a long talk

That Was Ab-Soul, This Is Herbert

To make his new album, the rapper had to get back in touch with reality.

Photo: Ashley Pena
Photo: Ashley Pena

In 2016, Top Dawg Entertainment was enjoying its ascendance as the premier crew in rap through an exquisite balance of major-label polish and independent organicism. Each member had their own specialty: Kendrick Lamar as the conscious, forward-thinking leader; Jay Rock as the straightforward street spitter; SZA as the then-chillwave R&B songstress; ScHoolboy Q as the druggy, charismatic Crip; and Isaiah Rashad as the anxious, emotive Southerner.

Then there was Ab-Soul, an esoteric, cerebral lyricist who strived to find deeper meaning. The Carson, California, native signed with TDE in 2007, becoming a standout in Black Hippy (the four-man tandem of Soul, Q, Kendrick, and Jay Rock) and later dropping a stunning guest verse on “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” the penultimate track off Kendrick’s 2011 album Section.80. On his solo work, like 2012’s Control System, Ab often trafficked in bravado and pain — and the occasional conspiracy theory. He detailed his struggle to cope with the death of his partner and former collaborator Alori Joh by suicide (“Book of Soul”), rapped about seeing an image of Hitler in a photo of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11 (“Terrorist Threats”), and boasted that he could outrap Jay-Z (“Illuminate”).

But things soon began to spiral out of control. After releasing his critically-panned 2016 album Do What Thou Wilt — titled after a foundational text from occultist Aleister Crowley’s The Book of Law — Ab-Soul became distant from his friends and family, falling down his own self-admitted “rabbit hole” of disinformation. He was eventually forced to grapple with the passing of close friends Mac Miller and Doeburger, and during the pandemic, tried to take his own life, in an attempt that eerily mirrored a heartbreaking lyric from his song “The Book of Soul.”

That was then, though. Now, the 35-year-old rapper is feeling happy and grateful, thrilled about his return to music and reconnected with the most important figures in his life. On the cusp of releasing his first album in six years, he’s also ready to discuss his darkest moments in detail. The music video for his new single “Do Better” bravely revisits his suicide attempt, and a subsequent clip highlights fans’ comments about how the track positively impacted them. The rest of Herbert, titled after his birth name, finds him tapping into his upbringing, relying on the people he loves, and spitting some of the hardest rhymes of his career. “Moonshooter” chronicles his humble beginnings and his ascent through the music industry, and the title track runs through his lifetime of traumas and how he’s begun therapy to deal with them. “Ab-Soul is a character,” he explains to me on a recent afternoon in New York City. “Herbert is who I really am.”

Herbert is your first album in six years, and it almost sounds like you fell in love with rap all over again. On “Gotta Rap,” your song with DJ Premier, you say “I put my life in these sentences, bring the felons in,” “I’ma give this beat a heart attack.” The record just feels concentrated and purposeful. 
Ah, yeah, but to be more precise, I was just trying to restore the feeling of hip-hop in this climate. I intentionally tried not to listen to much music during this process so I didn’t have too much external influence. I wanted it to sound like me, and what I wanted it to sound like; you could easily just get influenced by what you’re hearing, cadences and flows. I just wanted it to all come from me as naturally as possible. I’m glad you put it that way, but I never stopped loving rap.

“Gotta Rap” was a dream come true. Before I even had my official stage name, when I was just Snap G, I knew I always wanted a Preemo beat. Preemo keeps his ear to the streets. I can honestly say I do get the respect of being the last of the lyricists, that cloth. I’ve met him in passing before, but we connected when he did PRhyme. I was at my brother Mac Miller’s crib. We was working on some other stuff, and Royce sent me the record. I was like, “Yo, Mac is over here, too.” He’s like, “What? Oh yeah, y’all go crazy.” And we did that off of the love, so Preemo hit me immediately like, “Yo, you went fucking crazy. You know I got you. I owe you one.” I said, “Okay, yeah. I’m going to hold you to that.” I knew I needed him this time around. He definitely put me to work. I had to do it about five or six times until he found the right frequency.

So you had to rewrite the verses?
No, not rewriting. He liked the verse, but I had to match the frequency of the record, because I guess that was one of his favorite beats. So he wanted to make sure I came correct. That was the first time anybody ever made me rerecord. So that was humbling. But it’s Preemo.

How long have you been working on this album?
Since my last album. I took a good year and a half off. I dropped Do What Thou Wilt in 2016. I went out on tour in 2017. I picked back up about late 2018. I had plans to drop in 2020. I thought that was tight with my being vision impaired. Twenty-twenty vision, I thought that was cute. But the pandemic hit. We went through that, and it was a gift and a curse … I’m finally very, very confident, and I feel the energy behind it.

So when you have an album that you’ve already started at that point and you step away, how tough is it to get back into the groove? 
Do What Thou Wilt was very dark. It was very heavy. As a team, we all agreed I should try to get on some brighter music, give some contrast. But I was in the rabbit hole, if you will, with my theories and philosophy. I was just going too far and was more concerned about the words than actually how the music felt.

So this time I wanted to pay more attention to the music. I can honestly tell you since I wrote my first rap at 12 years old — and I’m 35 now — up until Do What Thou Wilt, I probably wrote a rap, give or take, every day. I think it was necessary for me to step back and kind of reset, and come back with a fresh brain and tackle it that way. And it was difficult getting back into a rhythm. It was very difficult. But I definitely wanted to challenge myself or to get out of my comfort zone, be more open to suggestions, drop the ego, drop the arrogance, and ask for help this time versus just being a know-it-all and so certain.

We usually think ego is great in rap.
And that bravado was there. It’s a competitive sport. You can transform, you can be who you want to be. You can be the guy to rap. So that’s why by the time I got to “Gotta Rap,” I thought that was a great conclusion to sum it up. I like to call myself the god of rap. But really I just got to rap. This is Herbert. This album is Herbert. I’m just Herbert. When I call myself the god, I call myself the prophet, I compare myself to Jesus, I’m the savior, all of these things, Black Lip Pastor. And that’s just in the spirit of artistry of us using metaphors and similes and these things to speak of ourselves as highly as possible. You get what I’m saying? But this is a reminder that that’s Ab-Soul in the booth playing. Ab-Soul is a character, he’s a brand. Herbert is who I really am. So when I say I’m the god, I mean we all are gods. We all are God’s children. It’s not just me. I just kind of wanted to make that clear this time.

One of my favorite lines on the album is when someone says, “Ab-Soul can’t even fuck with Herbert.”
[Laughs.] I loved that. That’s one of my best friends, King Richard. He can vouch how much I put into this, man. On “Fallacy,” I say “King Richard still owes me a million swishers” at the beginning. I would get off of work, and he ain’t have no money. I couldn’t pull up, but I wanted to chill with him and smoke with him and play my ideas and freestyle with him. He helped me sharpen my skills. And he knows the dedication that I had. So it’s about those people who call me Herb. He doesn’t call me Soul. He doesn’t call me Ab. This album is for them.

You’ve made music that can be really personal. “The Book of Soul,” for example. And I think songs like that can make fans feel like they already know you.
Absolutely. And that was my intent.

Does it feel invasive or off-putting for a stranger to feel like they already know you that well?
No. That’s fine. But that’s why this album is for everyone who’s not a fan of mine that really knows me. This album is for them. But it’s kind of in an organic, creative way. It’s one of those things where it still ends up translating universally, even as I’m talking specifically to my close friends and family.

One of my favorite bars on Herbert is in “Moonshooter,” when you say “The industry was giving indigestion / But opting out ain’t an option in my profession.” Why did you decide to take that break, and how do you opt out and say to yourself, “Okay, I need time to get myself straight, and I need time to get the music straight”?
What I was talking about there was a flashback of the trials and the tribulations that I’ve been through. “Janky promoters always gave me the runaround.” I’m a big homie now in rap, a vet if you will. I didn’t have Wi-Fi at first. I did pep rallies, I battled in the street. I battled online with Netzero free trials, on dial-up. I did talent shows. I paid to perform. I sold tickets to open up for people. I did the whole dance. I passed out my mixtape for real. I was voted most likely to become a star in high school alongside my lady, rest in peace, Alori Joh. My first demo was on cassette; I gave it to DJ Quik. I’ve been doing this shit for real, out the trunk. I come from that area. So when I say “I’m not opting out,” I’m talking about that time. I’m not ever quitting.

Now after I did Do What Thou Wilt, I was heading more into Aleister Crowley, getting too far in. When you’re talking about conspiracy theories and philosophies and being radical and talking about politics — when you’re doing those things, especially in a time when mental health is becoming more important, luckily — I understand that people are watching me. I am a role model to a lot of people. They’re listening to me, and they’re taking what I say to heart. That was driving me into a depression, among other things. I was losing touch with reality. You get what I’m saying? It was too esoteric. People was calling me a satanist. And I get it, everybody’s entitled to their opinion. I feel like I was being disconnected from the people closest to me, my family; not in a huge way, but I felt the disconnect. I wasn’t popping out. I wasn’t going to the clubs no more, I wasn’t hanging out as much with the homies. I was isolating myself in this rabbit hole. So that break from Do What Thou Wilt was necessary for me to get back to self. Hop off the internet, stop doing “research,” stop “attacking the powers that be.”

What do you think made you more interested in researching conspiracy theories in the first place?
Well, I ask questions. I like to get to the bottom of things. Which is why we’re trying to restore the feeling; I’m trying to keep the vein of hip-hop alive in this climate when it may be lost, but still being current and still trying to transcend and be of the time at the same time. I’m still the homie, I’m still outside. But when I did Control System and saw how it was received, I was like, Oh, I have a thing now. And I think that drove me deeper into trying to stay in that way of creating. I think I thought that people only wanted me for that.

This is a particularly fraught time for conspiracy theories. You’ve got QAnon, you’ve got Ye being antisemitic. I think that Black people specifically may be susceptible to conspiracy theories because we have a really fucked-up history in this country, and we’re trying to make sense of nonsensical things.
Correct. Generational trauma.

But on the other side, some of the illest shit on 2012’s Control System was when you were tapping into those questions. It was clever lyrically, created some provocative images, and it provided a mysterious, eccentric vibe that made the album stand out. At the time I thought, Was he just doing this because it made for dope music?
I’ll put it to you like this. I found out about the third eye, the pineal gland, DMT. I found out about these things, and I was so excited about it. It was so interesting to me. And I’m trying to tell Schoolboy Q about it. I’m like, “Yo, Q, man, this is crazy.” Q is like, “I got a daughter, bro. Hey, pass the blunt, bro. I’m trying to get money. What are you talking about?” This is Q, one of my best friends. I wanted him to know about this shit so bad, I literally went into his beat folder and stole a Tae Beast beat he was going to use. And I made “Pineal Gland” for Q. It started out almost as a prank. So this is “stimulating the hoes, educating my niggas.” I found a theme. You can’t just give a dog medicine; you have to mix it in their dog food. I can do this and teach, because it’s intelligent movement. I thought that was cool. But once the people were as receptive to it as they were, I think that just kind of took me over the edge with it. I kind of felt a duty to keep coming with new conspiracies, being more radical. Like, Oh, this is what you want from me. But you go too far with that, you don’t stay on the ground, man.

So what do you think is the balance between being curious and skeptical about things and going too far into the rabbit hole like you say?
Tis the question. Finding balance in any manner is a practice. Trapeze artist, I mean, you get what I’m saying? Balance is a practice literally in any way you want to describe it. And I think that’s the ultimate yin and yang. It’s the ultimate goal to find the median. So I really can’t answer that. I don’t know the right way to find the balance, as if I have it.

Photo: Ashley Pena

You said that when you were into all these conspiracy theories, you felt a disconnection with your own friends and family.
It can be off-putting to people. I grew up in the Christian church. My grandma made sure I was there on Sunday. I had perfect attendance in Sunday school till I was about 17 years old. My mom made sure I went. Now as an adult, I wanted to ask more questions about religion and theology and get to the source. And in my journey, you can hear in my work where I’m questioning Christianity, questioning the Bible. But I would never do that in front of my grandma. She believes in what she believes in, and I would never try to take that away from her. I started thinking about it like that.

Everybody should be entitled to believe in what they want to believe in. I can’t say they’re wrong. It was becoming that; I was that deep into my theories, and you know these guys that we’re talking about, “Nah, that’s the government,” “No, that’s a plot against the Black man.” Then they’ll believe you, and now they’re lost. I go challenge the Bible. If I was to do that after all of these years, and she believes that, then I kill her whole joy. What would that do? That’s not peace, that’s not love. At the end of the day, however you feel about whatever religion you’re in or whatever faith that you have that you walk with, I feel you’re entitled to that. And it’s for you. There’s many different walks of life, and you got to let everybody walk their own path. We can’t be out here acting like we know anything. The wise man knows he knows nothing.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a conspiracy theorist consider, “What if people actually believe what I’m saying?” 
And they do! I tap in here and there on social media, and people that come up to me like, “Bro, you don’t even understand. You saved my life.” When somebody says that to me, with great power comes great responsibility. I’m like no, you saved my life. I have to reciprocate it. And I want to make it clear: When I’m making music in the fashion that I do, I’m not speaking as if my ideas and my opinions are fact. I’m only questioning things. I’m trying to open a discussion for thought … But then I’m the Black Lip Pastor, so it came across as I got disciples now, people that possibly hark on my every word, when that was not my intention. I just wanted to open the discussion. Let’s not just have so much blind faith. That was the intent. But when people start telling me I saved their life, that made me feel more responsible to make that clear because I want everyone to walk their own path too.

The lyric video for “Do Better” seems to show your understanding of that responsibility. It has all these people leaving comments about how they’re reacting to the song. How does that recognition of what your impact can be affect your actual creative process? How can you create for yourself while at the same time knowing how people are going to be consuming it?
After Control System, I was beginning to develop a bit of arrogance, a bit of ego. And so I felt like once I got to Do What Thou Wilt, I felt that I needed to take a step back and remove those traits and be more clear and be real with myself first. Most of the album is really just me talking to myself, me trying to motivate myself. Even “Do Better” in particular, I’m saying I got to look the man in the mirror and the eye and be honest. I have to do these things. I’m not telling you you have to do it. It’s therapy for me that I share. That’s why music is the king of all professions.

How difficult was the decision to make the video for “Do Better,” which recreates your suicide attempt, and to revisit that period of your life? 
I credit that to my brother, Mosa. He encouraged me to share my testimony. Initially, I had my reservations about it because I understand how those types of things can be effective from a marketing and business standpoint. But that really happened to me. Initially, in my recovery, I didn’t want to sell that. It didn’t feel right. But then I remember how, like I just said, how people come up to me and say that I saved their life. So that means that by me giving my testimony, I can continue to help and be of service. And maybe really, really save my life. A lot of times when they say, “You saved my life,” that’s kind of like an expression. But now I might really be of service literally in that right. So I got to build the courage to do it and share my testimony, and I’m glad that people were moved by it in any capacity.

On the title track, “Herbert,” on the hook you say, “They’ll never understand Herbert Anthony.” But three of the people who seem to understand you most — Alori Joh, Mac Miller, Doeburger — have passed away. And like you said, only so many people call you Herb. How do you grieve for people like that when they’re gone?
I mean, me personally, I believe they’re still with me. And I have guardian angels now, really. I really feel that. I really believe that. I still feel their presence. That’s my faith. These things never completely go away. But you just find a way to peace with it, ultimately.

You, Kendrick, and Isaiah Rashad have all spoken about getting therapy. I don’t think I’ve seen a label that had that many of their top artists openly speaking about it. Was therapy always something that you were open to or did it take time for you to try it?
My mom encouraged me to go. I’m a mama’s boy. I’m going to do what my mother tells me to do for the most part. [Chuckles.] I was lucky — I fell in love with my therapist; we clicked immediately. I felt like she understands. It wasn’t the commercialized version of how therapy goes. “So how does that make you feel?” She’s still my therapist to this day. That goes back to how our people are turned off with the mental-health conversation, going to therapy. It means you’re crazy, all of the stigma that we’ve been taught. But I feel it becoming more of the norm for people who don’t want to go to therapy, who want to go try to be their best self. I feel it. It’s happening.

On “Hollandaise,” you talk about how you first fell in love with rap, memorizing Kris Kross, closing your eyes and imagining crowds. When you do this as a profession, how difficult is it to stay intact with what makes you love it? 
There is no process. I love this shit. I love all of this shit. I love everything that comes with it. I’ve been up all night. I haven’t gotten any sleep. I lived out here for a while. I moved to the Bronx. I went where they said hip-hop started. I love this shit. It’s somebody that may have a dream of doing something, whatever it may be, but they got to get up in New York traffic and jump the turnstile because they can’t afford it or they’re running late to get to McDonald’s, to go to work. I’m not annoyed about doing this shit, and I get to talk to guys who understand what I’m trying to do, man. I’m living out my dream. It’s not something that I have to do. This is me, man.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

DJ Premier’s duo with Royce Da 5’9” As a child, Ab-Soul was diagnosed the rare skin and mucous disorder Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, and his cornea is scarred as a result. One of Ab’s many nicknames. He also refers to himself as Black Lip Bastard. Both names refer to his black lips, a result of his Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.
That Was Ab-Soul, This Is Herbert