Exactly five years ago today, I was 23 years old and (allegedly) living in Canada on a long-expired visitor’s visa, spending my days at one of the local smoke shops assisting customers in choice bong picks and discovering my passion for hip-hop writing through a poorly-run blog that would eventually lead me to where I am today.
My existence was drenched in the smoke of Canadian ganja and I was surrounded by the type of armchair philosophers Katt Williams once explained as “smarter than a dumb motherfucker.” I was entrenched in a potent cocktail of hip-hop studies and esoteric obsessions, spending just as much time scouring the writings of Aleister Crowley and Terrence McKenna as I was the front pages of DJBooth and 2DopeBoyz.
Exactly five years ago today, Ab-Soul released his second album Control System—a project which, given the headspace I was in at the time, tapped an ice pick into my consciousness that burst into fractalized shards. At the time, Soulo was already my favorite of TDE’s four horsemen through his Long Term mixtapes, but somewhere between Longterm Mentality and Control System, Ab-Soul had downloaded some sort of cosmic message that endowed him with qualities that had only been hinted at in his previous projects.
Soul had always displayed powerful wordplay—a skill he’d honed through BlackPlanet freestyle chat battles facilitated by free AOL/NetZero trial discs—but Control System was made by a man who had been to the mountaintop of knowledge and been struck with a lightning bolt of monumental understanding once he got there. The metaphysical themes he was beginning to explore in the Long Term series had blossomed into a full swan dive into the depths of psychedelic thought. The Black Lip Bastard had arrived.
From the album’s Jhené Aiko-assisted opener “Soulo Ho3” to deeper cuts like “Pineal Gland” and “Illuminate,” the themes on Control System are not for the average hip-hop listener. These weren’t brief, vague mentions of the Illuminati and mushrooms, this was a legitimate documentation of one man’s venture into an alternate consciousness. The album cover is the Tree of Life, for fuck’s sake. Soulo was deep in it.
This burgeoning experimentation and the tragic passing of his beloved Alori Joh just months before Control System’s release brought out a darkness and aggression in Soul’s demeanor that had until then been masked by a charming layer of lighthearted references and a whimsical, witty sense of humor. This wasn’t the Ab-Soul that made “House Party 5,” this was a man with clear demons finding solace in an exponential expanse in thought, and this new Ab-Soul was even more deadly on the mic than his already lethal previous incarnation.
Then there are the features. The unbridled anarchism of Soul and Danny Brown on “Terrorist Threats,” the hyper-machismo of “SOPA” with ScHoolboy Q, the Section.80 revival vibes of “Illuminate” alongside Kendrick—Control System showcases some of the strongest feature pairings I’ve heard from anyone on TDE in recent memory. Every guest role is perfectly conceptualized and executed to a T, and Soul manages to remain the star of the show even among the damn near flawless performances accompanying him.
To this day, Control System marks a high point in Ab-Soul’s catalog. Do What Thou Wilt. and the Long Term series still get steady rotation in my house on any given week, but both Soul’s latest release and 2014’s ill-advised These Days… lacked the noxious combination of focused arrangement, eclectic production, killer features and lyrical complexity that Control System has in spades.
I’m well aware that Soul is still capable of this level of artistry—there were several glimpses of it on DWTW—but Control System will always hold a special place in my heart as a formative album both in my life and in the discography of TDE’s original Black Hippy.