Concert Review: Ab-Soul – The YMF Tour at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto

After quietly releasing his fourth studio album, Do What Thou Wilt (DWTW) in December of last year, Ab-Soul is back on tour and has returned to Toronto for the first time since 2014!  Although the new album has done well both critically and commercially, it feels like it’s flown under the radar, sharing a release date with albums from mainstream superstar J. Cole and underground legend Tech N9ne.  Not even six months later, and the short attention span of the modern music fan has already turned to Ab-Soul’s T.D.E. label mate and fellow Black Hippy group member, Kendrick Lamar, who’s made headlines with his new, recently platinum-certified album, Damn (driving into town from the west end, and you can see the album cover made into a billboard along the QEW).

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While Ab-Soul tends to live in the shadow of fellow Black Hippy members like Kendrick and Schoolboy Q, he’s always held things down in his own lane, standing out and captivating hip-hop heads with his love for wordplay.  There was a point when he was my favourite member of the group; I’ve been a fan since he released Control System in 2012, but missed out on every show he’s done in Toronto due to exams and other priorities.  This is one of those shows I absolutely had to come out and see, and it’s only fitting that the day of this show also happened to mark the five-year anniversary of the release of that Control System album.

I showed up to the Phoenix Concert Theatre about an hour after doors had opened, and was immediately pleased to see they fixed the one gripe I’ve had with the venue over the years.  In the past, for all-ages shows such as this one, they would barricade off a 19+ section in the back of the club, meaning you couldn’t buy a drink and be near the stage at the same time.  This was no longer the case, as they used a wristband system to enable alcohol consumers to stand wherever they wanted.  The show was just getting started shortly after I showed up.

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The first and only opener of the night would be South Carolina’s own Nick Grant, performing his very first show in Toronto.  While my people at Ambrosia For Heads have been giving him a lot of coverage, this would be my first time experiencing any of his music.  The dude proved to be as sharp an emcee as they come, cut from a traditional cloth of just slaying his verses without any gimmicks.  He got a great reaction from the crowd when he performed songs off his 2016 mixtape, ’88, and his 2017 debut album, Return of the Cool.  He also spit some cool freestyles, rapping over beats from songs by Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, and even going accapella so the crowd could focus in on the lyricism.

After Nick Grant won over the crowd and got the energy levels turned up, there would be a bit of a wait for Ab-Soul.  British emcee Little Simz was also supposed to be opening, however it was announced the day of the show that she would be missing the rest of the YMF Tour due to injury.  Instead, Ab-Soul’s DJ came out and started spinning some trap music, and his hypeman brought out a water gun to add to the energy.  Eventually, the hypeman got the crowd to chant the rapid-fire lyrics “raw backwards on all you rappers,” and Ab-Soul himself came out to the high-energy first track off the new album, “RAW (Backwards).”

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Ab-Soul performed the entire song, with the crowd keeping up that chant during the chorus as he rapped over it.  Predictable but welcomed, the second song he performed was “Track Two,” a throwback off Control System.  Next, he would get the ladies hyped by teasing the hook from “Bohemian Grove,” before getting into several new songs off of DWTW.  These included the wordplay-heavy “INvocation,” and the high-energy single “Braille,” which was produced by Brampton’s own WondaGurl.  He then got into his religious themes and theories, performing the second half of “God’s A Girl” (skipping the trap-like intro) followed by “Womanogamy.”

The crowd got really turned up as Soulo got into some more high-energy tracks, with his Schoolboy Q collaborations “Beat The Case” and “Hunned Stax.”  He also showed some love to Kendrick Lamar, as he danced with the crowd while the DJ played the new Damn single “DNA.”  Soulo then “blacked out” the lights as he performed “Huey Knew THEN,” before doing a couple more Control System throwbacks with my favourite songs off the album, “Terrorist Threats” and “ILLuminate” (although skipping my favourite verse on the latter track).  Ab-Soul had some fun with the crowd, getting them to light up their cell phones during “ILLuminate” and following that up with the dark “Portishead in the Morning,” which has him singing “don’t make me make me take my light baaaaack” on the chorus.

Next, he brought a lucky female fan onto the stage so he could rap and sing directly to her during the romantic slow jam, “The Law.”  After getting a dance in, she got to watch the rest of the show from the side of the stage, as Soulo moved on to darker tracks like “Threatening Nature” and “Pineal Gland.”  The whole crowd sang along as he performed the DWTW single “D.R.U.G.S.,” and stayed right with him as he took his shirt off and got into some throwbacks for the day-one fans.  He performed the 2010 track “Turn Me Up,” with the crowd chanting the chorus with him, and did a couple of the more catchy songs off of Control System with “Mixed Emotions” and “Sopa.”  He even performed his standout guest verse on Schoolboy Q’s bouncy 2012 track “Druggys Wit Hoes Again,” and also did an accapella freestyle verse at one point.

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Soulo took some time to thank the crowd before closing out the show with the song the whole tour is named after, “YMF,” which stands for Young Mind-Fuck.  The catchy chorus got the crowd singing along with him as the room mellowed out.  After Soulo left the stage, the crowd gave a strong chant for an encore, and so he came back out and did a fan favourite off the new album, “Evil Genius.”  While the beats were often drowning out Soulo’s vocals throughout the night, this song had the right instrumentation and mixing to really make Ab-Soul’s rapping stand out.

Overall, it was great seeing Ab-Soul perform for the first time.  It’s unclear if he knew about the five-year Control System anniversary, but when he wasn’t performing 13 of the 16 songs off of Do What Thou Wilt, almost everything else was from that album.  With the exception of one song, I’m surprised he entirely ignored his These Days album.  There were some sound issues, as the vocals weren’t mixed well over the beats, and the bass drowned out the other sounds in the instrumentals (although it could’ve just been where I was standing).  This wasn’t a big issue though, as most of the crowd knew all the songs and could sing and rap along with Ab-Soul anyway.  It was still a fun time, with an energetic crowd and good music.

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