By Gili Malinsky
By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
A classic mixtape rapper with no classic mixtapes. A dazzling technician with no original technique. A secretive man with no secrets to tell. It's hard to believe Fabolous is over 30 years old. But even after following him for a decade, it's easy to wonder: Who is Fabolous? And do we care?
Sometimes. He's a blank slate, really. His songs are clinical excursions into the form, if rarely the feeling, of great rap. The MC—releasing his fifth album, Loso's Way, this week—is impossible to dislike, but just as hard to defend. His biggest songs—2001's "Can't Deny It," featuring Nate Dogg; 2003's "Can't Let You Go," featuring Lil' Mo and Mike Shorey; the glimmering 2007 hit "Make Me Better," featuring Ne-Yo—are never solo works. He is by no means a songwriter—more like an interpreter of hitmaking. He's a tough-voiced "hard" to go with an inevitable "soft" counterpart. His lone solo hit that's entirely his also isn't. "Breathe," from 2005, is one of the six or seven best rap songs of the decade: compact, forceful, clever, mighty. But it's nothing without Just Blaze's syncopated stunner of a beat. Fabolous is a vessel. A cipher. A knockaround guy.
So how did the man so perfectly born John Jackson get so stiff? Born in Bed-Stuy and whisked away from his graduating high school class by the then-budding label head DJ Clue (ah, the '90s), Fab signed to the mixtape DJ's Desert Storm imprint. He was pitched as a logical successor to Biggie and Jay-Z, a Brooklyn-born wordsmith aware of the legacy, hungry for the paper. And readymade for the ladies. He made himself known on Lil' Mo's ecstatic "Superwoman Pt. II": "It's like I'm under your spell/If feelin' you is a crime/They gon' have to put me under the jail," he rapped in a narcotized but charming flurry of perfectly arranged syllables. Early on, he sounded like a faithful student of Mase's slow flow, only without the childish glee. Fabolous was funny and methodical, but rarely fun. "Superwoman" begat his debut, Ghetto Fabolous, a half-terrific, half-bland mélange. Prone to spelling his name ("F-A-B-O . . . ," in case you forgot) and rapping about things people who don't know about rap think are the only things rappers rap about—money, cars, women, clothes, his reputation—the record announced a likable guy saying nothing in wonderfully inventive ways.
His second album, Street Dreams, is worse, indulging a growing penchant for "the girl track." In March of this year, blog conglomerate the New Music Cartel released The Fabolous Life, a relentlessly thorough 76-track online mixtape featuring some, if not all, of Fab's greatest r&b guest appearances. That 76 such songs exist is no surprise; what's startling is how many panties-based punchlines he can fit into 16 bars. But Street Dreams, a modest commercial success in 2003, was so negligible that Fab released the label-authorized More Street Dreams Pt. 2: The Mixtape later that year to sate the many hardcore fans he alienated. Nearly every DJ Clue tape from 2001 through 2005 could be counted on for one devastating, grab-your-gills Fabolous verse. He was leading a double life: lover by day, murderer by night. Rap's very own Ted Bundy.
Real Talk followed in 2004, spawning "Breathe" and the major-label debut appearance of Young Jeezy, on the tensile "Do the Damn Thing." That's about all. No talk of his personal life. Nothing of his childhood. Very little about Street Family, his crew and alleged gang he has been running with for years. After the album only went gold following two platinum releases, Fabolous brokered a release from his deal with Atlantic Records and was scooped up by then–Def Jam president Jay-Z.
Finally, under his hero's watch, and at last with some acknowledgment of his unknowability, Fab was ready to make his classic. "There are some artists who make that connection," he told XXL magazine in 2007. "I think I'm one of those artists where you don't hate me, but people aren't waving the flag like, 'I fuck with Fab. I like Fab's shit.' " Soon came another chance to rectify such limp fandom. In October 2006, he was shot in the leg outside Sean "Diddy" Combs's restaurant, Justin's, allegedly over a chain-snatching that occurred earlier in the evening. Suddenly, a public opportunity for introspection arose. But the shooting received just one cursory mention on his fourth album, 2007's From Nothin' to Somethin'. From "Return of the Hustle": "Some shit, getting' hit and my leg is light/I mean, it coulda been a Tupac Vegas night/Or maybe a Notorious L.A. evening/(Boo, you OK?)/I mean, well, I'm breathing/Hell, I'm even bosser than I left." From near-death legacy to badder than ever. This is Fabolous unfazed, disaffected, android-like.
In the last year, his guest verses have shown more precision and even a little goofiness. On "You Ain't Got Nuthin'," from Lil Wayne's mega-selling Tha Carter III, he used both the Wayans brothers' filmography and various styles of pasta as comparison points for the violence he will inflict on "you." Other recent highlights: his remixes of "Turn My Swag On" and "A Milli," and a quietly compelling guest spot on Ne-Yo and Jamie Foxx's "She Got Her Own." But no personal revelations. The only filling station for nuggets of Fab truth is his hilariously well-kept Twitter account, @myfabolouslife. Sample tweet: "Ladies, #dontyouhate when u tell a nigga you got ya period and he still b tryna hit.. Red light runnin ass niggas." Too true, Fab.
Loso's Way is meant to correct the mistakes of the hidden self. And in places, it does. "Stay," featuring a funereal Marsha Ambrosius singing the hook, laments lost opportunities with his father and offers a dedication to his own son. Fab's recent admission of a long-term romantic relationship with a woman he would not name also gives the spooky "I Miss My Love" some heft. And "Pachanga," a swooning suite of betrayal, adds a haunting dash of paranoia, named after a duplicitous character from the 1991 Al Pacino–as–Latino gangster vehicle Carlito's Way. The album is modeled after it, too, much like Jay-Z's American Gangster from 2007. But Fab lacks Jay's cinematic sense and commitment to self-mythology, and too often, Loso's Way sounds more like The Record Label's Way. Fab albums—perhaps due to the fear that he alone cannot carry things—have always overwhelmed by r&b singers crooning hooks, beyond the typical fare. This is no different. We get The-Dream, Keri Hilson, Jeremih, Kobe, Songz, Ne-Yo, and Ryan Leslie twice. More girl tracks. The album, ultimately, is no different from any of his previous efforts: brilliant occasionally, frustrating mostly.
Accompanying Loso's Way is a 30-minute short film helmed by the gifted video-directing duo BBGun. Inspired by Fabolous's own experience, including the shooting and a friend's incarceration, it's a beautiful, aimless collection of excuses to show Fab looking pensive and rapping hard into a microphone. Just like all of his albums.