Ab-Soul’s ‘Herbert’ Is A Worthwhile Cap To TDE’s Outstanding 2022

Given that it’s the end of the year — traditionally, a time for looking back on the year in review and looking forward to the possibilities of the blank calendar ahead — it’s kind of fitting that Top Dawg Entertainment released Ab-Soul’s reflective Herbert now rather than somewhere in the furor of attention swirling around Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s comeback albums. This is because of the content of Herbert, yes, but it’s also because of Soul’s seeming place in the unofficial hierarchy of TDE’s fluctuating roster of artists.

With Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers concluding K. Dot’s commitment to the label and SOS potentially constituting SZA’s swan song (although the jury remains out in that regard; she seems to change her mind every other week and could be announcing five more EPs by the time you read this), TDE finds itself in an interesting place. For all purposes, it looks very much like the most commercially successful acts on the label are pretty much done. Schoolboy Q, who’s always kind of hovered in their periphery, last released an album, Crash Talk, in 2019, which could potentially have also completed his own obligation to Top Dawg, if Kendrick’s five-album deal structure is any guideline.

Jay Rock, who may as well be the label’s vanguard artist, hasn’t been heard from since 2018, although he typically takes long breaks between albums too. That means that for the first time, TDE is probably facing a new year with the prospect of no releases from its first and second-wave rappers and singers. It also means that 2023 might be totally clear for Top Dawg to truly move into its next wave of artists, many of whom seem poised to bridge the gap between the backpack rap-influenced releases of the label’s past and the more sonically malleable styles of contemporary hip-hop — which makes Herbert the perfect project to close that chapter of Top Dawg’s history.

Of all the first-wave TDE artists, Soul has probably been the hardest sell to the mainstream hip-hop fan. Influenced as much by underground mainstays like Canibus and Ras Kass as he was by Tupac, his bars have always been the densest, the most metaphorical, and the most abstract of the Black Hippy collective. While Jay Rock and Q reeled off morbid street stories and Kendrick offered intellectual observations on LA gang culture from the perspective of the hood-adjacent everyman, Ab-Soul was that stoner roommate everyone remembers from university who was really into metaphysical philosophy.

He was also — and I say this lovingly, as a fellow former denizen of the rap battle forums he frequented in the early days of the internet — a rap nerd beyond the like of his Black Hippy brethren. He was the one who deeply cared about the mechanical intricacies of rhyme work, the sort of blog commenter who probably threw the term “multi” into at least a few of his online missives. It showed in not just the music he made, but in the reception to it, as well. On his first two projects, Longterm Mentality and Control System, these tendencies made him seem quirky and idiosyncratic on These Days… and Do What Thou Wilt., though, he sounded out-of-touch and borderline delusional.

So it’s a relief to hear him shake loose some of the muck that bogged down those projects, endeavoring to discuss more earthbound subjects on Herbert — even when those topics get dark. On the title track, he addresses addiction, depression, losing his father, and even his ongoing ordeal with Steven-Johnson Syndrome, which affects his vision. On the motivational “Do Better,” he wrestles with survivor’s remorse while detailing his own efforts to follow the title’s advice. And in the lead-up to the album’s release, he was forthcoming about his recent suicide attempt, in which he jumped from a freeway overpass seeking a permanent solution to dark thoughts tormenting him through the recent pandemic.

Likewise, it’s satisfying, if not always delightful, to see that those rap nerd tendencies haven’t left him. Depending on your tolerance for rap dad jokes, some of the bars on the album can read like the most tortured puns to propagate their poet’s punchline prowess, or they can wow you with their wordplay wizardry. Here’s a test to find out which side you’ll land on. If that last alliteration-laden sentence made you groan a little (okay, I’ll stop now), approach with caution, and be ready to skip “The Wild Side” and “Art Of Seduction.” But even so, don’t miss the DJ Premier-produced album closer “Gotta Rap,” a defiant, triumphant celebration of Soul’s survivorship and pride in his pen.

Now, Top Dawg Entertainment must look to the future. Although 2018 signee Reason and 2020 recruit Ray Vaughn are both equally adept at twisting a double entendre to suit their purposes, they’re both grounded in the same sort of murky narratives as Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q. Meanwhile, Doechii has distinguished herself as the possible breakout star for phase two of the TDE experiment, garnering rave reviews for her viral singles “Crazy” and “Persuasive.” But whereas the first-generation TDE stars relied on their gritty stance and muddy, boom-bap-inspired production, it’s fitting that Herbert closes with a beat by the preeminent pioneer of backpack rap’s musical backbones.

Top Dawg, like hip-hop as a whole, has to evolve. The past year or so has shown us that the genre moves too fast and has become too omnivorous to cling to its origins, however important it is to acknowledge and remember them. So it’s good that we’ve learned as much as we possibly could about TDE’s flagship artists through their revelatory return projects (even going back to Isaiah Rashad’s 2021 album, The House Is Burning). The time has come to get to know the next generation, with their glittering dance beats, triumphant trap anthems, and a slew of new stories to tell.

Herbert is out now via Top Dawg Entertainment. Listen to it here.