Ab-Soul on ‘Control System’: “I’m Scared to Listen to That”

Pain can create great art, but it’s not easy to relive.

“I am scared and fearful that the only way to make great, powerful art is through pain, anguish, heartbreak, anger and struggle.” - David Choe

When I read those words on artist David Choe’s Instagram a couple days ago, they resonated with me deeply. I’ve always felt my best personal writing came while entrenched in depression and sorrow, and as someone who’s spent their life trying to control that very depression, that’s a terrifying notion, but it’s also backed by plenty of evidence.

Some of my favorite albums were created in the headspace of pain and suffering, and many of my favorite artists are my favorites precisely because of how deeply I can relate to the internal struggles that often fuel their greatest art. That’s absolutely the case with Ab-Soul, whose 2012 release Control System is among my favorite projects of the last decade.

In a newly released interview with Montreality, Ab-Soul was asked if there would be a follow-up to what is his most celebrated project to date, and Soul expressed an understandable hesitation to revisit that headspace.

"'Control System' part 2? 'Control System' is like Scarface, I’m scared to listen to that. That was a cornerstone of my life, a lot happened with me in my personal life when that dropped. To go back there would be kinda ill, but I'll never say never."

Control System was a product of Ab-Soul’s attempts to make sense of life in the midst of existential crises and the loss of his longtime girlfriend, Alori Joh. It’s a dark, contemplative, aggressive album that marked a clear shift in Soul’s artistry, but did so through immense pain and confusion.

Ab-Soul’s music since Control System has showcased a turbulent transition through the stages of grief, and his pain is still evident at times on his most recent release Do What Thou Wilt., so it’s understandable that Soulo isn’t quite ready to retread the steps of pain that produced Control System.

One of the marks of a great artist is being able to “visit” emotional states and headspaces without losing themselves to those conditions. Much in the same way a great method actor can live the life of their character for months only to return to their own reality after filming has ended, some of the greatest artists can transport themselves back to a period of great suffering to translate those feelings into song.

That kind of emotional tourism can be extremely difficult, however, especially when that pain involves the death of a loved one, and Soul clearly isn’t far enough removed from that anguish to be able to revisit it without being deeply affected by those emotions.

Pain isn’t the only way to create powerful art. It’s certainly a potent vessel, but I don’t think anyone could blame Soul for not wanting to use that vessel again just yet.