Exactly five years ago today, I was 23 years old and (allegedly) living in Canada on a long-expired visitor’s visa, spending my days at one the local smoke shops assisting customers in choice bong picks and discovering my passion for hip-hop writing through a poorly-run blog that would eventually lead me to where I am today.
My existence was drenched in the smoke Canadian ganja and I was surrounded by the type armchair philosophers Katt Williams once explained as “smarter than a dumb motherfucker.” I was entrenched in a potent cocktail hip-hop studies and esoteric obsessions, spending just as much time scouring the writings Aleister Crowley and Terrence McKenna as I was the front pages DJBooth and 2DopeBoyz.
Exactly five years ago today, Ab-Soul released his second album Control System—a project which, given the headspace I was in at the time, tapped an ice pick into my consciousness that burst into fractalized shards. At the time, Soulo was already my favorite TDE’s four horsemen through his Long Term mixtapes, but somewhere between Longterm Mentality and Control System, Ab-Soul had downloaded some sort cosmic message that endowed him with qualities that had only been hinted at in his previous projects.
Soul had always displayed powerful wordplay—a skill he’d honed through BlackPlanet freestyle chat battles facilitated by free AOL/NetZero trial discs—but Control System was made by a man who had been to the mountaintop knowledge and been struck with a lightning bolt monumental understanding once he got there. The metaphysical themes he was beginning to explore in the Long Term series had blossomed into a full swan dive into the depths psychedelic thought. The Black Lip Bastard had arrived.
From the album’s Jhené Aiko-assisted opener “Soulo Ho3” to deeper cuts like “Pineal Gland” and “Illuminate,” the themes on Control System are not for the average hip-hop listener. These weren’t brief, vague mentions the Illuminati and mushrooms, this was a legitimate documentation one man’s venture into an alternate consciousness. The album cover is the Tree Life, for fuck’s sake. Soulo was deep in it.
This burgeoning experimentation and the tragic passing his beloved Alori Joh just months before Control System’s release brought out a darkness and aggression in Soul’s demeanor that had until then been masked by a charming layer lighthearted references and a whimsical, witty sense humor. This wasn’t the Ab-Soul that made “House Party 5,” this was a man with clear demons finding solace in an exponential expanse in thought, and this new Ab-Soul was even more deadly on the mic than his already lethal previous incarnation.
Then there are the features. The unbridled anarchism Soul and Danny Brown on “Terrorist Threats,” the hyper-machismo “SOPA” with ScHoolboy Q, the Section.80 revival vibes “Illuminate” alongside Kendrick—Control System showcases some the strongest feature pairings I’ve heard from anyone on TDE in recent memory. Every guest role is perfectly conceptualized and executed to a T, and Soul manages to remain the star the show even among the damn near flawless performances accompanying him.
To this day, Control System marks a high point in Ab-Soul’s catalog. Do What Thou Wilt. and the Long Term series still get steady rotation in my house on any given week, but both Soul’s latest release and 2014’s ill-advised These Days… lacked the noxious combination focused arrangement, eclectic production, killer features and lyrical complexity that Control System has in spades.
I’m well aware that Soul is still capable this level artistry—there were several glimpses it on DWTW—but Control System will always hold a special place in my heart as a formative album both in my life and in the discography TDE’s original Black Hippy.
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