Ab-Soul

In praise of: ‘Terrorist Threats’ Ab-Soul, feat. Danny Brown, Jhené Aiko (Control System, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2012)

The song itself is popular - almost 20-million views and the first result when you put Ab-Soul’s name in a search engine; this is where the irony begins. Two wealthy, successful rappers in branded clothes, with money to burn (even if it is done ever so carefully, so delicately) giving voice to the marginalised.

Personally, I think this is one of the best political songs in recent hip-hop for two reasons. First, for many of the ideas conveyed. The way the lyrics, delivery, mood and music coalesce, allowing space for interpretation even if some of the lyrics are so clean and direct and memorable – catchy even. Some of the words could be used as slogans, worn on a T-shirt, or  unfurled on a banner, held high above people’s heads:

Peep the concept
You’ve got progress, you’ve got congress
We protest in hopes they confess
Just proceed on your conquest
I ain’t got no gavel, I ain’t finna fight nobody battle
I just wanna be free, I ain’t finna be nobody’s chattel

And second for the way, Danny Brown’s verse conveys something of poverty as a felt experience, rather than something abstract, or described as a narrative about someone else in a story that is being told.

In this extract from the Ab-Soul’s verse above there is some nice word-play with the repetition of “pro” and “con” (“for” and “against”), some listeners claim this reflects Ab-Soul’s belief that this is how the system operates, as a series of mediating and opposing forces. Lyrically Ab-Soul’s verses are super-dense, I won’t unpick them, as that goes against the spirit of it – for me – to read the track’s lyrics and interpretations, go here

It’s also hard to dislike a mainstream hip-hop/rap track that opens with a reference to Selassie, making connections to another radical Black musical/cultural tradition. The hook is great, so concise and powerful: "Wish I could see out of Selassie' eye/Maybe my sovereignty would still be mine/If all the gangs in the world unified/We'd stand a chance against the military tonight.”

Maybe there is some kind of connection here with the Mos Def/Massive Attack track from 2003 (and then Bad Brains’ track of the same name released back in 1986) even though there is a long, maybe unrecorded history of MCs and producers making such links between the genres.   

There’s also other stuff going on at the start, with direct references being made to the key sample used by producer Dave Free: Jay-Z’s “Ni**a What, Ni**a Who” that originally came out in 1998 (this is the j-version, not sure why, of the same song).

Danny Brown gets a mixed response critically and among hip-hop people, with some turned off by his “insane in the membrane” antics. But his verse here is genuinely affecting, stops you. And for this reason it's political. His words and delivery convey something of how it feels to be poor, the relentless and mundane reality of struggling to get by when you don’t have enough money to feed yourself or your children: "Feel my pain, goin' insane, I'm ashamed

‘Cause I ain't got shit but an EBT card
From a fiend that owe me and it's in her daughter name
How the fuck is they 'posed to eat?
How the fuck am I 'posed to eat?
Got a nigga in the streets, no health care
Tryna slang weed just to put shoes on his feet
So fuck you! You don't give a fuck about me
Can't get a job if they drug test me
Got a ni**a stressed, depressed
Got a feelin' in his chest
And the world's stripped of happiness
I ain't got no gavel, I ain't tryna fight nobody battle
I just wanna be free, I ain't finna be nobody's shadow."

(I’m not sure if the final word is correct, if it should be “chattel” as before). There’s nothing heroic or remotely Romantic about any of this. Nothing noble, it's soul-destroying. That makes this true: “Feel my pain, goin’ insane, I’m ashamed.” 

'YMF’ Ab-Soul, prod. Bentley Haze (Do what thou wilt/DWTW, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2016) & hip-hop love songs

[Hook: Ab-Soul]
Cause I’m a liar, a cheater
A devil in disguise and a deceiver
If I was you and you was me, I wouldn’t believe you
The tricky part’s my fingers crossed, cause I could even be lying
About being a liar, cheater
A devil in disguise and a deceiver
YMF (mmmm)
YMF (mmmm)
YMF

With its conscious/unconscious referencing of Steve Miller’s ‘The Joker’ via the emphatic listing of his identity (Miller is certainly the homeliest man ever to liken himself to a ‘space cowboy/a gangster of love’) Ab-Soul’s ‘YMF’ stands out from the rest of his December record, DWTW, Do what thou wilt for its spirit of play.

Play is a key element, if not the defining element of hip-hop. Creative play infuses the sampling process, with its emphasis on discovery and renewal alongside the way MCs reconfigure language, animated by the competition. (Play is not the same as humour, though: you can have a funny emcee, someone like Slick Rick who has his routine down, but is too knowing/worldly to be really playful. Big L probably best embodies this quality for me). 

Ab-Soul’s turn, though, takes it to a new level, as it often seems like he is playing with us; taking on the classic role of the unreliable narrator, making it clear that it all could be, might be a game, made up. None or all of it or some of it may be true. ‘The tricky part’s (his) fingers are crossed; he might ‘even be lying/About being a liar, cheater/A devil in disguise and a deceiver.’

Play also comes through Ab-Soul’s delivery, the way he sings it. Listening in you get a feeling of how Ab-Soul is: spinning around and around – playing around with being serious/dumb - giddy almost (getting distracted with a story that ends with a kind of faux-declaration of his feelings, to a woman cheating on her boyfriend, what? He sings: ‘I love you too’ to this other woman, rather than his girlfriend, the subject of the rest of the song).

The song title: ‘YMF’ refers to ‘Young Mind Fuck’, one of Ab-Soul’s nick-names for himself. (I originally misheard it, without seeing the correct title, as ‘why you mad?’ and the mmmmm in response being like a disapproving meme from the Internet)

***

For a long while I wondered where all the hip-hop love songs were (and even wrote about this, some time ago; paying some respect to the mad-genius of ODB and the two quintessential hip-hop love songs: LL Cool J’s  ‘I need love’ from 1987 and Method Man/Mary J Blige’s ‘I’ll be there for you/You’re all I need to get by’ 1995).

Considering the explicit debt to Soul music, the fact that the 90s and post musicians were the descendants of these 70s singers, I was surprised that there were so few hip-hop love songs. There are some, certainly, but compared to other music forms, not a lot. I noticed how you could listen to albums from 90s hip-hop stars and never hear them speak of their emotional lives, outside passing references to girlfriends or women they liked maybe. Other emotional and psychological states came through – loneliness, frustration, anger … – but not love.

(Here’s another perspective, though – and something I also believe – the fact that the early hip-hop storytellers had a breadth of interests, outside the typical boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl scenario might also be a strength, in the way these artists could convey the political and poetic and their sense of self within the same breath).  

If hip-hop artists did express love, often the focus was on storytelling so that the love came to represent something ‘bigger’ and in so doing became an abstraction (see Common’s ‘I used to love H.E.R’ from his 1994 album Resurrection

a lament for the commercialisation of hip-hop and expression of Common’s nostalgia for his youth. This is a great song, a classic song, but it marks out totally different territory from the raw intensity of Ab-Soul’s ‘YMF’. One is cool, the other hot).

Maybe I’m being a bit tough on hip-hop here; there aren’t that many love songs in Heavy Metal or Thrash either, even though I’m far from an expert on those genres. Here’s a good place to start if you want to put up a counter-attack: Complex’s 2012 Best 25 Hip-Hop love songs, spanning the decades, with the best lines from each. Can’t go past these lyrics from 50 Cent f/ Nate Dogg '21 Questions' (2003) 

Now, would you leave me
If your father found out I was thugging?
Do you believe me when I tell you, “You the one I’m loving”?
Are you mad ‘cause I’m asking you 21 questions?
Are you my soulmate? ‘Cause if so, girl, you a blessing
Do you trust me enough to tell me your dreams?
I’m staring at you, trying to figure how you got in them jeans

It also includes the classic line: 'I love you like a fat kid love cake.' And don't forget The Pharcyde’s ‘Passin’ me by' (1992) 'And if I was your man then I would be true/The only lying I would do is in the bed with you.' Sweet.   

Compared to other tracks on DWTW, ‘YMF’ is quite conventional in a musical sense, but this is not a weakness, as love songs (generally, most of the time) require a certain degree of conservatism to make them appear sincere. Love songs need to be stripped back, so that the focus remains on the singer's emotional state. It needs to be simple for the message to be clear and for the listeners to trust the sentiment, to believe it.

Having said that, even if ‘YMF’ is less daring than other songs on the record, it still has a lot of musical interest. The cruisy beginning and that over-basic beat - a repetitive double-beat - around 1’20” the track’s key sample – that squiggly distorted guitar sound that may/may not be from Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’ if it were that’d make sense – that builds over the song, at 2 minutes Ab-Soul makes a reference to an earlier song of his …

‘Stigmata’ from the These Days record (2014).

In ‘YMF Ab-Soul sings:

[Verse 1: Ab-Soul]
... And then I said that I would carry the cross
That wasn’t just a quote I stole from Nas (naw)
And like I said, It wasn’t written
But still I’m taking over with this ether
And since he got a new bitch
He ain’t dropped no new music, either
Told my lady I was an alien; she believed my ass
I said “Sike!”, I didn’t tell you E.T. was back

The logic behind this reference to Nas and his previous quoting the following lines from Nas’s song, ‘The Cross’ in ‘Stigmata’ isn't spelled out … ‘I carry the cross/If Virgin Mary would've had an abortion, I'd still be carried in a chariot/With stampeding horses...'
 

You could make a case that 'YMF' is not really about love, but rather an exploration of what’s going on inside Ab-Soul’s brain. In this sense, the following lines from the same verse are deeply resonant: 'They don't even know what eye is about/Is he non-fiction or not? Is it politics or hip-hop?' As others before me have also noticed the brooding harmony, backing vocals that come in at 4 minutes and become exposed at around 4’30 sound like a direct act of homage to Nirvana (and their track ‘On a Plain’) - Kurt Cobain understood paranoia.

And then 'YMF' closes with one of the best outros I’ve heard in recent hip-hop from Alia Zin, an ‘independent hip-hop artist from Southern California’:  

In the beginning, I created the heavens and the earth
Now, the earth was formless and empty
Darkness was over the surface of the deep
And my spirit was hovering over the waters
And I said, let there be light

Zin’s voice and the way she evokes this scene, with all of its Biblical references; so redolent of shared cultural norms, while remaining mysterious is a perfect conclusion to this song. Keeping it dark (no matter what the words say).