1987–2010: Early life and career beginnings
Stevens was born and raised in the suburban area of Carson, California. He once recalled being five years old: “I was serious into video games and basketball, at five. But video games for sure. Five… What was that, Nintendo? Sega. Sonic the Hedgehog. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on TV. But I know early on, I really, really liked Michael Jackson, like we all did. Newborn babies loved Michael Jackson.”
At age ten, Stevens contracted Stevens–Johnson syndrome which caused him to be hospitalized and is the origin of his dark lips and light-sensitive eyes: “At ten years old, I got very sick. It was a pretty vivid day. I caught a rare virus called Steven-Johnson Syndrome. And it was very, very life-changing for me. It hindered my vision and my skin configuration. It definitely put a huge dent in my hoop dreams. I even kept trying to play. I tried to keep playing with my shades on, it was real funny when I think about it now. A lot of my friends were real cool about it. They wouldn’t make me feel different or anything like that, but I just kind of figured… I won’t have the sharp vision for that. In his adolescent years however, Stevens was severely teased about his condition: “When I had got sick when I was younger of course it affected my lip skin, so coming up in school I had very dark lips and my eyes were low. I had to wear shades and shit. So I was quite peculiar. People teased me about my lips, and say I look high. I didn’t even start smoking weed until after I graduated from high school.”
Steven began crafting his rapping skills at an early age: “I was on BlackPlanet freestyle chat, rapping my ass off. Text battle. It is a very interesting world. I think that it still exists online, where you freestyle but you type it. They call it keystyle. I think that is where I developed my rhyming skills. I had been rapping a little earlier, maybe around 12 [years old], but when I hopped online and into that culture, that textcee culture. It really got me going as far as being a rapper.
Stevens claims to have written his first verse when he was 12 years old, to the beat of Twista’s “Emotions”: “I was like, I can do this; I’ll try it out. And I wrote it out. That’s a day I remember vividly. From that moment I’ve had a very keen interest in the whole craft. Being a big fan of words and making the real connection with them. Saying things that can make your eyes open up. I can say something and I can turn heads. Nevertheless rapping was just a hobby for Stevens, whose parents had a different future in mind for him: “My parents saw a bright, college-type future for me like as a lawyer, doctor, engineer, or something of that fashion. They put me in these high, gifted courses in school. I don’t know how they went about doing that, but I was in them. I think with them wishing that upon me, I imagined it early on. I wasn’t too set on being a rapper just yet at 15, it was just some real cool shit.”
It was not until he graduated from high school that he began to take his music career seriously: “I just wanted to be tight with [my raps] but I was growing a passion for it. Wasn’t until after I graduated from high school and checked into the community college that I realized I wanted to be a rapper full time. I probably did the equivalent of a half a semester total, in my attendance. I tried one semester and dropped out and then I tried another semester and dropped out. So it just didn’t work out.”
In 2002, Stevens recorded his first song. In 2005, he signed a recording contract with StreetBeat Entertainment, but just a year later, in 2006, he met Punch, President and Chairman of Carson-based indie record label, Top Dawg Entertainment, who as Stevens says, saw more in his music “than metaphors and punchlines”: “As soon as I had graduated from high school I had signed an independent contract with a small label called StreetBeat Entertainment. Take it as a learning experience. But during that time, I had started working with TDE. That deal was for two years, so as soon as that was up, I built a relationship with TDE and became a member of that family.”
In 2007, Stevens officially became part of the Top Dawg roster, which already boasted fellow up-and-coming rappers Jay Rock and K-Dot. Stevens states the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964) as one of the texts that really enlightened him saying: “It just taught me a lot about people, religion, society, possibilities in society, success, and things like that. From there, I’ve just been very observant about a lot of the major political figures or religious figures that we have and I’ve been keeping a close eye to [them]. It may seem transparent, but ultimately it’s very important to [draw your own conclusions].”
In 2008, he began recording music for his debut mixtape, at the TDE Recording Studio: House of Pain. In December 2008, Stevens released his first music video, for a song from the mixtape titled “A Day in the Life”, through YouTube. The mixtape, entitled Longterm, was released in January 2009. It was the first in a series, that Stevens claims will have four installments: “When I did the first Longterm I knew that there would be four of them. When I did the first one. So there will be four of them: Longterm 1, 2, 3, and 4.
In 2009, he formed supergroup Black Hippy, with his label-mates and frequent collaborators Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and K-Dot (now known as Kendrick Lamar). Stevens released his second mixtape, and the sequel to his first on June 28, 2010. The tape, titled Longterm 2: Lifestyles of the Broke and Almost Famous was highly acclaimed and featured Stevens singing on several songs.
2011: Longterm Mentality
In February 2011, Ab-Soul revealed he was working on a project titled Longterm Mentality, and subsequently released “Hell Yeah”, a track featuring Schoolboy Q. On February 22, 2011 Stevens released another promotional recording taken from the album, “Moscato”, a collaboration with another fellow Black Hippy, Kendrick Lamar.In February 2011, Stevens also embarked on the “Road to Paid Dues” concert tour, after being enlisted by fellow American rapper Murs.
On March 21, 2011 Stevens released the music video for a song titled “Nothin’ New”, in promotion for the album. On March 25, he released “Gone Insane”, the fourth track liberated that was taken from the album. On March 30, a trailer for Longterm Mentality, was released via Top Dawg Entertainment. On April 1, 2011 he released the music video for “Gone Insane”, directed by Top Dawg in-house directors Fredo Tovar and Scott Fleishman.
Stevens has stated the respective independent albums of his label-mates partly inspired material on Longterm Mentality: “I compare [the process behind] Longterm Mentality to the process with all of my joints. Kendrick’s OD had came out and Q’s Setbacks had came out. I had these bodies of work to go off of as references, as inspiration. I hear what Kendrick is talking about, I hear what Q is talking about, I heard what Jay Rock was talking about. So how am I going to piece this all together and add my own two cents, too? How do I continue the sound but have my individuality as an artist? It’s the same challenge every single time.” Stevens released his first independent album, under Top Dawg Entertainment, exclusively through iTunes on April 5, 2011. The album subsequently peaked at #73 on the US Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. The album, although it’s title is Longterm Mentality, is not the third part of his Longterm series.
2012: Control System
Soon after the release of Schoolboy Q’s second independent album, Habits & Contradictions (2012), Stevens began promoting his second independent album, releasing a song titled “Black Lip Bastard”, on January 17, 2012. The song was produced by TDE in-house producer Willie B. On February 28, 2012, Ab-Soul, alongside Schoolboy Q, appeared on Sway Calloway’s #SwayInTheMorning radio show, where Ab-Soul called “Black Lip Bastard”: “pretty much one of the title tracks”, The first song that appears on the album, to be released was “Showin’ Love”, also produced by Willie B.
In March 2012, MTV announced Top Dawg Entertainment closed a joint-venture deal with Interscope Records and Aftermath Entertainment, marking the end of Steven’s career as an independent artist. Under the new deal, his Black Hippy cohort Kendrick Lamar would jointly release his debut studio album good kid, m.A.A.d city, via Top Dawg, Interscope and Aftermath, while releases from the rest of Black Hippy were to be distributed via Top Dawg and Interscope. On March 24, Schoolboy Q announced #TheGroovyTour; a month-long tour with Ab-Soul accompanying him the entire way. The tour began on April 20, at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California. On April 6, 2012, Ab-Soul liberated a song titled “Terrorist Threats”. The song features frequent collaborator Jhené Aiko and fellow American rapper Danny Brown, who proclaimed on Twitter that “Black Hippy the new Beatles and I’m Harry Nilsson”.
On April 17, 2012, Ab-Soul revealed the album’s title to be Control System and unveiled the release date to be May 11, 2012. That same day, he also released a music video for “Pineal Gland”, a song inspired by the psychedelic drug DMT and of course the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland in the vertebrate brain. On April 24, 2012, Stevens released another song, “SOPA”. The song, produced by Nez & Rio, references the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a United States bill introduced by U.S. Representative Lamar S. Smith, that would have allowed the U.S. government to control the Internet.
On May 1, 2012, Ab-Soul released another music video, for a new song titled “Empathy”, the song features vocals from Stevens’ late longtime girlfriend Alori Joh, who had committed suicide earlier in February. Joh’s death had a huge impact on Stevens and the recording process of Control System. On May 4, 2012, it was revealed “Black Lip Bastard” was remixed and would feature his Black Hippy cohorts, Rock, Lamar and Schoolboy Q. On May 8, 2012, his collaboration with Lamar, titled “ILLuminate”, was released. The day before the album’s release Ab-Soul revealed the track listing and released snippets from the album. The album, as written on the back cover, is “Dedicated to the beautiful soul of Loriana Angel Johnson aka Alori Joh”.
Control System was released exclusively through iTunes on May 11, 2012, under Top Dawg Ent.. The album sold approximately 5,300 units in an abbreviated week, debuting at number 83 on the Billboard 200 and appearing on several other Billboard charts as well. The album sold an estimated 3,700 the next week. During 2012, Stevens toured with the rest of Black Hippy and fellow American rapper Stalley, on BET’s Music Matters Tour.
In late 2012, Stevens was featured on Joe Budden’s mixtape A Loose Quarter on the track “Cut From a Different Cloth”. The song received praise as one of the best songs on the project. Budden has since announced that he and Ab-Soul have recorded many songs together which will be seeing the light of day in the near future. Budden went on to praise Ab-Soul as “one of the best things going in hip hop right now”.
2012–present: Unit 6
In October 2012, American singer-songwriter and record producer JMSN, who previously produced “Nibiru” for Stevens earlier in August for what his label called “TDE Fam Appreciation Week”, announced he and Stevens would be releasing a collaborative project together. The lead single for Stevens and JMSN’s collaborative album, titled Unit 6, was officially released via iTunes on January 22, 2013. The song, titled “You’re Gone”, features vocals from both artists, as well as production from JMSN. On March 26, 2013, it was announced that Ab-Soul would be featured on XXL’s 2013 Freshman Class issue, alongside Schoolboy Q and other up-and-coming rappers. After a near four month hiatis on August 6, 2013, Ab-Soul released a new song “Christopher DRONEr” produced by Willie B. Along with the song he announced he had new project coming soon. The following day he would speak to XXL and say that he and JMSN had finished the Unit 6, however their management labels could not “see eye to eye” so the project was shelved for a possible later release. He confirmed that JMSN and Jhene Aiko will appear on the upcoming project.