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In December 2013, the CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment - Anthony Tiffith - declared that his label would release 6 major projects in 2014. So far Schoolboy Q, SZA and Isaiah Rashad have put out LPs to varying commercial and critical acclaim. All TDE releases suffer from being released in the shadow of Kendrick Lamar's modern classic good kid, m.A.A.d city. If anyone on the label could match Kendrick for sheer lyrical intelligence it would be Ab-Soul. Coupled with his distinctive appearance and emotionally powerful previous output it would seem that These Days... could be the album to propel Ab-Soul into the mainstream. Sadly, it falls short of expectations by artistic choices and a confusing change in direction from the Carson, California based rapper.

Ab-Soul is an intelligent guy and his previous projects (Longterm Mentality and Control System) have been received with an excitement due to their challenging all-encompassing lyrical content which stretches further and deeper than most mainstream rappers. These Days... sees Ab-Soul occasionally take a step back from his more experimental lyrics and regress into a bog standard hip-hop artist. The opening double salvo of 'Gods Reign' and 'Tree of Life' are a promising start with fantastic instrumentals coming from Purity Ring and DJ Dahi (the guy behind Kendrick's 'Money Trees'). The tracks show Ab-Soul opening up about the death of his long term girlfriend Alori Joh ("My girl died and I lost my mind") and contemplating the power of money and drugs in the world, it's all very refreshing until 'Hunnid Stax' which offers a completely mailed in verse and a forgettable Schoolboy Q feature.

From 'Hunnid Stax' all the way through to 'Twact' (which XXL called a "terrible DJ Mustard impression") the album is a thorough disappointment. Tracks are overlong and frequently feature skits and outro/interludes which could and should have been their own separate tracks. Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city justified its use of skits attached to the ends of tracks because of its powerful storytelling function, These Days... lacks a consistency in production and identity meaning the skits feels completely unrelated and unnecessary in the context of the album.

Thankfully, These Days... is rescued with a very strong second half. 'Just Have Fun's hazy warm synth instrumental provides a great platform for a sparky, interesting and gripping Ab-Soul verse. Despite being the best song on the album, 'Just Have Fun' lasts until 3:11 before it falls victim to a needless interlude courtesy of Mac Miller's friend Jimmy. After a monologue from 'Jimmy' we have a completely different slow jam interlude spark up. It's not bad, just a poor artistic choice to attach the three separate entities together.

'Kendrick Lamar's Interlude' sees K.Dot go hard and Ab-Soul return the favour after his feature on Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 mixtape. Ab-Soul's lyrics inadvertently reveal the reason behind his success and offer a nice angle for us to read Ab-Soul's development - "We shared our life with you, shared our light with you even in the darkest of hours/In hopes that one day, just maybe, one day the world'll be ours." Now Ab-Soul has the world through sharing his life, he seems to be unsure on how to deal with the world's attention judging by the lack of clear identity on the album's opening half.

'Closure' and 'Stigmata' follow and keep up with the standard of the second half of the albums. These tracks stay closer to the Ab-Soul that caused people to stop and pay attention. Jhené Aiko's presence gives additional emotion to 'Closure' and the religious themes of 'Stigmata' are unique and pretty well thought out (even if the album cover is a little over the top). 'Ride Slow' is another of the undisputed highlights as Danny Brown throws down a brilliant technical and lyrical verse to rival anything on the album. The beat drops after Danny Brown's verse and the track becomes a hazy ode to lean, once again, this should have been a separate track. Both beats are Larry Fisherman productions, with the second featuring a verse from Delusional Thomas. Both Fisherman and Thomas are alter-ego's of Mac Miller whose stock as a producer is rising as fast as his hip-hop credentials. The album has a strange relationship with the guest features as many features from people such as Earl Sweatshirt, Isaiah Rashad and Jhené Aiko are not even listed. Most surprising is the lack of accreditation for Punch's verse on 'Dubsac' considering he is the president of the record label.

The album ends with 'W.R.O.H' (We Really Out Here) and features JMSN. The track is 23 minutes long and when Amazon and iTunes listed the tracklist early internet rumours claimed it could be Ab-Soul's two-fingers to the record label which shelved his Unit 6 album with JMSN in 2013. Sadly, the internet was wrong and 'W.R.O.H.' is a solid ending to the album with Ab-Soul and JMSN combining to good effect. So why is the track 23 minutes long? After a fade out and an Ab-Soul interview clip we get a 20 minute low quality recording of a rap battle between Ab-Soul and battle rapper Daylyt. Recorded with a crowd in the background providing "oohs" "aahs" and "damns" it is lyrically astounding, a bold ending, but another spectacularly bad stylistic choice.

These Days... is a messy album: half completely unimpressive and half brilliant; botched skits; combined songs and an occasional identity crisis make judging the album as a cohesive whole very difficult indeed. The quality of the second half of the album is undeniable and if this had been spread across the album, with filler tracks and skits removed Ab-Soul could have been in possession of one of the albums of the year. Sadly, a lack of consistent identity seen in his past work means that These Days... as a whole doesn't hit the heights of his previous output or that of his TDE labelmates' 2014 releases.

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