Occultist and ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley once said “I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning.” Parsing this opaque statement reveals it was just Crowley’s cryptic, verbose way of devaluing faith and championing skepticism; a fake-deep principle demeaning the moralist position, the “Gotta Hear Both Sides” of a pseudo-cerebral ideology.
It also reads like an Ab-Soul bar these days. It’s fitting that Crowley, once dubbed the Wickedest Man in the World and written off as a Satanist for his musings about the supernatural, has been a source of inspiration for TDE’s syllable-twisting, in-house conspiracy theorist, who is becoming so information-obsessed that he seems to be losing sight of actual meaning—perhaps a bit woozy from inhaling around all the tomes and scrolls and manuscripts he’s been dusting off. His songs have become so abstract that very little happens in them anymore; they’re all empty puzzles, mazes made of loosely parsed Greek myths, astrological information, and the unfinished script pages for National Treasure 3, meant to be mind-fucking but revealed to be mush when even gently interrogated. His new album, Do What Thou Wilt., named for the defining law of Crowley’s Thelemic philosophy, is the ultimate act of performative wokeness.
It wasn’t always this way: Ab-Soul has been a thoughtful writer in the past, making sense of fringe sciences and unorthodox philosophies with elastic rhyme schemes, gently massaging them to suit grand proclamations about society’s shortcomings or personal explorations for spirituality. His breakout, Control System, remains among the best Top Dawg releases, boasting one of the most heart-wrenching and personal rap songs of the past several years (“The Book of Soul”). But the rapper has strayed from the confessional and introspective brand of stargazing that once made him one of rap’s most interesting voices. In recent outings, Soul has emerged as rap’s preeminent quasi-intellectual, besting peers like Lupe Fiasco and Jay Electronica (who he disses on Kendrick’s behalf here) with dramatic logical leaps, upping the ante with nonsense bars.
Ab-Soul spends so much time mixing pagan and Christian texts on Do What Thou Wilt. that it’s unclear what exactly he believes, or worse, what he’s trying to persuade us to believe. These songs are mostly self-serving or pointless, and they all contain plenty of bad phonetic reaches and try-hard wordplay. There’s a song called “Huey Knew THEN.” (Get it?!) It interpolates the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme and he raps “I’m hornier than the brass section of the band, you understand?” This is what would happen if you gave Shia LaBeouf some DMT, a 12th Planet documentary, and a World Religions textbook.
The production comes courtesy of longtime collaborators like Sounwave, Tae Beast, Willie B, and Skhye Hutch, names familiar to TDE canon like Rahki and the Antydote, and notable outside producers like WondaGurl and A$AP P on the Boards. It’s mostly dark and ominous, with sloping traditionalist breaks that slink just behind the downbeat. When it’s good, dense, or atmospheric like on “Braille” on “Now You Know,” it can settle Soul into a comfortable rhythm or obscure some of his worse lines; but when it’s bland (“Womanogamy”) or overwrought (“God’s a Girl?”), things become twice as grating, and often unlistenable.
Do What Thou Wilt. has been billed both as a love story and a “woman-appreciation album.” It’s also supposedly an exploration of Crowley’s wicked objectives and Soul’s goal of being the most righteous man, among other stray themes. These many mismatching, criss-crossing threads create an incredibly convoluted 77-minute slog that is as tough to listen to as it is to digest. The overly-busy “God’s a Girl?” boasts the lines “You got me crying with a hard dick (amen)” and “come have sex with Jesus” in the first 35 seconds. “Wifey vs. WiFi / / / P.M.S.” can’t decided if it’s a song about how digital communication interferes with intimacy or an extended prison metaphor. “Womanogamy” is a half-baked manifesto about liking girls that like girls that are in love with him; “RAW (backwards)” is a construction of lazy word games (“Man, I got so many flows them shits come with ceilings”); “YMF” or Young Mind Fuck, is lined with the most boring paradox of all-time: if Ab-Soul calls himself a liar, does that make him a liar, or is a liar calling himself a liar a lie? A better question: Who cares?
Among the worst songs is “Threatening Nature,” a single that proved to be a microcosm of the entire project. It’s an undercooked concept with even flimsier raps that would get laughed out of a smoke circle of college freshmen: “With all disrespect, I think the American flag was designed by fags,” he says, a line that would probably be repugnantly offensive if it weren’t so ridiculous. On “Evil Genius” Soul raps, “I studied theology, ancient philosophy, astronomy, astrology/The current state of the economy/Washington D.C., fossils and dinosaurs/The origin of our species.” Perhaps he should’ve spent a bit more time studying music.