At this point, Fabolous’s spot in hip-hop is carved in stone. He’s the Welterweight Champion of Punchlines, the master jabber who has fruitlessly chased the knockout blow for so long the pursuit defines him. His chronic, career-long inability to say “no” to A&R men has resulted in some of the most treacle-drowned, nothing-for-everyone studio albums this side of Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers. But get him in the booth with some recycled instrumentals and zero commercial expectations, and he will giddily, slyly, and consistently drop jaws. In terms of modest-but-dependable NY pleasures, he’s up there with a good slice.
The S.O.U.L. Tape is his second full-length mixtape since 2009’s predictably forgettable studio album Loso’s Way. Only a few months after its flop, There is No Competition 2: The Funeral found Fab slinging goofy couplets like “Clean ice, neck full of frozen Fiji/Been in the game long as Mario, Luigi”–it was like the stumble had never happened. The S.O.U.L. Tape, released for free two weeks ago, pairs him with some of the most dumbfoundingly obvious examples of “soul beats” imaginable–no one got their fingers dusty digging for The Game’s “Like Father Like Son” instrumental or Rick Ross’s “Maybach Music III.” But it doesn’t matter. The beats are pure comfort food, and they inspire Fab to deliver one of his sharpest, funniest, and most confident performances in years.
Sublimely ridiculous quotables abound. To wit: “They say they out for dead presidents, never respect it/ First of all, Ben Franklin was never elected/ That means them and big bills have never connected/ They just say it ’cause they think it sound clever on record.” This opening salvo, over Kanye’s “Devil in A Blue Dress” beat, summarizes Fab’s appeal: the lines slot together firmly but playfully, the consonants jostling each other for prominence, and they neatly serve up a guffaw-worthy joke. A good Fab line sticks like flypaper: “Listen, before your dumb ass say some stupid shit/ And have my dog layin’ on your house on some Snoopy shit.” Or: “If they say they got that raw shit, that really means/ Them white squares is stepped on–#BILLIEJEAN” (Fabolous is also rap’s reigning Twitter virtuoso, and the hashtag’s presence in this line is implied).
A handful of guests pop up–Street Family also-ran Paul Cain, who has the anonymous mixtape rapper’s gift for slinging dozens of lines without making you remember a single one; Lil Wayne, who intones weed-fried wisdom like “Love spelled backwards is EVOL”; and fellow NYC mascots Vado and Lloyd Banks, on “Mo Brooklyn Mo Harlem Mo South Side”–but the S.O.U.L Tape project feels uniquely Fab’s own. For one, he chose to forgo the usual route of partnering with a loudly self-promoting DJ, which means no drops, rewinds, or screaming DJ Holiday or Drama, a refreshing development on its own. But it’s also one of most disarmingly personal documents Fab’s ever released: he is, notoriously, not much of a sharer. And while the S.O.U.L. Tape isn’t exactly a bloodletting, it feels played closer to the vest than usual: “I done felt pain, waited but no help came/went through some crazy shit, still kept myself sane/You ever been dyin’ of thirst, and smelled rain?” he snarls on “Pain,” and on “Leaving You” he bluntly dishes out at an unnamed significant other. It might just be Fab’s reaction to the “soulful” conceit of the mixtape, but the result is one of his most resonant and replayable full-lengths ever. Sticking to your strengths, steering clear of terrible commercial decisions, and opening up ever-so-slightly: for a career punchline rapper, this might be what “maturity” looks like.