Ab-Soul’s third album is never able to escape its Top Dawg DNA. The fingerprints of his labelmates, especially the other members of the Black Hippy collective, are all over the album: From a literal appearance of Schoolboy Q’s “Collard Greens,” to “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude”—in which Ab says, “If I ain’t better than Kendrick, nobody is”—the record exudes anxiety about living up to the standards of Ab’s ascendant compatriots. That would be fine if the songs rose to the challenge, but they’re often paralyzed, caught between Q’s crowd-pleasing instincts and K-Dot’s grand statements. Ab described the album as a “Top Dawg party,” but he doesn’t leave much time for the guests, even on an album that is 90 minutes long.
To an extent, it’s unfair to define These Days… in opposition to the people Ab came up with. But the decision to stuff the album with nods to his peers’ work and invite such comparisons does a disservice to his own identity—it means that These Days… is often unsure of itself. Considering his music is often best when it veers left, it’s unsurprising that Ab-Soul’s hooks have never been his strongest suit. The moments when the album seems as if it’s even sniffing at radio play, instead of just letting Ab rap, are its most forgettable. Tracks like the generically pulsing “Feelin’ Us” are fine (or worse, in the case of the supremely uninspired Lupe Fiasco collaboration “World Runners”), but they’re not even close to Ab’s home turf.
On the flip side are the tracks that collapse under their own weight, including “W.R.O.H.”—the song that replaces a long-awaited EP with JMSN—a four-minute track followed by 19 minutes of spoken-word outro. Equally collapsable is the aforementioned “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude,” which—with its jazzy, cacophonous undercurrent and world-beating proclamations—sounds far too calculated to achieve meaning with a capital “M.” The track “Just Have Fun” is split in two by another spoken interlude—lighthearted and breezy in a way the other hooky tracks aren’t—before giving way to a soulful second half, independently released as “These Days,” which would easily be the best track on the album if it only had its own slot.
These Days… is unable to fully resolve this tension, and that’s a shame; the moments when it does are filled with flashes of Ab-Soul’s weird brilliance. “Tree Of Life” includes what might be the greatest, loopiest Steve Jobs shout-out of all time, and “Closure” makes effective and smoky use of frequent collaborator Jhene Aiko. But even “Closure,” the most nakedly emotional track on the album, keeps itself at a distance. These Days… is a dense, complicated animal—even the blandest tracks have enough tricks to reward multiple listens, and may reveal themselves with time. But for someone so comfortable wearing his poetic heart on his sleeve, the black-lipped pastor has made an oddly distant album.