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 recently released an EP, There Is No Competition 2: The Grieving Music EP. It's meant to lead up to his sixth studio album, Loso's Way 2, in November.
With his latest output, he remains impossible to dislike but just as hard to defend. His biggest songs are never solo works. Consider 2001's "Can't Deny It," featuring Nate Dogg; 2003's "Can't Let You Go," featuring Lil' Mo and Mike Shorey; and the glimmering 2007 hit "Make Me Better," featuring Ne-Yo.
Fabolous is by no means a songwriter — more like an interpreter of hit-making. 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 past decade: compact, forceful, clever, and mighty. But it's nothing without Just Blaze's syncopated stunner of a beat. Fabolous is a vessel. A cipher. A knock-around guy.
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So how did the man so perfectly born John Jackson get so stiff? Raised in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and whisked away from his graduating high school class by 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 and hungry for the paper. 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. His debut, Ghetto Fabolous, was 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. In other words, the record announced a likable guy saying nothing in wonderfully inventive ways.
Last year's album, Loso's Way, was meant to correct the mistakes of the hidden self, and sometimes it did. For one thing, Fab albums — perhaps owing to the fear that he alone cannot carry things — have always been overwhelmed by R&B singers crooning hooks beyond the typical fare. Loso's Way was no different.
So what does the followup, Loso's Way 2, have in store? It remains to be seen as Fabolous embarks on a renewed promotional tour. Judge for yourself this Saturday at Cameo.