February 23, 1986: The LA Times’ Connie Johnson penned a young Janet Jackson had “truly arrived” after releasing her third studio album Control. “This is a story about control, my control,” Jackson declared on the album and title track intro. A year to date from that review a child was born, who on May 11, 2012 launched his own breakthrough album with the very same words. Ab-Soul’s Control System signaled his arrival, only his story about control reaches new depths of angst and rebellion. He’s enlightening on the control systems of the world, so by all means when instructed to “cut off your radios, cut off your televisions,” follow suit.
If the intro was the kick-off, the Carson, California native catches and tucks the mic, running for the goal from the start. Sounwav and Dave Free of Digi+Phonics lay an explosive foundation in “Soul Ho3”over which songstress Jhene Aiko sweetly commands us to prepare for the voyage, “open your eyes, it’s about that time.” Soul fans out his cards for us; from origins, identity, and his current position in the game (“said I was the underdog, turns out I’m the secret weapon,”) to inspirations (“listen to Alori Joh, it’s been a minute since I saw her smile, she’s the reason why I go as hard as I do now.”) “Track Two” continues in the same fashion – this is high-powered shit.
By the time “Bohemian Grove” glides in the star of the story has calmed a bit after an aggressive let-off. Taebeast and Dave Free offer a laid-back groove over which Soul gives a gander at living life, drinking and perhaps engaging in prescription pill prompted sex. It’s not a complete diversion. Messaging like “motherfuck the government, motherfuck the system…” is still present. But women are the impetus here — “got me harder than sneaking a bitch in Bohemian Grove,” the track’s namesake being the campground of all male art circle Bohemian Club. Soul drops jewels and nods to his crew (“bet I got some weed like Schoolboy Q,”) and the greats (“Sincere as Nasir…”)
Just as quickly as we’ve let our guard down, in fade the private words of Colonel Edward House to President Woodrow Wilson. Passages of tyrannical advice are recited as Soulo shouts, sings and asserts “control,” ending with House’s prediction: “they will be our chattel.” In a nod to an admitted influence Jhene Aiko murmurs “kick your game, spit your flow…” and enter the Dave Free produced “Terrorist Threats” painting a vivid picture of defiance. “I just wanna be free, I ain’t finna be nobody chattel.” Soul charges, “if all the gangs in the world unify we stand a chance against the military tonight,” meanwhile trunk-pumpable bass, eerie synths and a Gregorian chant-like backdrop incite whatever rage you might have against the machine. Soulo’s vocal intensity expertly escalates in the first two verses, from composed observations to combative revelations leading to the frenetic energy of Danny Brown’s closing verse.
Several tracks in, it’s clear Soul has a penchant for the complex and dichotomous— in the case of “Terrorist Threats” you’re not sure whether to zone out or start the revolution. Following that the sinister keys of Taebeast crafted “Pineal Gland” offer a similar choice— ugly face head nod or ponder whether his mind trip is “all a dream” – evidence of an active pineal gland or drug induced? It’s no coincidence the track shares a moniker with the melatonin and dimethyltryptamine producing gland in the brain, also known as the third eye. “I might be trippin’ off that DMT,” he raps. Note the gland’s creation of melatonin is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light much like Soul himself; usually shaded due to light sensitivity.
But getting back to systems of control, the government isn’t the only culprit. Orchestrated by Sounwave with additional guitar by J. Valle, “Double Standards” is a discerning take on society perpetuated gender roles. “My auntie taught me always treat my lady right, my uncle taught me only love em’ for the night,” he recalls, using the castigation of 14-year old Amber Cole and the anonymity of the young boy she was discovered servicing as an example. “Mixed Emotions;” the mixture being cough syrup and soda, is an ode to getting “po’d up.” Soulo hopes name-checking DJ Screw and Pimp C isn’t cliché; listeners hope he isn’t leaning too hard. He figures that but doesn’t care, “I do all this shit just to say get off my dick. You think you know, but you have no idea.” Suitably King Blue screws the last 40 seconds or so for good measure, a chorus flipping the hook from Rene and Angela’s “I Love You More.”
On the next drive his TDE brethren are running up field too, with appearances by Schoolboy Q on the gritty Nez and Rio arranged “Sopa,” Jay Rock atop a sexy Isaac Hayes sampled “Lust Demons” and Kendrick Lamar beaming on the suitably titled “ILLuminate.” Skhye Hutch provides the auriculars while Soul speaks on ascension simultaneously supplying “food for thought” and sensing a “shift in paradigm.” And then magic happens. We’re treated to a duet between Soul and the late Alori Joh on “A Rebellion.” Curtiss King laces a sweet melody with soft but firm drums. Soul questions “Who’s bold enough to rebel?” “I’m probably all alone on this one” he softly trades with Alori Joh’s angelic urges to turn it up and play it again.
There’s more talk of earning stripes on “Showin’ Love” and on his bona fied love song “Empathy,” he racks them up singing on key with more posthumous vocals from Joh and an assist from JaVonte. Upon arrival at “Beautiful Death” the Skhye Hutch set ambience is steady, reinforcing that listeners stand for something and not be so afraid to die. Autobiographical “The Book of Soul” reveals details of the MCs childhood and love affair with Loriana Johnson. It plays out like a letter to her as he reassures “I love you in a place where there’s no space and time.” In the end he ties it all together, “don’t be dethroned by these systems of control. Just keep your fingers crossed and get them locks off your soul.” It’s fitting that the “Black Lip Bastard” remix ends the effort, showcasing each member of the Black Hippy Crew.
Ab-Soul’s lyricism is razor sharp. He’s a thinker; delivering musings on science, technology, politics and more in layman’s terms interwoven with pop culture references. But he does more than rap well; that’s only part of the picture. He understands his voice as an instrument. In those times it is filled with raw emotion he maintains control of not only what he says but how he says it, aware of when to unleash and when to hold back, sometimes audibly multiple MCs on the same track.
That versatility along with crisp dynamic production renders Control System a work of art, switching from hard thumping phases and pitch shifting to chill, jazzy sounds you might consider more aligned to a member of a crew called Black Hippy. And it helps to remember that Soulo isn’t from the streets. This works to his advantage. His flavor; his introspective outer monologue portrays street life from a fresh perspective. At the same time he’s allowed the leisure to ponder greater issues. Reminiscent of Dead Prez’s Revolutionary but Gangsta, his anti-establishment rhetoric is as informative as any current protest. Soulo’s honest commentary is brave, his play for the spot of hip hop greats courageous, his knowledge of what they’ve contributed admirable.
Ab is the perfect example of an artist who’s used the past to sculpt his present day experiences and envision the future. He’s looking back just long enough to direct his path, and then full speed ahead. For TDE, he truly is the secret weapon. With Control System he’s run the mic straight to goal and scored. Touchdown.
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