Hookah bars might be more appealing in the daytime, before they are littered with people trying to appear more interesting than they are. On a cloudy afternoon in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, one particular spot claims dominion over the flavored-tobacco pastime with its name, Hookah King. Free of the city’s intoxicated comings and goings, the interior’s character takes center stage. Dim red lighting creates mystery as it subtly illuminates the black leather couches and brick walls that help to bring the Arabian atmosphere to life. A slight burst of daylight shines in from the rooftop door onto the walls, where a vibrant painting of a yellow-haired woman would usually go unnoticed. Faux vines accent a stairwell that leads you to a lower level, where mirrors and cheetah print thrones continue to decorate the fantasy. The hollow, empty venue where debauchery is sure to take place later, is now silent and picturesque. Today’s sanctuary of choice oozes with dichotomy, much like its special guest, Ab-Soul.
The Carson, California rapper, born Herbert Anthony Stevens IV, is more placid in person than his fiery rhymes would suggest. Removing his jacket to expose the neutral tones of his sweater and taking a moment to switch into a pair of fresh, wheat-colored Timberland boots, Ab-Soul doesn’t burden the room with a “rapper’s” presence. Quickly giving out a round of hugs and pleasantries, he is understated, light-hearted and polite. But beneath his even-tempered exterior is a bold provocateur. Behind his signature scraggly locks of hair and dark shades lies a willing agitator of thought who offers no repentance. “I love to oppose,” he assures, standing firmly in a comment about the Black Lives Matter movement that he’s sure will ruffle a few feathers. “Me personally, I’m not a huge fan of ‘Black Lives Matter.’ To me, that sounds like a superiority complex a bit, a bit one-sided. I’m not saying that it’s not necessary or that it’s not important that Black lives matter, but I think that all lives matter.” Even if his eyes were visible, it's clear no remorse would be present.
Black Lives Matter was just one of the many happenings that catapulted to the forefront of Twitter timelines, Facebook statuses and Instagram captions in the two years since Ab-Soul released his third studio album, These Days…. As the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson became a source of contention amongst American citizens in 2014, the criticism of Ab-Soul’s project — which dropped two months prior — laid its cards on the table. Complex’s review was titled “Ab-Soul Kinda Blows TDE’s High With These Days…,” Consequence of Sound called his songwriting “shoddy” and claimed the album had no “direction,” Rolling Stone ended its paragraph-long take with: “a fully realized dude never quite comes into focus.” As Black lives laid in the crosshairs, so did Ab-Soul’s project. The two themes would meet again two years later, as his lead single for his latest effort paid homage to Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton — but not in the way one might expect. He makes it clear that “Huey Knew” is “not a Black Panther song” by reiterating one of its lines: “Even white lives matter when I black out.”
“The Black Panther Party was not about superiority, it was about equality. So please note that,” he instructs. “We’re fighting for equality as the human race, and Huey knew that then. He was fighting for equality, not for supremacy.” If it has not yet been made plain, Ab-Soul says what he wants. This self-governing is furthered and deepened with the title of his fourth album, Do What Thou Wilt. The phrase is a code from the law of Thelema, a religion developed by occultist, writer and poet Aleister Crowley. Though Ab-Soul has long acknowledged Crowley as a “wicked man” (his life was littered with dark magic, drugs and sex), the rapper is also quick to praise him: “He made a lot of great points, however extreme it may be.” Crowley and Ab-Soul’s free thinking run strikingly parallel, though the younger provocateur’s definition of “do what thou wilt” takes on a larger, less-theological scope. “I love quotes. That one stands out to me because it sounds a lot like free will. Your will is something that has to be supported by love and passion and effort.” For Ab-Soul, a large part of Do What Thou Wilt’s influence was a cross-country move to The Bronx with his girlfriend, Yaris Sanchez. “That was super dope, for it to happen organically like that. I didn’t tell myself, ‘I’m gonna go live in The Bronx,’ it just really happened organically, out of love.” Returning to hip-hop’s mecca proved fruitful for Ab-Soul — who refers to himself as KRS-Two — in embracing what he calls the culture’s “essence.”
Unsurprisingly, given his relationship milestone, Do What Thou Wilt also evolved into what he calls a “woman appreciation album.” The album rests on the theory that the “chicken came before the egg,” pointing to the woman as the root of all existence. Ask Ab-Soul how his views on women have developed in the last two years, and he says his love was simply magnified, citing his upbringing by his mother, grandmother and aunts as the foundation for his feminism. With a tilt of his head as the sound of bubbles crescendos with his pull of the hookah pipe, he turns the discussion to music in general. “In music, it’s either ‘I love you and I can’t live without you or it’s ‘F you, and I don’t need you.’ There’s no medium, so I try to find the medium between the two.” He almost appears to be playing fair, before he fires off yet another one of his thought-provoking sentiments with a smirk. “I think sexism might be a more important issue than racism. And we’re not even paying too close attention to it.” And on Do What Thou Wilt, attention is paid — in the most Ab-Soul ways possible.
Sticking with his closeness to theological subjects, the album employs church bells and worldly references to Christianity on “Threatening Nature,” questioning women’s position in the Bible and society: “In 66 books in the Bible, they ain't let a lady say one word.” To the tune of Mike Will Made-It’s booming bass, Ab-Soul then explores “finger f**king Mother Earth,” lesbianism and his faithfulness to all women on “Womanogamy.” As fruit-scented smoke exits his mouth and he scoots to the edge of his seat, Ab-Soul shares that the video for the latter was shot in a strip club, where one dancer in particular expressed her gratefulness for the track. “I just remember this chick, she was like ‘I just really wanna thank you. I’ve never been able to dance to Nefertiti and Aphrodite. I’ve never been able to dance to this. I wanna thank you for that.’” On “God’s a Girl?,” the rapper points out that drugs like Molly and Mary Jane are named after girls and that marijuana only produces buds from female plants. But weaved into the praise are also misogynistic mainstays, like references to women as b*****s. “I don’t have to serenade you to get this point across. I don’t have to necessarily get in your panties to get this point across,” he says, still with no fear of strife present. “I wanna kick it to you like I would kick it to the homies. And if I could touch the women in that way, that’ll be a job well done.”
The pressure of “a job well done” now lies in the hands of Ab-Soul’s listeners, but before Do What Thou Wilt could see the light of day, the album haunted its creator. Back in February, Ab-Soul let his frustrations loose on Twitter, admitting that he was tired of riding TDE’s proverbial “bench.” “When you hear me speak out in these type of ways, ‘bench player’ and these metaphors, it’s out of my desire to deliver to the public,” he admits. “I just don’t want people to think I got my model girlfriend, my Dominican mami, moved to New York and went to sleep.” Nearly a year later, he’s probed about whether or not the extra time became a “silver lining,” an idiom that slips its way into this conversation by chance and onto Do What Thou Wilt on purpose (“Portishead in the Morning”). “I’m glad you said that. This album is the silver lining, it’s the grey area.” This grey area allows Ab-Soul to stand apart from the “Lil” rapper era, one which he is admittedly not a fan of — another one of his unapologetic takes. But even that has its perks. “We can’t act like we’re in a terrible time, that’s ridiculous. These times allow us to be distinctive. They allow me and Cole to do what we gotta do and that give them their distinction.” The silver linings just keep coming.
And for anyone who can only see the clouds on his new album, Ab-Soul offers a reminder: “Just keep in mind that this is a love story.”