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Note: This article contains references to suicide.

On “The Book of Soul,” the penultimate track on Ab-Soul’s 2012 album. Management system, his life flashes before his eyes. What begins as a brief account of Stevens-Johnson’s childhood battle with a rare skin disease turns into a recollection of her relationship with singer Alori Joh, who committed suicide months before the album’s release. The song interwoven Soule’s fascination with religion, conspiracy theories and traditionalist puns into a hopeful personal story that’s even more troubling a decade later, if only because of how prescient it turned out to be.

2016 Do what you want. There was a turning point in the life and music of Herbert Stevens IV. drug addiction and a slew of conspiracy theories featured heavily in his songs, isolating him from his family and during the making of his latest album, Herbert:, led to his own suicide attempt last year. Although the video for the single “Do Better” features an alleged reenactment of that experience, Soule says the song and most of the album were written in advance. Herbert: defined as his most personal project, the one that most closely reflects the name of his government in its title. And while he seems invigorated, his worst rapper tendencies are constantly holding him back.

At the height of Top Dawg Entertainment’s popularity in the first half of the 2010s, Soul was known for breaking down complex spiritual, political and historical ideas in smooth, if sometimes exaggerated, ways. His best songs represented him as more than just Ras Kass with access to BearShare; Herbert: It’s Soul’s first album to be devoid of the encyclopedic deep dives that have been a hallmark of his work for the past decade. When he closes in on certain moments, such as exploring his public persona in the opening “Message in a Bottle” or reminiscing about the friends who kept him away from street life in “Hollandaise,” his elastic flows and narratives bring his the corners of the block and his mind to life. On “Do Better,” he confronts survivor’s guilt, incorporating the words of his late friend Mac Miller; and in the title track, she describes how the disease is breaking down her body (“The eye doctor said she needed new corneas/ They’d better need them than a coroner”) while confiding in the family she’s abandoned. These glimpses into his personal life are not scary.

But Soul’s penchant for violent wordplay and over-commitment to actual hip-hop spoils the mood. He may have left the amateur philosopher shtick behind, but this is a man who grew up idolizing battle rappers like Canibus, and old habits die hard. The funniest and most shocking bars cross the line between being the most downright embarrassing you’ve ever heard and pulling jokes right out of the dad joke book, and a few Herbert:‘s songs lean dangerously towards the latter. Almost every song has at least one or two hooks, lines meant to be clever that wouldn’t really cut it on an episode of Epic Rap Battles of History. Some are puns that bring boring awards (“I knew I could be on BET/Now I think I could be ET”); some are bouts of dated braggadocio (“You’re so Venusian, I’ll make you straight”); some are absurd (“One honey will remain when the money is gone. I don’t know, ask Winnie the Pooh”) or just pointless (“Just holding a dollar, I’m one in George Washington.”) Soul love. as hip-hop is evident in his delivery and academic dedication in his interpolations of songs by GM Flash and Lauryn Hill, but this experimental rap and What Happened to Hip-Hop? screed that opens “Moonshooter,” which straddles both serious and fun songs Herbert:


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