Ab-Soul’s ‘Herbert’ lacks the quality we’ve come to expect from Top Dawg Entertainment

29 January 2023 / by Owen Kropp
Ab-soul cover
Album reviews
Ab-soul Herbert
Released: December 16, 2022
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Hip-Hop / Hip-Hop/Rap / Rap
Freddie Gibbs / Jay Rock

Top Dawg Entertainment’s almost forgotten rap artist is back after a six year hiatus.

California-based rapper, producer and singer Herbert Anthony Stevens IV, better known as Ab-Soul, released his fifth studio album late last year.

The eponymously named ‘Herbert’ is an ode to Soul’s entire career, specifically how he needed to take a step away from the music industry as well as what brought him back.

‘Herbert’ centers around the inability to please everyone, the grind of being a rising musician and the mental obstacles that come with fame. He details the struggles, both physical and emotional, that have come with this career and industry—including stints in rehab, bouts of depression and serious strain on his personal relationships.

The first three songs do a good job of setting listeners up for the type of wordplay and themes they can expect from Soul transposed onto some solid, more jazzy beats.

Great at articulating his words, Soul makes up for what he lacks in speed with cleverness as his best lyrics convey some really well-thought-out double meanings.

Some of his best include “peer pressure rarely turns coal into diamonds,” off of “THE WILD SIDE” and “you need to broaden your horizon. Look, you with your broad but who her eyes on,” off of “NO REPORT CARD” as examples of his high-level wordplay.

On “MOONSHOOTER” we get our first real feature and Joey Badass doesn’t disappoint. He delivers a classic Joey-style verse which really fits the vibe of the song but is almost overshadowed by some really bland, monotone singing from Soul on the chorus. This doesn’t kill the song entirely but doesn’t make listeners want to return.

As a side note, there are multiple times where Soul seems to mimic other rappers’ flows and even match their voices. On “GOODMAN” he sounds close to Action Bronson, on “BUCKET” he sounds like “ASAP Rocky” and at the end of “GO OFF” he seems to give his best Kid Cudi impression. The point is, Soul can sometimes fall into the trap of being uniform in how he sounds and it certainly hurts his aura of originality as an artist.

In concept, the next two songs “FOMF” and “GOODMAN” are essentially identical and don’t really bring anything out of the ordinary to the table.

“DO BETTER” is definitely a standout on the project. Focusing on self-improvement this track has a great message, catchy chorus and simple yet effective beat.

“Melt the ice round the furnace burnin inside of you.”

“Hidin from the same world that made me who I am.”

“GANGNEM” is another passionate track on self-improvement and overcoming addiction, but lacks the production to elevate it to being on the same level as its predecessor.

“THE WILD SIDE” has some really ear-catching abrasive percussion in it and is complimented really nicely by Soul’s trademark flow of yelling his bars defiantly. It’s certainly one of the best tracks so far.

“ART OF SEDUCTION” and “BUCKET” fail to make a really lasting impression. 

Moving on to “GO OFF” Soul switches it up to a more “Drake-style” beat for a song only about sex. Padded with features, Soul’s verse is forgettable, Russ’ is pretty uninspired, but Big Sean absolutely delivers with a stellar verse. Taking a departure from the lust-filled lyrics of the rest of the song, Big Sean’s bars are both clever and confident. 

“How many friends I got to have my casket carried outside?

Probably not as many would stand and watch me married outside.”

“HERBERT” and “GOTTA RAP” are the only two songs left worth mentioning. “HERBERT” is the most vulnerable Soul gets, and when you add in a subtle Kendrick Lamar feature as well as James Blake, you can’t really go wrong.

“GOTTA RAP” is a 90s-style “boom-bap” rap song to finish the project on a strong note. It talks about his acknowledgement of his need to cope with past trauma and continue to grow. The beat builds really nicely into the second verse and the horns interlaced throughout are a nice touch.

Overall, it’s an album that doesn’t really know what it wanted to be. Just when you think that you will get a glimpse into Soul’s emotional state or traumas even, he deflects. Furthermore, the production and Soul’s voice alone is not enough to carry the load.

He’s set this project up to focus on the lyrical content and he underdelivers. It felt like he wanted to make an album reflective of himself but lacked the introspection and self-awareness to do so.There’s a lot of variety in the production that Soul has chosen and most of the features do fine enough jobs with what they are given, and yet this project still misses the mark on truly resonating.

On top of that, prior to the album’s release, Top Dawg Entertainment confirmed that there was going to be a Jay-Z feature but we never got one, which was disappointing, to say the least.

After such a long hiatus, the expectations were high for Soul to deliver a TDE-worthy level album, especially after the most recent releases of Kendrick and SZA. Instead, what Soul gave us was barely up to par and didn’t really prove that he isn’t TDE’s “weakest link.”