In 2015, I'm willing to go to the bottom of the ocean in a candy-painted submarine to find hip-hop, but in my younger years I was wearing floaties, splashing around in the kiddie pool. I would soak up the rap that was spoon fed to me by the radio or the latest track to take the frat party by storm but would never dig deeper. It was a blessing and a curse. Sure, I missed some great stuff and I had no idea what a sample was, but being so removed from everything surrounding the music allowed me to focus on the only thing that really matters; the music. As my knowledge grew, so did my appetite. I began to dig deeper, unearthing gems I missed from my kiddie pool days, and I was able to hear these artists in a relative vacuum. Preconceived notions, label deals, lists, none of it mattered. I only cared about how the music made me feel, and Fashawn mattered.
Even before I earned my degree in hip-hop, I knew this is what an emcee should sound like, but as my knowledge grew so did my appreciation of Fash's work. I learned about the difference between West coast and East coast rap, and was amazed at how well he fit both styles - see "64 Impala" and Dreams" - and sometimes I couldn't place his style anywhere on the map. With songs like "Sunday Morning" I could hear him on the radio, only to celebrate his underground status one song later by bumping the surprisingly deep "Nothing For The Radio." I think what truly allows him to span such a vast array of styles and moods yet still create a cohesive sound was his authenticity. The way he painted vivid, rich stories and the passion in his voice allowed me to connect on a deeper, more significant level. When he would rap about growing up with different father figures, I felt it even though my dad coached every one of my baseball teams. When he would rap about running out of weed I believed it too (although I could definitely relate to that), especially after he walked past me at his show smelling like Snoop Dogg's bong. I'm a better rap nerd because of Fashawn, and though I know so much more now, I still hear new things each and every time. Listening to the same songs over and over and over but still hearing and experiencing them in different ways is the true test of an emcee, and Fashawn's passed that test for years now.
My experience with Fashawn's music is passionate and powerful, but I also realize now that it's a rare one. I had the pleasure of experiencing his art with a blank slate - I downloaded Higher Learning 2 solely because of the art work - but the rest of the hip-hop world's experience has largely been different. In 2010, while I was making pregame playlists bumpin'whatever that sorority girl I was into liked, Fash was busy capitalizing on the success of his debut album, Boy Meets World. That album helped Fashawn become one of the leaders of the independent scene and even forged the path to an XXL Freshman nod. These days, an unsigned artist is taken just as seriously, if not more, than a major label emcee, but in 2010, for an underground-oriented emcee to get the buzz Fash had was a big deal. He was doing what Chance The Rapper is doing now, two years before Chano even got suspended from high school. But as we all know, the "XXL Freshman" title is both a gift and a curse.
We love to place rappers not only in lanes, but also within trajectories, especially when they get that freshman title. A rapper gets buzz, gets the nod, then they either blow up or are a bust; there really is no in-between. Take Fashawn's fellow 2010 Freshmen. You either end up a J.Cole or a Wiz Khalifa, known, successful and long-longlasting, or you are doomed to be the butt of a snarky 140 character joke like OJ da Juiceman. So where does Fashawn fit? He never signed to a label, never charted, and he didn't even release a proper solo album post-Freshman status. And yet, any aspiring emcee would kill for a career as long and as successful as Fashawn's. He never blew up but he never washed out either; his flame has been a slow, steady burn. He has both quality and quantity and a resume that boasts collabs with the likes of Exile, MURS, and the aforementioned Cole and Wiz. You could call his buzz after signing to Nas' Mass Appeal a rebirth, but he never died. This isn't a redemption story because he doesn't need to be redeemed. Fashawn has been nothing but consistently stellar, smart, funny, and authentic from Boy Meets World to his recently announced upcoming album TheEcology.
You know, it's kind of fitting his new album is called The Ecology because Fashawn's own ecology is very unique. Now, my science knowledge makes Jesse Pinkman look like Walter White, but if I remember correctly, ecology is the relationship of living things to other stuff in their environment. When you look at the Fresno native's career (thus far) as a whole, it doesn't fit within the same lane or arc of so many of his rap brethren. How many emcees have a long, successful career and then get signed? How many rappers have built a solid house only to bust through the ceiling years later? So maybe Fashawn will finally get the appreciation and recognition he deserves or maybe he will continue to make incredible hip-hop for those willing to stray off the path. If the past five years have taught me anything it's that I doubt he cares.
Fashawn is going to be great, whether you're listening or not.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]