Six years between albums has provided Ab-Soul with the kind of self-reflection necessary for growth. Now he’s back to restore the feeling of great lyricism while sharing his testimony.
Interview: Aleia Woods
Editor’s Note: This story will appear in the Winter 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Ab-Soul is a firm believer in the age-old phrase good things come to those who wait. The idea certainly applies to his own music. Since the release of his last album, Do What Thou Wilt., in 2016, his “loyal to the soil” fans have been wondering when they’ll receive the next project full of the rapper’s introspective lyricism. Ab-Soul finally delivered with his fifth LP, Herbert, this past December. The LP serves as a soundtrack dedicated to his journey back to self and a depiction of the groundwork he’s laid out for himself on the heels of personal struggles he’s battled privately during his absence.
Initially slated for a 2020 arrival, the Carson, Calif. native’s album has been held up due to the coronavirus pandemic. While Ab deems this two-year delay a gift and a curse, he intentionally chose to deviate from his typical “science”-like approach to creating and fully emote. Organic themes like loyalty, healing and mental health are covered with his new work. Topics such as West Coast roots, tragedies like the loss of his father in 2011, and close friend Doeburger last year, plus depression and addiction are shared on the recordings. For Ab, there’s light emitting from the dark though.
As the Top Dawg Entertainment rapper sits in a lounge on the second floor of New York City’s Sixty LES hotel on a December afternoon, the sun gleams through the floor-length windows. It’s evident Ab-Soul, dressed in a black hoodie, grey cargo pants, white Air Jordan 4 sneakers and his staple black sunglasses, is basking in his own much-deserved luminosity as he kicks off the new year with a meaningful album.
Ab’s developed a glass half-full perspective over time. The artist, born Herbert Anthony Stevens IV, has accomplished that by alignment and controlling his frequency. These are practices that require diligence and pure intentions, but are also vastly different from the darker subject matter he once showcased on past albums. He attributes this newfound energy to therapy, which is also what making this project was like for him.
Embracing his return, the 35-year-old MC takes time to speak with XXL about his growth as a man and artist, friendship with the late Mac Miller, women in rap and his former labelmate Kendrick Lamar leaving TDE.
XXL: Talk a little bit about the album and why you chose to name it after yourself?
Ab-Soul: The album Herbert is about getting back to self. I just kinda feel like I was becoming Ab-Soul more than Herbert. So, this album, to say the least, is dedicated to the people that refuse to call me Ab-Soul. That still call me Herbert or Herbie or Herb. It’s about getting back to the roots. Getting back to the foundation, to the source. Getting back to self.
The album was supposed to come out in 2020, so that was still four years since you’ve released music. What brought you back to it?
OK, well, as you know, [Do What Thou Wilt,] it was a bit dark. It was a bit heavy, heavy on the ears. I felt, as well as my team felt, that maybe I should come back brighter, have some contrast. Maybe that might’ve been too much. You know, challenge yourself to create something that’s a little bit more easier to digest, if you will. So, I took like a year-and-a-half off to just reset. I didn’t write, I didn’t record.
And so, from there, obviously with that hiatus, it took me a good six months to a year to get into a rhythm. I also went into it with no concept for the first time. I just made songs that were dear to me versus trying to tackle a subject. I’m known to treat projects like science projects. But this time, I challenged myself to just go in and create and let it create a concept along the way. And this is what we came up with.
How beneficial do you feel taking that break was for yourself and for the end result of the actual project?
In all honesty, I personally feel like this is some of my best work. I’ve been rapping all my life. I probably wrote a verse a day, give or take, since I was 12 years old. I’m 35 now. I think it was important to step back for a second and stop being so… “I gotta write, I gotta record, I gotta keep going.”
Maybe stepping back sometimes and reflecting, and giving yourself some time to breathe and think about, how can I do something different? How can I present something different? So, in that regard, it worked out great for me.
On your song “Do Better,” you reference the late Mac Miller. How do you feel your friendship with Mac has affected your growth as an artist and personally?
He’s really family, you know? A genius, to say the least. One of the most creative artists that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Taught me a lot and I hope I taught him a lot as well. I just wanna make sure that I keep his legacy going. And I think his presence is still felt and respected in that regard. I think that’s the best way I can put it. Don’t make me cry so early.
How do you feel about substance abuse impacting the hip-hop industry at large?
I think it’s always been there in the music industry. I think drugs are everywhere. Substances are everywhere. I’m happy we’re having more conversations about therapy and mental health and self-care and I’m hearing it more. Especially in our community where it’s needed. You know, I like to, when I say our community, you know what I’m saying? Urban, you feel me?
I’m hopeful for change for the better, but you know, it’s always gon’ be challenges for everyone. It’s always gonna be tests for all of us. People deal with all kinds of things. All kinds of different traumas. But I feel it’s in the air. I’m hearing the term mental health more from us.
People just want to heal.
Exactly. People just want to heal and so I’m hopeful.
In these days and times, how do you maintain your mental health?
I think when we speak of these things, I think it’s more so a state of mind. It’s a practice, obviously. But I feel like I’m in control of my vibe. My frequency that I give off. The energy that I give off to people, I feel like I’m conscious of it and I’m in control ultimately. It’s definitely a practice.
How are you able to reinterpret some of your real-life events in your music?
I’ve been blessed to have a great fan base, if you will. That further pushes me to inspire. It gives me the courage to share my testimony so that it might help someone else going through those things.
You’ve also used parallels between music and magic. What about music is magical to you specifically?
It has the power to literally not only move you physically, but even on a spiritual level. And I just think that’s magical.
How do you persevere through challenges you’ve faced within the music industry?
That’s a mindset and it’s a practice. It’s passion. It’s skill. It’s all of those things. I have to push myself to be brave enough to keep going… through anything. Break through all barriers. Don’t let anything get in your way of what you seek to accomplish. Does that make sense?
Yes. Would you say that bravery looks like sonically changing your sound to make it easier to listen to as you mentioned?
Yeah, for sure.
In what ways do you feel you’ve challenged yourself musically?
This album, I really removed my ego and asked for help. Nobody’s bigger than the program. I asked for help. I didn’t just go pick beats or records. I was open to suggestions ’cause I have the privilege to be surrounded by a gang of geniuses, so why shouldn’t I utilize that?
What does your legacy mean to you?
I’m still trying to pave it out, but I definitely want it to be something of substance. Something monumental. Something for the greater good.
How has the change in the dynamic at TDE following news of Kendrick Lamar leaving the label impacted you and your trajectory?
Well, you know, I always romanticized the idea of us staying together forever. And I say this as Kendrick obviously being my brother, you know? I like how he put it. There’s beauty in completion. And you know, I feel like he reached his space where he felt like he needed to embark on something else. I support him in whatever. He’s incredible. He’s an incredible artist and I support it. I’m behind it 100 percent.
Did you guys have a conversation about him leaving or can you share any aspect of how that might’ve gone?
I feel like that kind of thing, it just kind of went unsaid just for the sake of making sure we remember the brotherhood first. That we’re brothers first and, you know? He’s still somebody that I can call on and vice versa. And that’s the most important thing versus us tryna get to the bottom of why he would start his own label or whatever have you. Our brotherhood is more important to me personally.
Do you feel lyricism is a lost art?
A lost art? I won’t say that. Lost isn’t the word. It’s still a lot of us getting down, getting busy in terms of lyricism in that respect. I’m just here to restore the feeling. To keep that, the hip-hop spirit. The essence of it. The root of it. I feel like that’s my, one of my purposes, for sure. To remember how it started. Hip-hop is amongst the youngest of genres. I feel an obligation to keep paying homage to the pioneers before me and keeping that vein of hip-hop.
The 50th anniversary of hip-hop is on August 11, 2023. What does it mean to be a part of such a monumental and influential genre of music?
It’s an honor. You know, that’s what we, I can say, our forefathers, that’s what they wanted for this. They wanted it to be bigger than life and I feel like we’ve done that.
You’ve mentioned on Twitter wanting to work with Rubi Rose. You’ve complimented Latto’s pen game back in June. How do you view women in rap and who else would you like to work with?
Like I said, I’d love to rap with Latto. Rubi, of course, like I told you. I like her style. I like Bia, a lot. It’s a lot, man. I’d love to work with Cardi B. I’d love to work with the queen, Nicki [Minaj]. You can’t ignore the fact that the females are getting busy, like, lyrically. Real talk.
You tweeted that Madonna is a fan of yours. Who would you like to work with outside of the rap realm?
Madonna. I wanna do it all, man. I wanna work with a lot of different artists. I wanna start my own band, The Souler System. I wanna take it as far as I can with the art. I don’t wanna call out any names in particular. I don’t wanna spoil what I have in store, you feel me?
Buy the winter 2022 issue of XXL magazine on newsstands now or online at the XXL store.
Read Ab-Soul’s interview in the winter issue of XXL magazine, on newsstands now. Check out additional interviews in the magazine, including the cover story with Pusha T as well as conversations with Chance The Rapper, Freddie Gibbs, G Herbo, DaBaby, EST Gee, Murda Beatz, Morray, Ice Spice, Jeleel!, Armani White, Destroy Lonely, producer Dez Wright, singer Kiana Ledé, actor Shameik Moore, plus a look at hip-hop’s love for wrestling, a deep dive into how new artists get on in hip-hop these days, the ways in which women in rap succeeded in 2022, the rapper-run podcasts the game has grown to love and a tribute to rappers we lost in 2022.