There’s finally a video for one of my favorite songs of last year, from Ab-Soul’s brilliant album Control System. “ILLuminate” is a standout from that record, a showcase for the Black Hippy alum’s addictive blend of introspective cultural commentary and blunts-and-brags swagger. The video, directed by Fredo Tovar and Scott Fleishman, provides appropriate imagery — a vaguely post-apocalyptic wasteland and a group of young people keeping the darkness away with their own creativity:
The timing for the video is pretty solid, too, coming three months after Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city (and eight months after Control System). “ILLuminate” features Lamar on the final verse, and the two men’s complementary styles here provide a winsome invitation and representative introduction to the creative output of the Black Hippy set beyond Lamar. (Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q were absent from GKMC, while Jay Rock made the absolute most of his feature on “Money Trees.”)
Ta-Nehisi Coates has started digesting the Kendrick Lamar record, and the major qualities he’s praised about it – its sincere vulnerability and the way it speaks for the unheroic and the common – should lead him and others to check out Control System as well. Ab-Soul’s version of vulnerability is certainly different from Lamar’s. Coates had a great line about Lamar being “obsessed with speaking as a civilian” in an art form “obsessed with soldiers,” and that’s a good way to understand the surface differences between Ab-Soul’s vulnerability and Kendrick’s. Soul flirts with speaking as a civilian but clings to soldierly posturing far more than his labelmate. As an example: When Kendrick pondered gang unification on good kid, it was as a threat to his own life. When Ab-Soul ponders it on Control System, it’s part of a fantasy about being able to fight off the U.S. military. “Terrorist Threats” is another great track from this record, but neither it nor “ILLuminate” are good examples of Ab-Soul’s vulnerability. That song’s insecurities about fleeting popularity and industry pressures to duplicate 2 Chainz are, in a sense, the performative version of vulnerability that TNC notes is common to rap.
The best example of the deeper, truer vulnerability in Control System doesn’t have a video yet, but it should. “Double Standards” features Anna Wise, who’s having a great run of guest vocals on excellent rap records. (She sang on multiple good kid, m.A.A.d city cuts last year, and on two tracks from Oneirology by Cunninlynguists, one of the best records of 2011:)
“Double Standards” is a lot like Kendrick’s “The Art Of Peer Pressure” in its reflective take on group dynamics and individual behavior. The simplicity of the hook strays close to the preachiness that makes that Macklemore “Same Love” joint almost unlistenable for me, even as I appreciate its value. But Soul saves it in the verses, with economical depictions of the wildly different norms about promiscuity and fidelity that prevail for men and women. Those norms are present in some of the best examples of the flawed or performative version of hiphop vulnerability Coates sees Kendrick breaking away from on good kid. Jay-Z’s “Song Cry,” Ghostface’s “Back Like That,” and MF DOOM//Madlib’s “Fancy Clown” all traffic in the crippled, one-sided understanding of fidelity that Ab-Soul rips apart on “Double Standards.”
In the final verse, he points out that we inherit these attitudes, that they are trained into us at a developing age. This isn’t the first-person storytelling of good kid, but it’s predicated on the same genuine openness and reflectiveness on experiences that are common, daily, and unheroic. It’s a different formula of the same drug, and hopefully everyone who appreciates Kendrick’s output will make time to explore Ab-Soul’s.