Monday, May 18, 2015

album review: 'the ecology' by fashawn

Well, apparently for me this week is catch-up week, because man, this slipped the net. Not going to lie, I forgot that I was going to cover this when it first came out, and I'm kicking myself for it. And it was either this or talk about the new Tech N9ne album, and look, for as much as I respect his talent as a technical lyricist and his charisma, I can't get behind the majority of his production or his content, and his most recent release was even more guest star overloaded and all over the place than usual, with so many mainstream guests below his level included in a way that looks desperate more than anything else.

So that I've pissed off a fair number of you, let's talk about a rapper I actually like a fair bit more, and who has never really come across as having something to prove: Fashawn. West coast MC, affiliated with Nas and known for working with a slew of excellent producers like Evidence and Exile, he dropped his debut album Boy Meets World in 2009 - and my God, that record was something special. He may have been telling a very similar story to many rappers in talking about his come-up, but there was a spirit of youthful hope and optimism that drove that album, and paired with detailed yet plain-spoken stories and gorgeous old-school melodic production that really grabbed me. To me he fell into a similar lane with J.Cole, but came across with a more assured, tightly written presentation that resonated with me a lot more.

And yet after 2009, he seemed to drop off everyone's radar. He did a lot of touring, a couple mixtapes, put together a pretty damn solid collaboration album with Murs in 2012, and dropped a slew of guest verses, most notably for me on 'Banging Sound', from The Alchemist & Evidence collaboration album Lord Steppington early last year. From there, he signed to Nas' label Mass Appeal and set himself up for a long-awaited solo sophomore album... which I ended up missing for no adequately explained reason. I think my justification was that the reviews had only been lukewarm, but really, that's not much of an excuse, as others have absolutely raved about it. So about three months late, I dug into Fashawn's The Ecology - how is it?

Well, it's pretty damn good. It's not an album I think is incredible, or one that really hits me hard outside of a couple songs, and I don't think it's better than Boy Meets World, but I really did enjoy this album - it's got a lightweight, breezy vibe that at points can make it feel a little insubstantial but otherwise is grounded by solid as hell wordplay and concepts. I do wish it hit me a little harder or pushed itself into heavier territory that Fashawn hasn't talked about before, but right now, I'm happy enough to see the guy back so I'm willing to cut him a little slack.

So let's start with Fashawn himself - and honestly, I like the guy a lot. His delivery has charisma, he rides some pretty intricate and difficult beats extremely well like on the off-kilter piano rhythm of 'To Be Young', which was actually sampled from Eminem's 'Drug Ballad', and he can switch up his flow almost effortlessly. There's an ease and comfort to this record that really is impressive, and it does fit Fashawn's style of writing - plain-spoken, articulate, well-structured, but nothing that's going to require a dozen or so listens to really decode. Some of that does come to be an issue, because Fashawn is most interesting when he's honestly introspective or telling stories - and not as much of this album focuses in that direction, instead going for bragging or vaguely positive philosophizing and it doesn't really connect in the same way. More on this in a bit, but it often feels like Fashawn is cautious not to get too real or give the album real bite, which can feel a little like he's pulling his punches.

Part of this also comes in the instrumentation and production - and let's be blunt, most of this is courtesy of Exile and it's goddamn excellent. Exile's got a knack for great textures, odd samples that have a lot of colour, and like all Fashawn projects, the melodies are placed to the forefront and he's got some damn catchy hooks to match them. Hell, even when Fashawn brings in other producers like DJ Khalil, The Alchemist, Quince Tones & Jo Caleb, and ATG, he gets high quality work that feels incredibly cohesive. I do feel the opening two tracks start off a little darker than I'd expect, and I'm never the biggest fan of the melodic riff that's used on 'Confess', but by the time the soulful guitars, organs, and horns fill up the dense, cymbal-accented mix of 'Something To Believe In' that features Aloe Blacc killing the hook, I'm on board. And from the gentle pianos of 'Higher' and 'Man Of The House' to the g-funk vibe of 'Golden State of Mind', the bouncy scratch of 'Letter F' that puts a smile on my face every single time to the low sizzle of the melody line that balances a thick, hammering bass on 'Out The Trunk'. Even some of the odder moments, like the sample of 'Drug Ballad' or what I'd swear is a lo-fi interpolation of Nelly's 'Dilemma' on 'It's A Good Thing' with the guitar lick or the fuzzier swell of 'F.T.W.' that reminds me a lot of Graduation-era Kanye than anything, the majority of them stick. I do think that the synth tone on 'Mother' is a little too weedy and thin, and I found the outro on 'Place To Go' to be too long and overplayed, but overall I really like the balance this production has: bright but still with enough soul and grit to connect - old-school with the sound but modern with its feel. And while I do miss some of the more soulful elements that coloured Boy Meets World, for Fashawn this works.

And it helps the guest stars are pretty damn solid. I'm not sold on Aloe Blacc as a rapper - his verse on 'It's A Good Thing' was well-structured but he has so much more presence and power as a singer, and like with Dilated Peoples' last record, he completely fits this sort of production - hell, so does BJ The Chicago Kid, but we knew that since Freddie Gibbs' 'Shame' last year. And Dom Kennedy and Choosey do fine enough with their verses, but we have to talk about Nas on 'Something To Believe In' - because that verse was goddamn excellent. Let me put it like this: it's a verse that actually gets me excited to listen to a new Nas record, and I'm so glad I can say that again. And really, 'Something To Believe In' is easily one of my favourite songs digging into finding ground between faith and reason in a society that seems to have little use for both of them. It's easily one of the most focused and grounded tracks on the album, and Fashawn's at his best on that sort of material.

And now we need to talk about lyrics and themes - now Fashawn has gone on record saying the album is exploring the 'ecology of one's environment, particularly as how it relates to human connections'. Honestly, it's stretching to say Fashawn pulls that off, and that's where I feel this record struggles for me. When he gets introspective and talks about where he is in his career, like on the life-on-the-road 'Higher' or the moments where he admits he's not as big as he wants to be like on 'Man Of The House', or when he talks about his absent father or addict mother like on the complicated tribute track 'Mother', those moments connect. And I really appreciated the three story vignette of 'To Be Young', well-sketched stark images that are paired with instrumentation that doesn't bring the same darkness but highlights the sad normality of those sort of events. It's why 'F.T.W.' works as an album closer, as much as Fashawn is frustrated by the world, he refuses to walk away from it, and there is a real sense of optimism and appreciating the good which I really admire. But on some level... I'm sorry, it feels thinly sketched. I'm not bothered by the upbeat tone or the plain-spoken lyricism, but outside of scattered moments, I've heard much of this release done with more impact on Boy Meets World, which felt more personal and gripping. 

So as a whole, I definitely like this album and I'm happy I finally took the time to cover it... but on some level I'm underwhelmed. Fashawn is a solid, versatile MC that puts together some great tracks with this album, but the album feels loose, a little meandering at points, and could have afforded to tackle more serious subject matter and tell more stories over this production - it's a much more natural fit for his delivery, tone, and content. For me, I'm giving it a strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, but a slightly qualified one. It's not as good as Boy Meets World - and again, it's hard to compare yourself to a record that's damn close to a classic - but it's definitely worth your time if you haven't checked it out yet. I still think Fashawn is underappreciated and underrated, and even though he didn't quite deliver an amazing record here, it definitely gave me hope for the future with him.

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