In 2009 I discovered Fresno, CA rapper Fashawn and his incredible indie debut Boy Meets World. The Exile-produced album was one of the year’s strongest, and like so many great hip hop albums, it was a stunning life-up-until-now story. Ever since, dropped Fashawn has faced the Nas-like challenge of matching his debut whilst trying to tell the slightly less interesting story of his life as it is now. Unlike Nas, the West Coaster has shown a remarkable degree of consistency with his post-Boy Meets World releases.
Recent projects such as Higher Learning 2 and This Generation, his collaboration with Murs, are testimony to his role in a New West movement that’s actually a lot wider (and older) than many people think – and proof that it’s not merely a New Los Angeles wave. At the same time, the good music hasn’t changed the fact that he has some work to do to be considered a household name outside California. Champagne & Styrofoam Cups is an important step in his transition from the Cali underground of the past to the brave New World.
On one hand, it’s a dedication to East Coast legend Slick Rick, an attempt at “timeless rap music” in which he collaborates with his old partners in crime Exile and Evidence to create complex and lyrical songs. On the other hand it’s an attempt to test the commercial waters in preparation for The Ecology, Fashawn’s sophomore album. That much is evident from the tracklist, which includes Wiz Khalifa’s name, and from one of the warm-up tracks, a glossy Chevy Woods collaboration which I have no reason to listen to again. Fash’s current status is middling. He isn’t poor anymore, but he’s still grinding. The champagne’s arrived but it still comes in Styrofoam cups.
It’s a status that’s difficult to put into musical form. Whilst Fashawn’s unique voice and lyricism remain, his blueprint has changed and he’s forced to weld old and new themes into a difficult hybrid on this tape. The best tracks are those in which he conjures up an image that encapsulates that predicament. His hook on “Stardumb,” a sort of paranoid hum, does exactly that, providing snapshots of Hollywood wannabes who struggle when their 15 minutes is up. Yet the previous track, “Worldwide,” sees him lost under M83 style sax-synth and vanilla vocals, falling rather flat with a very similar message. On the project’s second track, “Coogi,” Fash’s very identity seems under threat as he tries to match his guest Mr MFN’s eXquire’s bizarre braggadocio with some laboured point about Gucci and Coogi. It’s inane, and his heart isn’t in it.
Some of the strongest moments are surprises. Whilst some veteran Fash fans might hate it, the Wiz Khalifa-feature “Medicine Man”, with its overblown synths and heavy 808s, is a breath of fresh air. Fashawn isn’t a weed rapper, but he’s a rapper that raps about weed in his downtime, and he drops a hook that’s as addictive as any strain here.
“Diamonds & Girls,” which reminded me of Ludacris’ “Growing Pains,” is another strong moment. The rich instrumental, courtesy of JLBS, enables Fash to switch up his flow and present himself as the diamond in the rough with his honest, earnest rhymes. It’s shining through graft, and vocalist K.Young gives it that extra sparkle. Indeed, that track is part of a glistening run of six tracks on the tape (from “Stardumb” through to “Medicine Man”) in which the Grizzly City native gradually returns to old themes and sounds quite brilliant in the process.
“Colour Blind,” which mirrors “The Ecology” (one of my favourite Boy Meets World tracks) with its gritty description of life in the Wild West (aka Fresno), is one of the mixtape’s best moments. At one point deathly guitars and melancholy vocals threaten to suppress Fashawn’s flow, but his rhymes come out in rapid-fire bursts as memories of gang war are recalled. It’s tragedy to triumph, and the success continues on the downtempo track “In Love With A Lie”, where Fash takes a moment to discuss family and the collapse of any divide between his public life and his private life. Although it’s a theme that’s been done over and over again, the rapper manages to pull it off with the help of DJ Dahi’s layered, emotive beat.
Perhaps he’s left exhausted. The production also falls off a little after “In Love With A Lie,” and with the obvious exception of “Medicine Man,” the tape loses some of its edge. The melodramatic “Living To Die” still impresses thanks to Rakki’s beat and Fash’s passionate rhymes, but the more ambient “Just A Man” and “Dark Cloud” slip into the boring realm of “conscious” hip hop; nothing you or I couldn’t buy as filler on one of fellow West Coaster Blu’s weaker albums.
I’d rather Fash just poured his heart into it, and he does that on the final tracks, “Heard It All Before” and “Heaven.” These are slow but pertinent closing statements to a tape which sees Fash integrate new experiences into his life story, whilst remembering where he came from. The story itself, Hollywood via the Grizzly City, is an interesting one. In that capacity Champagne & Styrofoam Cups is an impressive trailer for the difficult Boy Meets World sequel, The Ecology. I can’t wait.