His tufts of hair are unruly and his eyes shrouded by trademark black sunglasses, worn due to an ocular sensitivity to light that will likely require a corneal transplant one day. His aesthetic is something like if Bone Thugs-N-Harmony had played the first Woodstock — or as he brands himself: "Lupe Fiasco on drugs."
This gated community home in the hills above Compton, Calif., belongs to the mother of one of his two children. He mentions several other residencies, but refuses to name locations, citing his inclusion on a government watch list. According to the rapper, real name Herbert Stevens IV, 27, he has been under surveillance since publicly indicting the handling of the manhunt of LAPD cop-turned-killer Christopher Dorner in 2013.
"I heard this from Danny Brown one time and never forgot it," says Ab-Soul, explaining his ideas about artistic balance. "When you feed a sick dog, you have to mix the medicine in with the food that it likes already."
Asked about the "medicine" on "These Days," Ab-Soul dozes off. It's hard to tell — between his opaque sunglasses and general torpor, it initially seems like he's cautiously deliberating a response. But after two minutes, his publicist rouses him. "You need to put that in the story," he says, laughing and immediately sparking a leftover blunt idling in his ashtray.
Other palliatives are in plain sight: Three jugs of promethazine cough syrup are neatly arrayed in his closet next to a box of Chips Ahoy. Also known as "lean," the drug, a sedative, was blamed for the deaths of Southern rap legends Pimp C and DJ Screw; Lil Wayne and Mac Miller have also reportedly struggled with it. A fourth syrup bottle looms before Ab-Soul, next to a box of Backwoods Cigars.
"I do get a lot of comfort from weed," he admits, when asked about his preferred methods of coping with the rigors of rap life.
He slumps deeper into the couch, folding his arms across an Ab-Soul T-shirt. Tattoos tell his life story: his rap name inside a Jesus fish, on his arm; below it, the most recent addition, an eye with the words "Don't Understand Me" written below; "Carson," the middle-class L.A. suburb where he grew up the son of record-store owners, is inked across his abdomen; and of course, there's the logo of TDE, the rap powerhouse label that's home to Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock, with whom Ab-Soul forms the Black Hippy supergroup.
Ab-Soul's Timeline: The Rapper's Life From 5 Years Old to Now
But unlike Q and Lamar's last albums, both breakthroughs, "These Days" will be released independently by TDE rather than through its partnership with Interscope. In some ways that's fitting. Since 2012's "Control System," Ab-Soul, TDE's self-proclaimed "black sheep running with a pack of wolves," became a star on his own out-there terms — the rap purist's choice prone to dizzying rhyme schemes and lyrics about third eyes, chakras and the pineal gland. His most poignant song, "The Book of Soul," unspools his own personal tragedies: the 2012 suicide of his high school sweetheart and collaborator, Loriana Johnson, and his adolescent battles with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, which caused his eye issues and left his skin disfigured and lips blackened.
"He doesn't really have fans; he has cult members — people who sit around lighting candles and reciting mantras," says Dave Free, GM of TDE. "He rides the line between fun and intellectual. He's the rapper who makes smart people want to turn up."
Ab-Soul and TDE had a minor imbroglio in May, when the rapper, backed by a Twitter campaign of impatient fans, threatened to leak his own record. Label head Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith responded on Twitter by daring any of his artists to do something so brazen.
"I turned 'These Days' in in January and was just looking at it like, 'Can I just put it out now?' " says Ab-Soul. "But TDE has a strategy and a plan for how they need to roll it out. I respect them and let them do their thing."
The album cover features Ab-Soul on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns. "'‘I'm more than man, I've died and rose again' — that ties into all the underlying themes," he says, referring to a line from early leak "Stigmata," which features Action Bronson. (Brown, Fiasco, Black Hippy and Rick Ross are among the album's other guests.)
"I'm just trying to make music to help people get through their day and make them feel good," adds Ab-Soul, snuffing the blunt out. "Righteousness for me is defined by sharing. And I share information through music."
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