Boy Meets World is a trip. Stylistically, a lot of Exile’s production sounds very similar to the vibe DJ Real and Insight set on Dagha’s 2008 album The Divorce, which means a lot of vintage sounding cool and bop jazz. “Stars” seems to go so far as sample something straight out of Cold War-era AM radio. Over the past three or so years Exile has become a hell of a producer though, and the fluency with which his beats move from beginning to end is really enjoyable to listen to. His compositions are also really accomplished – one example being the clever use of Talib Kweli and Ice Cube samples as “Freedom”‘s thesis. Fans of his instrumental album [i]Radio[/i] have a good idea of how well Exile can sequence a set of samples and beats, but it’s definitely great to hear him exhibit the same ear for sequencing with an MC on top as with his music on its own. A lot of people will probably get caught up comparing the production to his last MC collaboration, Blu’s Below the Heavens, but really most of this stuff has a harder edge than that LP even at its smoothest and I think it’s clear that Exile is in a more advanced headspace now. It’s not all laid back, either. “Sunny CA” goes for Dr. Dre while “Ecology” goes the orchestral route to great effect. And all your hip friends are probably wild over the Joanna Newsom sample on “When She Calls” – which is fine, the song is hot fire and one of the better storytelling joints of the year. Exile is in a real rhythm right now as a producer, and he can feel free to take a bow after a very strong showing in 2009.
But enough about Exile, this is Fashawn’s album and his big moment. I’m really excited for this decade of hip-hop because the rappers that are taking their first steps now are all my age, have shared my experiences and, hopefully, will be people I can really relate to. I’ve got a lot of favorite artists for their musical talents, but I feel like there’s a special something about growing up with an MC and maturing with them. Fashawn, who’s actually more than a month younger than I am, will be an artist I really watch for this reason, especially if his music remains this honest. Like Blu, Fashawn seems to be very open to revealing himself on the mic and his investment helps each song feel like it has some kind of importance in Fashawn’s life. Unlike Blu, to continue a somewhat unfair comparison, Fashawn doesn’t switch his own style up very much and he could be considered a member of the Guru/Jeru school of MCing. His subject matter has a good amount of variety – breaking down socio- and bio-logical factors in his life, high school crushes, touring, grabbing the spotlight, etc. – but his flow is something that reminds me of Kanye West or Guilty Simpson. Fashawn’s schemes are very deliberate without being showy, and it allows his words to come out very crisp and clean. But he sounds the same a lot of the time, and unlike those two artists – who, granted, have had more time to perfect their craft – sometimes his voice can slip out of attention for a moment. His everyman persona also contributes to this, especially compared to those similar yet imposing personalities. Exile and Fashawn also do a great job of emphasizing the portions of lyrics that are most prescient – I’m looking especially at “Father”. Another nice trick with Fashawn’s lyrics is that he’ll often borrow cadences for a line or two, paraphrase past and present one liners or reference other people’s music in some other way. It’s not always so simple as quoting the Golden Age canon, either. Sure enough there’s a token “it’s your world” reference, but did you catch the “A Milli” line? I enjoy when rappers aren’t afraid to pay homage, especially when it’s done cleverly. A lot of southern rappers do the same thing, but it’s done with a little more subtlety here which fits Fashawn’s approach to the game.
Honestly, my one worry going forward is Fashawn’s development on the mic. He’s still young, but he’s really going to need to develop his presence to really make a name for himself down the road. If Fashawn ever stumbles in his beat selection or struggles to find new words for old ideas, will he be able to carry himself through a song like more distinctive MCs (like, say, Blu)? We’re going to need more material to find out. I’m definitely not pessimistic – and understand those are somewhat empty criticisms anyway. Music is music after all, and Boy Meets World is very good. it’s just something I had to get out of the way. But honestly, there’s more important things to be mad about right now: zero Mr. Feeny references and nothing that rhymes with Topanga.