With its conscious/unconscious referencing of Steve Miller’s ‘The Joker’ via the emphatic listing of his identity (Miller is certainly the homeliest man ever to liken himself to a ‘space cowboy/a gangster of love’) Ab-Soul’s ‘YMF’ stands out from the rest of his December record, DWTW, Do what thou wilt for its spirit of play.
Play is a key element, if not the defining element of hip-hop. Creative play infuses the sampling process, with its emphasis on discovery and renewal alongside the way MCs reconfigure language, animated by the competition. (Play is not the same as humour, though: you can have a funny emcee, someone like Slick Rick who has his routine down, but is too knowing/worldly to be really playful. Big L probably best embodies this quality for me).
Ab-Soul’s turn, though, takes it to a new level, as it often seems like he is playing with us; taking on the classic role of the unreliable narrator, making it clear that it all could be, might be a game, made up. None or all of it or some of it may be true. ‘The tricky part’s (his) fingers are crossed; he might ‘even be lying/About being a liar, cheater/A devil in disguise and a deceiver.’
Play also comes through Ab-Soul’s delivery, the way he sings it. Listening in you get a feeling of how Ab-Soul is: spinning around and around – playing around with being serious/dumb - giddy almost (getting distracted with a story that ends with a kind of faux-declaration of his feelings, to a woman cheating on her boyfriend, what? He sings: ‘I love you too’ to this other woman, rather than his girlfriend, the subject of the rest of the song).
The song title: ‘YMF’ refers to ‘Young Mind Fuck’, one of Ab-Soul’s nick-names for himself. (I originally misheard it, without seeing the correct title, as ‘why you mad?’ and the mmmmm in response being like a disapproving meme from the Internet)
For a long while I wondered where all the hip-hop love songs were (and even wrote about this, some time ago; paying some respect to the mad-genius of ODB and the two quintessential hip-hop love songs: LL Cool J’s ‘I need love’ from 1987 and Method Man/Mary J Blige’s ‘I’ll be there for you/You’re all I need to get by’ 1995).
Considering the explicit debt to Soul music, the fact that the 90s and post musicians were the descendants of these 70s singers, I was surprised that there were so few hip-hop love songs. There are some, certainly, but compared to other music forms, not a lot. I noticed how you could listen to albums from 90s hip-hop stars and never hear them speak of their emotional lives, outside passing references to girlfriends or women they liked maybe. Other emotional and psychological states came through – loneliness, frustration, anger … – but not love.
(Here’s another perspective, though – and something I also believe – the fact that the early hip-hop storytellers had a breadth of interests, outside the typical boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl scenario might also be a strength, in the way these artists could convey the political and poetic and their sense of self within the same breath).
If hip-hop artists did express love, often the focus was on storytelling so that the love came to represent something ‘bigger’ and in so doing became an abstraction (see Common’s ‘I used to love H.E.R’ from his 1994 album Resurrection
a lament for the commercialisation of hip-hop and expression of Common’s nostalgia for his youth. This is a great song, a classic song, but it marks out totally different territory from the raw intensity of Ab-Soul’s ‘YMF’. One is cool, the other hot).
Maybe I’m being a bit tough on hip-hop here; there aren’t that many love songs in Heavy Metal or Thrash either, even though I’m far from an expert on those genres. Here’s a good place to start if you want to put up a counter-attack: Complex’s 2012 Best 25 Hip-Hop love songs, spanning the decades, with the best lines from each. Can’t go past these lyrics from 50 Cent f/ Nate Dogg '21 Questions' (2003)
It also includes the classic line: 'I love you like a fat kid love cake.' And don't forget The Pharcyde’s ‘Passin’ me by' (1992) 'And if I was your man then I would be true/The only lying I would do is in the bed with you.' Sweet.
Compared to other tracks on DWTW, ‘YMF’ is quite conventional in a musical sense, but this is not a weakness, as love songs (generally, most of the time) require a certain degree of conservatism to make them appear sincere. Love songs need to be stripped back, so that the focus remains on the singer's emotional state. It needs to be simple for the message to be clear and for the listeners to trust the sentiment, to believe it.
Having said that, even if ‘YMF’ is less daring than other songs on the record, it still has a lot of musical interest. The cruisy beginning and that over-basic beat - a repetitive double-beat - around 1’20” the track’s key sample – that squiggly distorted guitar sound that may/may not be from Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’ if it were that’d make sense – that builds over the song, at 2 minutes Ab-Soul makes a reference to an earlier song of his …
‘Stigmata’ from the These Days record (2014).
In ‘YMF Ab-Soul sings:
The logic behind this reference to Nas and his previous quoting the following lines from Nas’s song, ‘The Cross’ in ‘Stigmata’ isn't spelled out … ‘I carry the cross/If Virgin Mary would've had an abortion, I'd still be carried in a chariot/With stampeding horses...'
You could make a case that 'YMF' is not really about love, but rather an exploration of what’s going on inside Ab-Soul’s brain. In this sense, the following lines from the same verse are deeply resonant: 'They don't even know what eye is about/Is he non-fiction or not? Is it politics or hip-hop?' As others before me have also noticed the brooding harmony, backing vocals that come in at 4 minutes and become exposed at around 4’30 sound like a direct act of homage to Nirvana (and their track ‘On a Plain’) - Kurt Cobain understood paranoia.
And then 'YMF' closes with one of the best outros I’ve heard in recent hip-hop from Alia Zin, an ‘independent hip-hop artist from Southern California’:
Zin’s voice and the way she evokes this scene, with all of its Biblical references; so redolent of shared cultural norms, while remaining mysterious is a perfect conclusion to this song. Keeping it dark (no matter what the words say).