle at the Adam and Eve line. Is Ab-Soul insinuating there’s a connection between praying to God and bending down to purpose? The American Flag line was out of line, Kaepernick isn’t taking knees for this. Won’t lie, even after the Red Bull I’m not high enough to understand all the points Ab is trying to make… But God could’ve given a woman a feature in the Bible, lowkey. My third eye might need glasses.
All the singles are out of the way, let’s see how the album opens. Eardrummers drop, is this Mike WiLL? (Editor's Note: It's not.) Doesn’t really sound like him but it’s knocking. A little storytelling, interesting. Making a song about girls liking girls feels so 2009. "Womanogamy" sounds like something Young Dro should’ve made, or a really bad trending Twitter topic. Has anyone ever fallen asleep during a 1 Listen review? It’s not all bad, his flow is sharp. Just a song that doesn’t really hold your attention. Ab claims that if anyone learned to be a bad bitch from Amber Rose, this should be their favorite track and he clearly just stated why I don’t like it.
6. "INvocation" (ft. Kokane)
Kokane is a rapper? Singer? Or… “Say Hip-Hop!” Little bit of OG flavor. Can’t remember the last time I heard a rapper spell out their rhyme. I’m loving this beat, strangely. The horns and keys sound like post-apocalyptic jazz. Off-kilter, eccentric, but also lively—perfect for his style. "Bohemian Grove" homage. This is already sounding like an early favorite. Yeah, Ab brought a pen that is mighty enough to shatter a weaker emcee's sword. Loving the horns blaring in the background. This would make a perfect track to start a show with, especially with the Soulo chanting. Easily the best beat thus far. So many styles. “Baby I’m going on no vacation,” no days off in the life of Soulo. More jazz please. Makes you wonder how much Kendrick rubs off on the TDE camp. Five minutes is long—real long—but this is a good standout.
7. "Wifey Vs. WiFi /// "P.M.S." (ft. BR3)
“I hate quoting Jay Z,” he says respectfully. Production is the brightest it's been the entire album. WHOA THAT CHOP. This sounds like a possible single, it’s strangely interesting. “Tweet me right now if you’re using your third eye phone.” I can’t help but think "Hotline Bling" encouraged this influx of phone songs. Storytelling Ab, him and his homie, I have no idea what he’s talking about. This is building up to…. wait, did he just say… beat switch, someone is rapping to the knuckle beat made on a classroom desk. Whoever this kid is, he’s going. A strange interlude, but I’m here for the raps. A complete polar opposite than the previous record. “I’m feeling like Biggie when he lost faith.”
8. "Beat the Case" (ft. ScHoolboy Q) / / / "Straight Crooked"
Production just drop-kicked me in the spine. This is NASTY. Q and Ab-Soul back together, I’m here for it. Soul's first verse was cool. Q!!! This flow, it kind of feels like Q is doing the Uzi Vert and it’s molten lava hot. Q is effortless charisma. Q claiming best hip-hop album. Slave lyrics will always make me cringe. This beat is HARD, police sirens just came in as I was thinking about how perfect this song is for GTA. Kind of surprised more rappers haven’t made songs about beating cases, funny how Ab-Soul, the least likely member of TDE to get in any legal trouble, is bragging about beating cases and avoiding jail. This is a better theme for the GRAMMY-nominated Blank Face. Beat switch, Obama puppet lyrics. “A criminal's best asset is his liability.” I’m pissed that he made this one long song instead of splitting them into two separate records. This would've been a better back-to-back than Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in the second Rush Hour.
9. "Portishead in the Morning" /// "HER World"
These songs are long! Okay, so it sounds like Ab is adjusting an old T.V. There’s a news report. I really need to get into Portishead for 2017. Loving these drums, loving this flow—this is sounding hopeful—but Ab is unpredictable, things can switch up. “The philosopher is getting stoned.” There might be enough quotables on this one to fill up the timeline. I can’t keep up. Good song, but the album has such a bizarre feeling. Ab’s always been unpredictable but this album is a pretzel the way he bends in strange ways. If Post Malone was easy listening, than Ab-Soul is a maze. “God has to be a thot”… “Confused emoji.”
10. "God's A Girl?"
Charles Hamilton's album is out now, Ab talking about God being a woman is the perfect time to give CH free promo. Okay…this is kinda cool…heroin… wait, did the song just stop to talk about how Jesus never got laid!? Is this what goes on in Soulo studio sessions? I’m so puzzled. Now I feel bad about Jesus. Wait, did Top tell Ab-Soul to attend rehab? He’s admitting serious addiction issues. Man, this entire song is a Rubik's Cube of twists but so is this album. Is this a Mick Jenkins flow? Has the feelings. But this is good. The first half of the song is one big pump fake, and the second half is damn near excellent. My third eye looks like a fainted Pokémon.
11. "Now You Know"
I’m not high enough for this album. A singing intro about relaxing. I wish I could relax but I’m on my toes. Train… Okay we got something happening. Loving this mellow vibe, minimal fits Ab. Wondering what this sample could be playing in the background. Ab raps like he does not care if we understand what the hell he’s talking about but he pulls you in. You want to get IT. A lot of women references, I have to connect those dots. A lot of biblical references. I feel like that’s pretty normal for Soul but they’re coming in an abundance. This is a good song. Goodie Mobb "Git Up" rephrase. This is by far one of the strangest albums that I’ve heard all year. Ab-Soul just went full Lil Rascals, no Alfalfa.
Mac Miller has peeked in with a small word. I wonder if this was recorded before or after his sobriety. Personal Soulo singing about his mother and family. Loving the emotion in his voice. Okay, this sounds GOOD. These sad piano keys. Real dynamic kicks. This is the kind of beat that Zaytoven would make if he was an emo kid in Hot Topic and not in the trap with 1017. Even though Ab sounds sober, I can’t help but think about Lil Wayne’s “Me And My Drank”— now that was a love song about drugs. Background vocals or sample? The newspaper flip is so real. Soul’s drug indulgence has been heavy, but this sounds like he’s been going through some tough times. The abortion/third son line sent a chill down my fingertips. An easy favorite. Does Mac Miller have a verse? Mac’s bridge/cry for help took the record all the way there. OHHHH the message to the kids at the end. Five-star record right here.
13. "Evil Genius" (ft. Teedra Moses & JaVonte)
Evil genius, I guess Soul is more Mandark than Dexter. A woman’s voice, need to see the album credits. I like this kind of subtle darkness, like walking through the darkest sectors of someone's soul. Ab-Soul voice effect sounds like he was beamed up by alien Kendrick. Is that an Alori mention about not doing coke again? “Just a Romeo mourning his Juliet” OHHHH WE GETTING DEEP. This song actually sounds like the album cover! He vomited a bunch of words in that verse but boy did it spill out of him like a punctured vein. Some ghastly voice is singing a duet with an angel, it’s strangely... nope just strange. Some futuristic percussion just kicked in from the year 3005, really sounds like traveling through deep space on the Death Star. Nominating Ab-Soul for the role of a black Jedi in the next installment of Star Wars. He’s pretty much Yoda on psychedelics. The beat is riding out, but it's a rather smooth ride.
14. "Lonely Soul" (ft. Punch) / / / "The Law (Prelude)" (ft. SZA)
Long 1 Listen reviews are to writers what marathons are to runners. This album is longer than rush hour traffic in Atlanta during a snowstorm. But I've been enjoying the last few songs immensely. Get the bars off! Another Alori mention, reflective Soul, he tends to get introspective on any song with Punch. Haha, the Control System line is gold. THIS IS THE AB-SOUL THAT MADE ME A FAN. When he’s pencil-sharp he’s a dangerous MF. I don’t think I want a Punch album, but I’ll always enjoy his features. He’s like TDE’s sixth man—always can be counted on to come off the bench with the heat rock. Ab is on a run, the last three records have all been keepers. Not really sure if I get this interlude. The man is talking too fast. Sounds like he has an accent and there’s another voice. Is that SZA? That is SZA. That was sadly brief.
15. "The Law" (ft. Mac Miller & Rapsody)
Soul got him some SOUL. This is pleasant on the ears. The beat just dropped and my shoulders did their best Diddy shimmy impression. Who did this one? This is one of those beats that’s so good Soulo could mumble the alphabet backward and I’ll type up 140 fire emojis. This is very different than the last song Mac Miller dropped called "The Law." Mac Miller and Ab-Soul both dropped albums with heavy themes around women, cannot be a coincidence. Wouldn’t be surprised if this was made during Mac’s The Divine Feminine sessions, he could’ve easily taken this record. Rapsody! This is a great time to announce Crown is an incredible EP. She’s on her spoken word flow.
He’s been saying “YMF” throughout the album, what does it mean? This is already sounding nasty. This loop is going to turn into something tremendous. Still no idea what YMF means. Impossible to decipher all the symbolism, but it’s much easier to digest when the production is hitting with the strength of Chun-Li’s kicks. “I could even be lying about being a liar” is frustrating me. Loving the background vocals. A little different than a lot of the other songs on the album but a cool closing. Kind of anticlimactic when on the last album Ab battle rapped at the end. Wait, a woman's voice saying she created the earth? “Let there be light.”
The 1 Listen Review was not made for Ab-Soul albums. My head is spinning, my mind is numb, but my ears are fairly pleased.
This is one album I’ll suggest you put some time aside and give it full concentration. As a wizard of words, Ab-Soul hasn’t lost the magic touch. He actually might have leveled up to a mage that can challenge some of rap's most championed Merlins. He gives so much in these songs that, at times, it feels overwhelming, but that could simply be a result of trying to digest everything in one listen. Genius will have to put in overtime for this one.
Do What Thou Wilt. is a lot to take in. Each song feels as if it’s overflowing with depth, and it will take several plunges into the project’s essence before understanding all its secrets. Instead of making multiple albums, it’s crammed with views on sexism, religion, addiction, hedonism, and, because it’s Soul, none of these topics are tackled in the traditional way.
He is truly TDE's Yoda meets Rick and Morty. You can feel that this is a focused effort, nothing is done by accident. With more layers than a wedding cake, Do What Thou Wilt. is still a rap album at its heart, and Ab-Soul is still a rapper that is working to rival those claiming to be the best.
By Yoh, aka Yohlo Ho, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: TDE