While many people contemplate whether Drake’s mixtape/album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late foreshadows the end of YMCMB and signifies doom for the era of the powerhouse, radio-ruling hip hop label, independent imprints continue to eat well on the low. Artists who are not necessarily concerned with or have the capacity to move huge numbers are finding situations where they can support themselves solely with their music easier than ever before. As the mansion that Baby built possibly crumbles, there are several modest houses rising in value. One such property is Nas’ Mass Appeal Records which is just one division of his Mass Appeal Media Group. God’s Son has quietly assembled a solid roster consisting of: Detroit spitter Boldy James, NY young gun Bishop Nehru, dirty South pioneer Pimp C (posthumously), Nas himself, underground rulers Run The Jewels, and Fresno repper Fashawn. With talented representatives from each region that has had its turn with hip hop, Mass Appeal has a small, but diverse arsenal and is set to do some damage.
Santiago Leyva, better known as Fashawn, has been rapping (really well) for quite some time, but never had a stable home on a label – independent or major. Hence a huge ebb and flow of anticipation for The Ecology which was alluded to on his excellent debut, Boy Meets World, six years ago, and delayed after an initial September release date last year. The wait is over, and the “genuine inspiration” the Fresno emcee received from Nas’ co-sign and executive production credit on the album shines through. Slight deja vu may hit devoted fans, as Fashawn spit over all of the original instrumentals from Nas’ heralded 1994 debut Illmatic on 2010’s Ode to Illmatic. The appreciation and connection between one street poet to another has given Fashawn the perfect place to release his report on his ethnographic study of his native Fresno.
The Ecology is largely autobiographical but it speaks on a larger level because it is honest, confident but not boastful, hood but not for glorification or sensationalism, intensely personal but not narrowly focused. The stories are told because they need to be. It is an album as important in function as it is in form – partly because central California tends to be overlooked like a middle child when it comes to regions of the Golden State, but mainly because it was an integral contributor when Cali had its highest crime rate ever in the early ’90s and not much has changed in Fresno since.
Aside from some prolonged moments dwelling on the woes of the underground rapper, the insight and vivid detail Fash employs to paint a complete portrait of ghetto life is matched by only a few in the game today. He touches on the resentment he felt toward his absentee father whom he met at the age of 15 (“Man of the House”), shares tales of he and his friend’s first experiences selling drugs and carrying guns (“To Be Young”), his constant self-motivation to aspire both mentally and physically beyond his hood (“Place to Go”), and gushes love for his mother (“Mother”), all without sounding preachy, corny or overly poetical. He expands on the benevolent aspects of his upbringing as well, which is a breath of fresh air (hard to come by in most California urban hubs).
The man can rap too. One-syllable rhymes are rare occasions, his cadence switches easily around internal rhymes and complicated schemes, and there are a couple instances where entire bars rhyme with each other. On “Something to Believe In,” Fash goes bar for bar with his idol and mentor spitting lines like “These blasphemous bastards done acid/Hazardous, had to just smash on they ass/With this classic shit, Fash. He bests every feature artist with the exception of Aloe Blacc’s surprise standout verse on “It’s a Good Thing” (yes, the dude from “Wake Me Up” with Avicii can spit). Even seemingly mundane braggadocio on “Out the Trunk” is done with such dexterity and energy that it comes across different. Keeping in mind the combination of his subject matter, his intent behind the function it serves, and the raw skill, the majority of the raps on this album are next level.
Most of the production was handled by LA veteran Exile which means samples chopped with surgical precision, knock from drums that shakes your clothes, skin and vital organs, and unorthodox, yet organic arrangement on the MPC. Exile’s diversity in sample sources and versatility in style make his tracks play like they have come from multiple producers. Previous collaborators DJ Khalil and The Alchemist also have stellar contributions. The sounds range from the big band old-school R&B terrain that Blacc usually croons over, to poppy Ryan Lewis vibes on the piano-driven closer “F.T.W.” The project moves quickly due to the production despite Fash’s tendency to be old-fashioned and verbose with three 16s on multiple songs.
The main ingredients of what got people hooked and kept them feening for more on Boy Meets World are present, but Fash’s progression in a comfortable situation while still remaining hungry with newfound inspiration gives the album the polish to separate it from his first and anything else that has been released so far this year.