Ab-Soul Breaks Down the Inspirations & Revelations Behind 'Do What Thou Wilt'
Ab-Soul is a thoughtful writer. Since bursting on the scene in 2009 as a member of TDE, the Carson, California, rapper has wowed audiences and critics with his layered songwriting and introspective nature. Now, he’s doing it with his latest album, Do What Thou Wilt.
Released Friday (Dec. 9) via Top Dawg Entertainment, the project is being billed as “a love story” by Soul, but that doesn’t mean it’s full of ballads. Instead, it’s an unconventional love tale that explores war, sexism, religion, drugs and family from a personal and global perspective.
On the eve of DWTW’s release, Soulo spoke with Billboard about its literary and true-life inspirations. He also opened up about why he’s calling rappers out by name, and why young MCs need to respect hip-hop history. Somehow, he does this all while staying true to the album’s overarching theme of love.
You’re an intricate writer, heavy on similes, metaphors and multiple meanings. When did your love for that style of writing start, and how do you cultivate that now?
It started from writing essays in school, incorporating metaphors and similes. When I picked up the pen to MC, Canibus was like the god at that time, a lyrical architect. Later on, you find Eminem, and you do your research and find Ras Kass and then all the real MCs come to play. You notice that they all have common themes and you see the poetry used, but they have their own distinctions and are telling their own tales. That’s where I string it in. I have all of these different templates, but I get to tell my testimony. That’s where it becomes Alpha Beta Soul.
The latest testimony is Do What Thou Wilt. Take me through this project from the idea to execution. What started it and what inspired it along the way?
Well, the album is based on [Aleister] Crowley’s The Book of the Law. That’s where the famous quote [from the title] is found. Doing research on Crowley, just being a scholar, I see his influence in music, culture, history, journalism [and so on] runs deep.
My theme [has been] “there’s nothing wrong with a righteous man.” I like to carry the cross, if you will. So you’ve got this guy that’s usually associated with cultists, satanists, and these types of things, but then you have this guy who idolizes Jesus as well. Another quote from the book that caught my interest was, “The righteous will remain righteous and the filthy will remain filthy.” With him obviously pushing the envelope to be the wickedest, most evil, most filthy, why not try to be the most righteous? With that comes so many themes. This album is also a love story and it’s also a woman-appreciation album as well.
You get into that appreciation on “Threatening Nature,” and women are a central theme throughout. What motivated that and what do you hope listeners take from it?
I cracked open The Book of Law and the first chapter is dedicated to the manifestation of Nuit, an Egyptian goddess. To me, the depictions of her represent the firmament. That stuck out to me, him having to manifest her first, I thought that was interesting.
Also in my studies, I found out what I mention in “Threatening Nature,” that the genealogy of Isis — the mother of the original Egyptian Holy Trinity — is Genesis abbreviated. Today, the most common Holy Trinity are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, with the woman removed. You also have the ISIS terrorist group, so you have kids who are gonna miss out on learning about Isis, the original mother of the holy trinity, but they’re gonna be immediately subjected to this terrorist group. I’m a mechanic, so I take all of these things into consideration, and that’s what this album is.
You bring up sexism on here, as well. Was that to shed light on something you felt was lacking?
Maybe it’s not because of a lack thereof. It’s just being aware of its lack thereof or not. Are we ready to have a female president? I think the world was ready to see that. I felt a lot of steam under Hillary [Clinton]. My girl’s daughter voted for her in school. She’s a kid and kids are doing things like that. So I felt the time of The Divine Feminine. Shoutout to Mac [Miller]. I feel that air. So that definitely supported me while I was coming up with [this project].
The album’s full of songs that are connected, like “God’s a Woman?” and “The Law,” the latter featuring Mac Miller and Rapsody. What was the concept that you wanted to convey with those cuts, and why were Mac and Rap perfect for it?
I’m glad you asked that. “The Law” is an actual conversation between Hadit and Nuit [from The Book of Law]. I’m playing the role of Hadit and I’m having a conversation with Nuit. That’s a classic Angie Stone sample [“Brotha”], and it was a tribute to the black man, a remarkable record. I wanted to do a tribute to the woman, not the black woman, but the woman. That’s why it was important for me to have Mac Miller sing along with me.
Rapsody and 9th Wonder actually just fell into the studio right on cue. I’m like, “Don’t rap. Just go in there and give them something from the spirit. Go in there and be a woman. Don’t just bar ‘em to death. Go in there and be a pretty young lady.” That’s what I tried to capture from [Rapsody] and she definitely executed.
Speaking of bars, the album starts with “Raw Backwards,” where you call rappers out by name. What inspired you to go to war with those MCs off the bat? You mention Jay Electronica and Troy Ave.
Let me start with Troy. Troy made a comment about Capital Steez that I did not like. Me and Joey [Bada$$] and the [Pro Era members], we’ve shared similar losses, if you can understand that, and those are really my little brothers. Certain things, I don’t feel should be said, man. That’s something I feel like I needed to address, and I hope that he doesn’t take it any other way but that. That was something that I feel like he should have just left out the argument. Let’s keep it hip-hop, let’s keep it competitive, but there’s certain boundaries. Let’s be responsible. [Steez’s] mom is still listening. His family is still listening and still watching. So, that was important for me to note.
We’re all familiar with Jay Electronica’s Periscope rant earlier this year and I’m the guard dog of the squad. I’m the rapper’s rapper. [At the time], Kendrick [Lamar] was in a position where he’d just had his Grammy nominations and a lot of positive things happening in his career where he didn’t need to respond. I didn’t feel like he even needed to say anything. I wanted to speak to him because I had the relationship with Jay Electronica anyway. That’s the black God to me, even to this day, and he knows that.
He put out a public apology too. Note that, but I said what I said for the same reason he said what he said. I know he respects that. It’s hip-hop and anybody can get it. Nobody’s exempt. We’re gonna keep that spirit alive with respect. Oh, and remember too, man, that all’s fair in love and war. Love is synonymous with war. Note that first and foremost, this is a love story, right off the bat. I think the greatest wars were fought over women, absolutely, and an OG will tell you gangbangin’ started over a woman.
Going back to the personal nature of the project, you talk about loving drugs on “D.R.U.G.S.,” and then on “God’s a Girl?” you say, “Top wants me to go to rehab.” What has your journey with drugs been like?
That line in particular, “Top wants me to go to rehab,” is about us becoming celebrities and being subject to much more, and us going out and him getting the he-said, she-said on his end about how we’re behaving, and making sure that we’re being responsible men first. [TDE CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith is] a father figure first. He probably just heard a few conversations about me and might’ve felt that I might’ve needed some self-control, which is completely understandable.
We had a long talk and I’m honest. I’m an open book. That’s something where I wanted to start off like that and speak with him directly. I knew that would make him laugh. That’s the type of relationship we have as a company, as a team, so I’m able to do that. Another boss might’ve took that disrespectfully almost, so shoutout to him.
It’s also comforting to know that people want you to do well.
Yeah, it’s love first. [Speaking as Top Dawg]: “Self-control. Come on, we’ve got things to do. You’re supposed to be the smartest guy in the camp. What’s up?” That’s the vein that it came from and that’s love first. That’s a rare thing so I respect that.
Talking about drugs now, it was also interesting to me how drugs are usually referenced as girls and a lot of times, they’re female plants that we actually ingest. That was interesting to me, even down to heroine, meaning a goddess, a hero. Those connections alone are what made drugs such an interesting thing to discuss in the scheme [of the album].
Love is probably the most addictive drug. Then, you take into consideration the relationship between you and your mother. It’s unmatched and it’s probably what you’re gonna look for in your spouse. It doesn’t go away. I don’t care how old you are and even if she’s gone, you’re gonna consider your mother and what she would think. These things are going on today. It’s real outside. My mom is not wet behind the ears so I wanted to have a responsible conversation about these things in a way that even my mom can say, “Well put.” I can’t wait to have this convo, man. That’s gonna be the ultimate confirmation, seeing what mom has to say. Just hope I don’t get a whoopin’.
Speaking of respect, you often show respect to MCs who’ve come before you, whether it be Nas on “Stigmata” or Ras Kass on “Threatening Nature.” Recently you criticized Lil Uzi Vert for not wanting to rap on a DJ Premier beat. What duty do you think a young rapper has when it comes to research and history?
I feel like it’s important to know your grassroots in whatever field you choose to master. You want to know the origin of it, however outdated it may be to you. However outdated the first wheel might be to you, it became the tire. We have to remember that and we can’t denounce these things.
It’s a responsibility to me as I’m getting older too. I’m the big homie now, I’m almost 30. So it’s important to me as a big homie to keep challenging the fountain of youth so they can stay a fountain, so they can know their source, where they got their influence from. Uzi uses Auto-Tune. That’s Zapp & Roger. You gonna pass on Zapp & Roger beats too? [Laughs.]
I just feel like Uzi should’ve rapped on that Preemo beat so I’m telling Uzi to come holler at me. I’ll get Preemo on the line, and let’s cook up something. I know he can catch that tempo. He ain’t gonna tell me he can’t catch that tempo. Let’s get creative, man.
How did you do your research as a young Soulo?
You can’t undermine the fact that I grew up in a family-owned record shop, Magic Disc Music, rest in peace. My grandpa Cletus Anderson, who’s my biggest supporter right now, is also a founder of V.I.P. Records in the L.A. area. So, I had the resources to go back and get it all first-hand. I had access to go into the crates and the archives to find everything hands-on. It was cool because I got to see all of the references made. If you hear a rap song today, you don’t know that it was an original reggae sample from [the past]. Those types of things made it cool to me and I think that transpires to my threaded stye.
We talked about the lyrics for this project, but musically, what did you want to convey?
Musically, my biggest thing was the science, the mix, the engineering of it. Me and my guy [Derek] Ali always bumpin’ heads to make sure we come up with the best product we can. I was working with my man Josh Berg this time, who recorded a bulk of the project. Working between two engineers, files come up missing here and there and little mishaps, technical difficulties occurred, but it was a cool experience, making sure it was efficient and that all of my Picasso dots were in place.
Finally, even though you’re just releasing Do What Thou Wilt, I have to ask, what’s next? Have you already started working on a new project or are you focusing on this one for now?
What’s on my mind right now is how I’m gonna present this to the world live and in living color. That’s gotta be done. The visuals are coming out great and I’m very happy with that. Shoutouts to my guy Moosa [Tiffith], who helped me out a lot throughout this whole process. That’s Top’s son. And my man [Terrence] “Punch” [Henderson], of course, on the creative end. I just want to make sure that we deliver this live right now. That’s my main focus.