There was a time when Ab-Soul was considered a good rapper. The West-coast based Top Dawg label featured a talented cast of four rappers whose work in the early part of the 2010’s drew comparisons to the likes of N.W.A. as well as other notable labels in hip-hop’s history. This acclaim gave Soul a good platform to build off of, and his 2012 album Control System gave us a glimpse of Soul’s potential. In fact, in itself, it’s a very good project. With a steady balance of good production, clever wordplay, and solid rapping, Soul came off as an astute yet paranoid personality. At his best, he could tap into the dark emotional aspect of his life as he did ever so perfectly on “Book of Soul” – a song detailing the misfortune’s in his life which included the death of his long-time partner Alori Joh. After Control System, it seemed as though the ceiling for Soul – much like his peers – was very high.
Unfortunately, Do What Thou Wilt affirms that Control System was his ceiling. Every semblance of endearment has been stripped away through a bulk of corny lines, uncomfortable sexual description, and pure pretentiousness. Even compared to the low bar set with 2014’s These Days, Ab-Soul fails to overcome the flaws of his last album while managing to sound even more condescending.
While Soul’s inability to realize his shortcomings is disheartening, the production stands as this album’s saving grace. I mean, what’s to expect? This is backed by the in-house TDE producers (Willie B, TaeBeast, and Sounwave) who have a catalogue that is about as consistently solid as any other label in the entire history of hip-hop. On top of that, WondaGurl (of “Antidote” fame), and Atlanta demi-god Mike Will Made It round off an impressive team. For the most part, the dark and nocturnal vibe that lingers sounds fine. Some highlights include the piano lines on “RAW (Backwards),” “Huey Knew THEN”, and “D.R.U.G.S.”; the demented sample on “Lonely Soul”, and the idling nature of “Threatening Nature” are top-notch as well. The beats here aren’t quite as good as most TDE albums, but I can’t help but feel the reasons for this are less because of the actual beats, and more because Soul’s grating mic presence eradicates any replay value. In fact there’s production parallels on here, like the electric guitar on “RAW” that’s reminiscent of “TorcH” off Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face; and “INvocation” is sonically reminiscent of “Brenda” on Isaiah Rashad’s The Suns Tirade. Unfortunately Soul’s flaws as a rap artist do these beats a disservice; one can’t help but think this would be a better project with a better person on the mic.
This isn’t to say the rapping on Do What Thou Wilt is bad. Soul’s flow and wordplay is usually satisfying to the ear, and at a low volume without listening too closely, this would be fine (albeit, weird) as background music. After diving in it’s easy to see that Soul captures the worst qualities of Lupe Fiasco, and continues to combine it with the misogyny of pre-Divine-Feminine Mac Miller and the eye roll corniness of J.Cole.
Some of the most memorably awful lines include: “With all disrespect the American flag was designed by fags,” on “Threatening Nature”, “I’m finger fucking Mother Earth / Put my thumb up in her butt then roll like I was bowling,” on the horribly titled “Womanogamist”, or the mind blowing “God gotta be a thot, the blood from your erection come from your brain and your feet, so you can’ think and you can’t run,” on “HER World”. That’s just a small sampling; there’s an abundance of them, and the fact that Ab-Soul thinks these lines are clever, and desperately wants you to know, is probably his most infuriating quality. Take, for example, his need to admire the line “A criminal’s best asset is his liability,” by using the next bar to say “That was crazy, lie-ability”. It’s like he’s too insecure to just pass a metaphor off without letting the listener know about it. The hook on “Beat The Case” (a song that literally never addresses Black commentary) goes “Beat it, beat it, beat it like a runaway slave.” These are just some of the highlights of Ab’s many faults, but make no mistake, listening to Ab is a flat-out uncomfortable experience throughout.
To make this experience all the more dumbfounding, Ab-Soul spends a great deal of the album addressing women, but in a very unconventional way. First he addresses the fact that as a society we don’t talk about feminism enough, but a few lines later he openly objectifies women with the line “Bitch I’m getting head while I’m sinnin’.” “Wifey vs. WiFi”, arguably the worst song on the album, features an ambiguous metaphor about prison and women, and spends the majority of the first verse talking about his dick. This includes the lovely line: “Listen bitch, when it’s in you the sentiment is incredible.” On “God’s A Girl,” well, I don’t know really know what’s going on in this song, but Soul compares himself to Jesus and makes the case that God is a girl because of the way Soul is pleasured by her. It’s uncomfortable to listen to. The hook (The hook!) on this song goes: “I ain’t gon’ lie you got me cryin’ with a hard dick (amen).” Eventually, the concept comes full circle on the album’s only standout “The Law”. The soulful cut features another solid Rapsody feature and is an ode to women, but the sentiment just doesn’t seem genuine at all based on what came beforehand.
All things considered, this album is a mess. Ab-Soul desperately wants to come across as intellectual, but his over-the-top concepts are so poorly executed, and his contradictions (though probably intentional) are plain unappealing. His ideas come across as half-baked, conspiracy raps that will alienate most listeners. Whether Soul’s fault or not, there’s nothing really engaging outside of a couple of songs. The dark atmosphere that Soul was striving for wears off pretty quickly, and as a result it’s a chore to get through the entire 77 minutes. On the opener “RAW (backwards), Zacari sings “We don’t wanna hear that wack shit no more.” In a way it’s a fitting line as the album proceeds to be filled with laughable contradictions, and there is none more obvious than following up that line with an album full of wack shit. Do What Thou Wilt is the worst Top Dawg album since the last Ab-Soul album, and it affirms that Ab-Soul is the weakest link in the Top Dawg chain.