Over the course of Ab-Soul’s sprawling 12-year career, the California rapper has examined numerous theologies in his quest for what he calls “the truth, if there is such.” The “Black Lipped Pastor,” as his devout followers call him, has long served as a beacon of hope for those unfulfilled with mainstream America, and it all started with his sophomore album, 2012’s Control System.
With its intriguing mix of bravado and philosophical parables, the album has remained so beloved among alternative rap fans that, at this point, it’s practically scripture for Soul’s supporters. Control System took on an identity of its own; so did Ab-Soul, who leaned further into the murky waters of conspiracy with his subsequent releases, 2014’s These Days… and 2016’s Do What Thou Wilt. The latter being so bogged down in far-flung teachings that it was hard to pinpoint where one thought ended and another began.
Then, Soulo seemed to vanish. One year off turned into six, as he disappeared down what he called a conspiracy theory “rabbit hole” that ultimately separated him from his family and friends. The immense popularity of Control System was partially to blame.
“I’ve been trying to beat Control System, and I think that’s a big part of the reason why the [new] album is called Herbert – it’s about getting back to self,” the rapper born Herbert Anthony Stevens IV tells Billboard as he chews on a Starburst inside his New York hotel room. “I was riding with one of the big homies once and he said, ‘Man you’re always playing this character like you’re Batman or something. You’re from the hood bro. Why can’t you just talk about some of that sh-t?’”
Herbert, which released on Friday (Dec. 16), is by far the most personal project Soul has ever made. Throughout the album’s 18 tracks, Soul ruminates on his family, a past suicide attempt, as well as the state of rap and his place in it. As a rapper known for having answers, he spends the majority of Herbert asking a lot of questions – on “Moonstruck,” he plainly raps, “I don’t know what to think.”
As his search for a definitive truth morphed into an addiction, Soul says that he had to come to a place of acceptance surrounding the unknown. To do this, he offered himself up as more of “an instrument” for others. DJ Premier, Sounwave, James Blake, DJ Dahi, Hit-Boy and Boi-1da all flooded him with beats, and he asked his close friends and family for help in constructing the record. He allowed the people he loved to be the foundation for what Herbert would ultimately become.
“I was asking my guys, ‘What do you want to hear me on?’ I was challenging myself in that regard,” Soul says. The process not only birthed some of Soul’s best music in a decade, it helped him let go of the steering wheel, and not get so caught up in the “absolute truth” idea.
“Look, I’m in God’s hands now. God is good all the time,” Soul says. “I’ m just keeping it like that. I’m keeping the faith.”
When I was listening back to Do What Thou Wilt versus Herbert, the first thing that struck me was how transparent and clear your songwriting has become. How did your approach to songwriting change with this album?
For me, it’s more difficult to be simple than it is to be complex. It was challenging to simplify, and I wanted it to be an easy listen, because my last album in particular was very dense and very dark also. I almost even confused myself with that one. That wasn’t an album, that was an algorithm. So this time around I just wanted it to feel good first, and I just wanted to be an instrument versus have it be about what I’m saying.
At what point did Herbert and those ideas really start to come together?
So I took a year and a half off from my last album, and I went in saying, “I’m not gonna have a concept this time, I’m just gonna be pure, be open and just try to speak from within.” It was fuzzy at first, to be vulnerable, organic, but I tell everybody that once I made “Fallacy,” I felt like I was on the verge of something and that I had a direction.
“Moonshooter” also feels like a pivotal moment on the album, because you seem to come clean and say “I don’t know what to think.” This unease feels like uncharted territory for Ab-Soul. When did that start to creep in, and have you been able to come to a place of acceptance around it?
I honestly feel like it’s liberating. “A wise man knows he knows nothing.” But anyways, I found myself becoming a critic of the new artists coming in. So I kind of came to this place of, “I ain’t got no gavel, who am I to judge?” Plus just being older now, we got a lot of new young artists that are amazingly talented and skilled and are bringing new flavor to the table. It’s inspirational. I really love Kembe X, and Doechii, Reason, to name a few. Those are my guys.
Was there a moment in particular where you caught yourself being a critic?
There was literally a moment with Lil Uzi Vert early, early on. He said something about passing on a Preemo beat. I think Preemo wanted to work with him or something, and I felt a need to speak up. I obviously cleared the air with him, but that was a moment where I was like: “Hold on. He has his own sound. Who am I to speak up on any young man out there trying to make something of himself?”
Jackson Pollack was just throwing paint and he was f–king Jackson Pollack. Some thought that was ridiculous. Others thought it was genius. Like, who am I? Let me just focus and make sure I’m creating the best product I can create.
Interestingly enough, you ended up working with Preemo on “Gotta Rap.”
That was a dream come true. I always wanted that and he made me work for it. I had to do it about five or six times before he felt the frequency. I respect his craft and what he’s brought to the culture. It was an honor. Even before Ab-Soul was my name I wanted a Preemo beat. It was a milestone.
On that note, we have to talk about “Do Better.” What do you hope that record will do for the legacy of Ab-Soul?
That’s one of the most organic songs I’ve ever made. Sounwave brought me the record and I immediately was drawn to it. Like I said I was just taking production, and I wanted it to motivate. I want us to try to be better at all things. To be your best self, and that was me talking to myself. I was trying to motivate me to be better. It was a conversation with myself.
Another record that stuck out to me in that regard was “Be Like That.” The song feels like you’re experiencing rock bottom, but also seeing the light simultaneously.
Absolutely. “When it feels like hell, heaven’s around the corner.” That was the hardest record to make, and it’s so important because that’s probably the most simplified [I’ve been]. I was like, “I don’t want no metaphors in this. I don’t want no punchline. Not one simile, I just want to speak,” and that was so hard for me to do. I don’t believe in forcing anything either, so I had to get into the spirit of it.
You’ve been working extensively with Jhené Aiko for years now. Tell me about the creative dynamic you two share and what you feel she brings to your music.
I saw one time somebody asked her if she was a rapper who she’d be and she said Ab-Soul. Jhené was with us in the trenches, in the beginning. She was with us early. A beautiful voice, beautiful writer, beautiful spirit and we just clicked. Also, you know she’s a Pisces, and we have that Pisces thing. Our collaborations are so effortless.
What’s your relationship to the “Black-Lipped Pastor” nickname at this point in your career?
I’m still the Pastor! I feel like it’s more suitable now and that it’s tailor-made for me. It was a little baggier back then, but I feel like I’ve grown into it now. At the time I got that nickname, I was heavy into theology and getting into the root of things, and it came from asking questions and trying to get to the truth, if there is such.
Tell me more about how being labeled the “third eye guy” impacted you.
Like I said, I’m trying to climb out of the rabbit hole, man. Let’s stay here. Let’s stay in this realm. Let’s stay on the ground. I was focusing on the unknown and the conspiracy and listen: Learn all you can while you’re here. Knowledge is power, but stay on the ground. Stay here. I felt myself becoming disconnected from my close friends and family in a sense. My way of thinking started to become extraterrestrial. The big homies are just trying to party.
Do you still consider yourself the “Third Eye Guy?”
I’ll always be the third eye guy, and I still believe those things but now it’s a faith. You heard my thoughts on them. I’m not trying to shove these theories down your throat. Once I felt the disconnect between the people that mattered to me most, the people that I trust the most, when I started feeling a disconnect between that and my relationships, I realized something is obviously wrong with me.
You gotta keep your foundation, man. I’m big on family and love and those things. I just started to feel like I was isolating myself. I didn’t wanna hang out as much because I wasn’t interested in what was going on. They’re like, “Yo bro, where you at? Pop out!” And I was, you know, staying inside.
How has Herbert helped your process of climbing out from that rabbit hole?
Oh, I’m back outside, baby! Listen man, I live in the now. I’m living right now. I’m in the now heavy.