The latest from New York rap's only pleasant personality
Who runs New York? Jay-Z? At this point, "Empire State of Mind" and a mostly symbolic share of the Nets aside, he's too big for his hometown. 50 Cent? Are you transmitting your answer from 2004? Also, nine words: 50 Cent featuring Adam Levine and Eminem, "My Life." Action Bronson and crew? Well, sort of, though their whole appeal is more like, "inmates taking over the asylum," be it "a wolf's head on his own head" album cover or this new no-snares-and-lots-of-hiss thing that his pal Roc Marciano's got going on. You shouldn't really expect these guys to take control of anything.
My vote goes to Fabolous, the only for-realz rapping rapper from the city who seems happy to be here and hasn't yet lost his way when it comes to hits: "Can't Deny It," “Young'n (Holla Back)," "Breathe," "Make Me Better," "Throw It in the Bag," and "You Be Killin' Em." Sure, the albums these songs are on all kind of stink, but that seems to be, in part, what keeps Fab going. He's always reaching for respectability and stopping short when radio-single success gets dangled in front of his face, and in the process, he ends up being successful anyway because he knows what he does well.
The Soul Tape was last year's freebie nod to "serious" rap that found Fab casually going off over jacked soul beats and a few originals, without wandering into toothless nostalgia territory. The Soul Tape 2 is more of the same, though it stretches the boundaries of "soul" a little more, and does a fascinating thing with beat selection where the productions invoke popular beats by way of the same sample, purposefully not standing up on their own: "Guess Who's Bizzack," nods to the Scarface song and also uses the Originals' “Sunrise”; On "Want You Back," producer Sonaro and singer Teyana Taylor take on Dionne Warwkick's "You're Gonna Need Me," in the style of J. Dilla's "Stop!," from Donuts. This is, perhaps, the closest hip-hop can get to a "cover song" or jazz musician-like exploration of a standard.
Mostly though, The Soul Tape 2 — released over the Thanksgiving holiday, but still the best thing I've heard since — sounds even more like the unhedged rap-pop album Fab hasn't been able to release since 2008, and never got right until now. The soul conceit, half-abandoned, is really just an excuse to release a solid, focused collection of music, and get away with it. Fab's taking advantage of the sense that a mixtape doesn't have to be a mini-movie (or "short film" as Kendrick Lamar declares) or in-quotes classic like every proper album; the mixtape can just occupy a mood and feeling and nibble on that vibe for awhile, which is what rap albums used to do very, very well. There are also two undeniable radio hits on here, "B.I.T.E.," a mealy-mouthed struggle rap over an expanding, contracting Drake-like beat, and "Life Is So Exciting," a Chief Keef knock-off that doesn't make you feel dead inside.
Guests mostly serve to remind you of how Fabolous is loads more fun than a lot of the guys who are, ostensibly, in his lane. How J. Cole is too sincere by half, and how Wale can't sell the kind of clunker punch lines that Fab gracefully delivers like they're bits of lyrical brilliance; how Pusha T is Fabolous with no sense of humor; that Joe Budden is just a bore. The only person missing is Fabolous-lite, Big Sean, who is probably, unfortunately, a bigger deal than Fab and so he doesn't need to show up here. Which brings us back to Fab, who does what he's supposed to do now, which is rap well, and sound breezy and cool while doing it. From "B.I.T.E.": "Look, I ain't grow up on Park Place / Where I'm from is a dark place / Hard to look on that bright side, these skies are dark grey / In our case get a narc case, in a P-A-R-K / Wasn't trying to be Scarface / Shit, I just want the new Barkleys." Simple, evocative, honest rhyming. That's all it takes to run New York, these days? That's all it ever took.