In 2002, Virginia-based rap duo Clipse, with the help of Pharrell Williams and The Neptunes, would become one of rap’s biggest names with their debut album, Lord Willin’. Following Billboard Hot 100 hits "Grindin'," "When The Last Time" and "Ma, I Don't Love Her," brothers Pusha T and Malice released a music video for "Cot Damn," the album's final single. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting about that fourth single, but the video served as a formal introduction to the large man standing behind the world’s greatest cocaine rappers, waiting patiently for his turn to step into the camera’s full view. With gold text to his side declaring him "The Man That Will Be King," Ab-Liva said hello.
Unless you are a Clipse stan (raises hand), or a fan of their side group the Re-Up Gang (raises other hand), you probably aren’t knowingly aware of Ab-Liva’s existence, except maybe in passing. He isn’t a household name outside of the neighborhoods of North Philadelphia or within the minds of those obsessed with the We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series. He doesn’t have a Platinum plaque, critically-adored album, or even a sole mixtape to his name. For more than 17 years, Ab-Liva has flown under the radar without so much as a street album to claim sole ownership of. Yet, that same quiet giant we first met back in 2002 has been one of the most consistent lyricists of the last two decades, while also putting together one of the most interesting, confounding and unique careers in the history of rap. Ab-Liva is a walking myth.
So what exactly do we know about Ab-Liva? For one, his true start came in 1999 when he and Philadelphia rapper Gillie Da Kid formed a supergroup with a handful of North Philly natives and named themselves Major Figgas. We know that Major Figgas released one album in 2000 before Ab-Liva met up with Pharell Williams and Terrence and Gene Thornton—aka the Clipse—in Virginia by happenstance. From there, according to an interview he conducted with AllHipHop in 2006, Ab-Liva was asked to record for Clipse's then debut album.
From a recording perspective, it isn't difficult to find his immaculate features throughout the entirety of the Clipse discography, as well each of Pusha and Malice’s own solo projects. Ab-Liva has a voice that is hard to mistake; a raspy, understated inflection that almost sounds like a whisper in comparison to the boastful nature of the Virginia duo. From the very beginning, he oozed confidence with his verses, each one carrying intricate multisyllable words, penetrating metaphors and double entendres. In short, every Ab-Liva verse felt like a tectonic shift in each track’s foundation. He was a giant on records, with every inch of his 6’9" stature felt by the weight of his lyrics.
On the writing side, Liva’s career becomes even more interesting, having earned a seat at the table amongst some of rap's biggest names. From writing for Kanye West (“All Day” and “Send It Up”) to a claiming ownership of Dr. Dre’s verse from Jay-Z’s “The Watcher ll,” Liva's credit history runs deep. In fact, his penmanship is so noteworthy, that in an interview on Fuse, the host deemed him “your favorite rapper’s favorite writer.” With his fingerprints on projects from some of the most legendary names in rap, coupled with 17 years of guest verses, joint projects and promises of albums to come, Ab-Liva has maintained a level of creative consistency over three decades of hip-hop that most rappers only dream of.
So why isn't he a bigger name?
Sadly, this is where we run out of what we know.
Philadelphia has been home to some of the biggest names in rap history, from Will Smith to Black Thought to Beanie Sigel. The Fresh Prince aside, there is a distinctive grittiness that Philly emcees possess, and that particular attribute has always managed to produce consistent talent. While artists like Will Smith brought a new demographic of listeners into the hip-hop arena, street emcees like Beanie Siegel, Cassidy and Freeway marketed the Philadelphia sound into record deals with some of the biggest labels on the planet in the mid-2000s, which eventually paved the way for Meek Mill and his lyrical abrasiveness. The Roots, as a group with a larger purpose in mind, wouldn’t have the notoriety if it weren’t for the penmanship of Black Thought. Time and time again, Philadelphia rappers managed to find their places in hip-hop’s bigger picture, each carving out a small lane in which they could shine on their own... except Ab-Liva.
The natural inclination is to place blame on Liva's style, a reserved genius that created layered narratives within every lyric, which may not have been as appealing to the average rap listener. However, at the time, artists like Beanie Siegel and Freeway were making their names known on Roc-A-Fella with that exact formula. Ab-Liva, stoic and tall, like a rap version of Ser Sandor Clegane, was never as magnetic as Beans, nor as peculiar as Freeway. Still, he had all the makings of an artist capable of producing, at the very least, an average solo album by mid-'00s hip-hop standards.
While you could make the argument that Liva’s creativity, or lack thereof, didn't allow for a cohesive project to be born, the idea that within a span of 17 years not even a full-length mixtape was crafted seems almost beyond comprehension. This is especially mind-boggling when you consider Jay Electronica, who’s fabled debut album has the same odds of being delivered as the second coming of Christ, and even he managed to deliver Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge).
A Liva solo effort could have been hindered by the infamous cold war between the Clipse and Jive Records between their first two album releases. However, that doesn’t explain how even as recent as 2014, Liva spoke about finishing his solo project, then titled Born In Not Sworn In, as if it was mostly finished; it was never released nor spoken of publicly again.
For 17 years, we have listened to music featuring Ab-Liva with only a headache caused by wonder and confusion to show for it. Every verse is both a thrilling listening experience and a nagging reminder of an incomplete rap career.
Though not in the way most of us will ever understand, Ab-Liva is a legend in his own right. Whether standing in the background, waiting to step into full view of the lens, or behind the scenes crafting the words for some of rap’s biggest voices, Ab-Liva came through in the biggest moments like rap’s Robert Horry.
Even at 6’9", the legend of Ab-Liva has always been bigger than the man himself.