TDE CEO Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith promised us six albums from Kendrick and Co. in 2014. First up was ScHoolboy Q, who held February down with hits “Man of the Year” and “Collard Greens.” Singer SZA and new MC recruit Isaiah Rashad then came and went with encouraging reviews but minimal fanfare. And now there’s album drought all around, at least compared to the abundance of new music a year ago, in the summer of Yeezus. It's the perfect time, then, for Ab-Soul, TDE's shaman in residence, to drop the much anticipated follow up to Control System and prove whether TDE is bigger and better than just Kendrick Lamar.
If only Ab-Soul hadn't hit the Snooze button, hungover.
The first two tracks of These Days..., “Gods Reign” and “Tree of Life,” are immediately incongruous suggestions of where this album could have gone. First, “Gods Reign” is Xbox cosmos rap with a faded SZA hook. Alternatively, “Tree of Life” is an uptempo cowboy groove driven by traditionally funky drum patterns. Ultimately—and unfortunately—Soul’s neo-theologian flow wins out. And so the least charismatic member of TDE fancies himself a trill apostle in a world of women and warlocks.
That this album is experimental is without question. What These Days isn’t, however, is disciplined. Though I suppose the intended mood is Immersively Weeded, “Dub Sac” and “World Runners” (feat. Lupe Fiasco) instead make for ten minutes of Simply Slow & Understated. The sound loses steam, the album loses traction, and the cracks do show. Track four, “Dub Sac,” is a six minute song that’s divided into bad and better halves; same with “Just Have Fun,” which fuses the previously separate "These Days" as the track's mellow deceleration. Seven tracks deep, “Twact,” the frank club-and-radio playlist plea follows thirty of earlier minutes of drugged Illuminati raps. With so many slow-witted pivots and black thoughts so overlong and overwritten, there's motion but no advancement. I pressed play. I scratched my jaw. I winced. I squinted. Again. I had an aneurysm. I broke for coffee.
For mercy’s sake, might I rewind a bit here? The Ab-Soul of 2012’s Control System led with dexterity and the modest bass in his chest. Two years later, I’m at a loss to explain why These Days leads with its most lumbering beats, dozing nearly beyond resuscitation through “World Runners” and “Nevermind That,” two charmless hooks, two guest verses in which Lupe and Rick Ross seem to be tempering their signature bombast to meet this kid on his own hazy terms. Whereas, say, Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris builds upon a dour, weeded aesthetic with captivating anecdotes and imagery, Ab-Soul’s wordplay is often lazy and inarticulate. And so the first half of These Days suffers a lack of clarity and a failure of imagination.
Thankfully, there’s a regrouping at the album’s midsection. “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude” is Kendrick spazzing over a smoky alto jazz riff punched up by a live violent drummer. It’s the most kinetic moment on an album that, at this natural intermission, isn’t quite getting butts out of seats or brains out of REM. After Kendrick’s “Interlude,” Soul recovers with slo-mo crooning on “Closure,” devoid of rap but thus a welcome relief from the clutter of the “real rap” and paranoid imagery of the preceding half. Both “Closure” and “Sapiosexual” opt for tight psychosexual concepts that are easy enough to follow, and catchy without sacrificing wit or weirdness. Remarkably, the pseudo-hallucinogenic downshift on “Stigmata” lures featured rapper Action Bronson away from the common knock against him, that he raps and sounds like Ghostface. Here Bronson’s his own man, and the album is, finally, cohesive and distinct as work of hood occultism.
“W.R.O.H.” is the last track, and the first where there’s irrefutable chemistry between verse and hook, Soul’s self-esteem screed pairing fantastically with rock-electronica singer JMSN’s syllable chant as arena hook. This uptick of energy, this late-stage cohesion is inexplicably buried at the very end of a confused, exhausting listen. Soul's fog is receded but we are still drenched and lost in his graveyard.
Throughout, These Days threads tributes and interpolations of Jay Z and Nas, Canibus and Eminem, Slick Rick and DJ Quik, “Hail Mary” and “Love Sosa.” But we know these legends well enough already. Kendrick and Q’s major label debuts were respectively autobiographical, Kendrick trying his hand at epic poetry, and ScHoolboy publishing his prescription intake history. Even Isaiah Rashad’s modest Cilvia Demo offers a comprehensive portrait of a young man, his environment, and his creative influences.
Unlike good kid, Oxymoron, and even Soul's own earlier work, These Days is unedited theory informed by unfiltered paranoia, often unbearable given that Soul's wordplay here, ("them other niggas talking shit but they ... don't know shit," is only rarely as clever as you want to think he could be, should be, and typically is. There are sparse moments of concentrated wakefulness, such as “W.R.O.H.,” “Sapiosexual,” “Tree of Life,” and the latter half of “Just Have Fun.” All gems considered, though, These Days isn't the abundant, compelling listen that’s tided Ab-Soul’s fans, O.G.s and TDE bandwagoners alike, since 2012. After a mild spring that’s now so ripe for summer disruption, “These Days” is a murmur that may well go unheard, unheralded. TDE isn’t quite killing shit these days.
RELATED: Watch Ab-Soul's Video For "Closure"
Correction: Top Dawg Entertainment CEO, Anthony Tiffith, promised six albums from his label in 2014, not President Terrance Henderson. This change is reflected in the story.