clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ab-Soul Didn’t Find His Path—He Let His Path Find Him

The TDE rapper discusses his six-year hiatus, his relationships with his Black Hippy brethren, and his new album, ‘Herbert’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ab-Soul is laid back but not without a care. The 35-year-old Carson, California, native sinks into a gray velvet sofa in a boutique hotel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan a week before his first album release in more than a half decade. He’s ready to control what he can, though music sometimes isn’t one of those things. Hence the hiatus—which he takes no pride in but also finds no fault in. It’s been awhile. Maybe too long. Them’s the breaks.

“You can’t force art; you can’t force your creativity,” the rapper says, eyes hiding behind a pair of gold-accented aviators. “It has to happen naturally on your time, on your accord.”

The short story is that Soul went through some shit. Life and whatnot. One year turned into three, a pandemic hit, and he might not have lost his way, but he had to find a new path. That’s how Top Dawg Entertainment’s black sheep, the semi-suburban yin to ScHoolboy Q’s Cripped-out yang, a Lupe-Fiasco-mixed-with-sativa kind of predestined MC, went plain missing.

“He went through a lot of life,” says TDE capo and Soul’s longtime manager, Terrence “Punch” Henderson Jr. “A lot of triumphs, a lot of lows.”

The new record, Herbert (a nod to Soul’s government name), sees him back from the mountainside, the sound of the Word still ringing in his ears. It’s an exhibition in myth busting. Over 18 economical tracks, he takes it all the way back to square one: before TDE, online-chat rap circuits, rhyme scheme indoctrinations, or fame itself. “This is the first time I’ve felt actual pressure,” he admits. “I tried to remove a lot of my arrogance with this album. My ego. And just put it in God’s hands and hope for the best.”

Plus, it helps that his sword hasn’t dulled. He’s as nifty in a pocket as he thinks he is. There are a couple of turns of phrase on the project that no one this side of Marcy could fuck with. And there’s an overriding message—about grief and growth and all the messiness in between—that touches the kinds of nerves his best work does while avoiding most of his previous projects’ poorly aging pitfalls. It’s not a perfect record (the run time is more than a little long), but it’s overflowing with the kind of focused introspection that could turn grating in less deft hands. Granted, it isn’t exactly clear what kind of market there is for that sort of thing anymore. Soul knows the game has changed. He just still sees his place in it.


It’s been six years since Do What Thou Wilt dropped. You don’t come off as the type to get nervous about how your work is received, but I gotta imagine you felt some pressure—even if it’s just internally—to create something and for it to land.

I grew up in a record shop. I sold albums. I’m heavy on that culture, and I think we all are as a team—TDE—we just come from that era. We heavy on bodies of work, and we don’t put it out until it’s ready. Until we all collectively feel like it’s ready. It’s not just what I think or what somebody else thinks. But this is the first time I’ve felt actual pressure. I don’t generally feel it, but this time I really was wondering, like, “Will they still love me?” Six years. It’s a long time, and the consumption of music is moving faster by the second. The game is moving so fast—it’s a lot of new music being released. A lot of new artists coming out every day. It’s just moving a lot faster. I got to a point, probably about the four- or five-year mark, where I’m like, “Man, I hope they ain’t forget about me.”

That’s gotta feel like a fucking wilderness. Was there ever a moment where you noticed yourself losing the joy for the art form? Where it started to feel like something forced?

I won’t say I lost the joy, but in this six-year period from my last album, I didn’t record for a year and a half. And I didn’t do it because I was uninspired. I did that as a means to try to reset. I had been rapping every day relentlessly since I was a kid, and it was a process, getting back into the rhythm.

Do you think of yourself as someone who’s patient?

Absolutely. That’s something I just always had. I’m just used to things not going according to plan or coming together exactly how I wanted to or when I wanted to. And it’s a practice, too. I believe that everything is as it should be and everything will happen in its time. I’m on God’s time.

How many incarnations of Herbert have there been along the way?

I was going to drop in 2020, but the pandemic hit. Gift and a curse. I thought the 2020 thing was cute, you know what I mean? The lack of sight thing, 2020, I thought that was cute. But time is everything.

Do you feel like you could’ve made this record 10 years ago?

No. No way.

Why?

Too arrogant. I tried to remove a lot of my arrogance with this album. My ego. And just put it in God’s hands and hope for the best. Keep my expectations, remove my arrogance, ask for help, ask for more help. I work with geniuses. Why not utilize them? Not that I haven’t been a team player like that, but I tried more so this time to ask more questions versus just being so sure, being so certain. Letting my engineers do their thing, trusting other ears besides mine. Sure, I have my input, but it’s a collaboration all the time. But I just feel like I challenged myself to just trust my team a lot more.

I know you grew up working in your family’s record shop. You started off trying to rap like Twista, right?

You’re good. I like this interview.

What is it about his flow that drew you to it?

I had been kind of fiddling with it since Kris Kross. Me and my cousin Dion. But I think when I really first got into rap, it was the triple time …

[Ab-Soul starts mumbling “Tha Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.]

That was where I really figured it out. OK, I understand the concept. I got into it. So when I heard Twista, I was like, “Oh man, that was incredible.” So at the record shop we used to get the singles; it would come with the single a capella and instrumental. I just literally kind of mimicked him.

I read an interview you gave awhile back where you talked about really honing your skills on text-battle sites. Online freestyle forums. Even now, it feels like you can kind of see that background in your lyricism. That it’s meant to almost be read out loud.

All you had to work with was words, and it had to be read well. You had to read it, and it had to be tight. So you had to write it in a rhythm. There was no beat playing. And we had to write it in a way—capitalizing the rhyme, putting the punch line in quotations, using cool HTML—we had to do cool things for you to read it how we meant it to. Shout-out to the whole scene. That’s an art form for real. And that’s where I honed my writing skills.

This is a bit of a non sequitur, but I’m really interested in how you’ll answer: Do you like fame?

The only time I want to be famous is on a stage. When I’m on a stage, I want your undivided attention. As soon as I step off of that stage, I wish you never saw me. Seriously, it’s serious. But as soon as I step off, I should have did this shit with a mask so you don’t see it.

Some DOOM shit.

DOOM, exactly. It would’ve been tight, too. I could have pulled it off.

It feels like TDE is in this moment of transition. You guys are all in your mid-to-late 30s. Kendrick just went out on his own. I’m sure each of you guys have responsibilities and shit that you did not have when you were 25, because that would be weird as fuck if you didn’t.

Correct. Correct.

How has the sense of family that’s connected all of you evolved over the past couple years?

Just simple. As you said, we adults, people, got more responsibility now, kids and nephews. Just taking on more responsibility in that sense. And just trying to be good men, trying to be good, responsible adults, if you will. I don’t know, that’s more of a thing versus us sleeping on the floor, sleeping on the studio couch type shit.

You’ve mentioned in the past the idea of comparing yourself to Rock and Q and Kendrick. Not in an unhealthy way, but just as influences, obviously.

Correct.

They’re influences. How could they not be? And maybe sometimes even a measuring stick.

Correct.

Do you still do that?

Are you referring to a certain, have I said something?

Yeah, you’ve talked previously about looking at Jay Rock, looking at—

I’m iller than all of them. … I’m the best rapper out of all of them. I guess you got misled. I guess I must have been misquoted. I’m inspired by them. I know, I love our contrast. I love talking about this—music aside, we’re not even supposed to be friends based on where we live. Where we grew up, we’re not even supposed to be friends. So that alone, us being able to even be brothers first and then collaborate musically and create, I feel like we’ve made history together. And that shit is incredible. But I know I rap better than them niggas. Everybody else, I can’t say. I know them. I know I rap better than them, but everybody else, I’ll leave it to you.

What’s the thing, musically, that you find yourself wanting to master these days? Something that you feel like you haven’t been able to quite do, but that, you know, whatever version of you exists in X amount of years, you’ll want them to have honed “this”?

From a production standpoint, hearing things more sonically, working with musicians. I want to make a band, ultimately. I’ve been more focused on the words for the bulk of my career, more than the music behind me. When I’m behind the music, really. I’m just another instrument on the beat, and that’s what I’m on right now.

If you could go back in time and talk to 25-year-old you, what are you telling him?

Nothing.

I’ve never had anyone answer that. Why nothing?

I’m on the path. That’s just how I’m choosing to take life. I’ve been through a lot, man. I take a lot of losses, man. I took a lot of losses. I had a lot of wins. And it all happened for a reason, I feel, to prepare me for what’s to come. To whom much is given, much is tested. It is a miracle I am still here. I’m grateful. So I wouldn’t tell him nothing. Just stay on the path.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.