Is impeccable but empty rhetoric dangerous?
Song length: 3:00; Video length: 4:39; Approximate number of similes in song: eleven; Celebrities referenced in song: R. Kelly, Fergie, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Alex Rodriguez, The Notorious B.I.G., Jamal Woolard, Wesley Snipes (in New Jack City), Amber Rose, Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame; Author’s other nicknames: Funeral Fab, Loso, Mr. R.I.P.; Author’s real name: John David Jackson; Author’s age: thirty-three; Number of times author has been shot: one; Number of times author has been arrested: one; Representative couplet from mix tape: “I mean what I say, like the dictionary / I don’t write rhymes, I write obituaries.”
One is not instinctively inclined to take the Brooklyn rapper Fabolous seriously: his taste in beats is mediocre, he buys into modish audio gimmicks that will become the stuff of parody before they stop charting, and, even in a genre where most artists have dumb names, he has a really dumb name. But Fabolous is also a very good lyricist, one who sustains great promise even as he delivers on it, who even at his wittiest seems poised to move on to more serious, consequential things.
“I’m Raw,” from his 2010 mix tape, There Is No Competition 2: The Funeral Service, offers none of those things. Rather, it is a quick, chorus-free litany of boasts and threats and brand names, a sampler of rap swagger—I am rich, I am potent, I am smartly dressed and heavily armed—that covers a magnificent swath of rhetoric without actually saying anything. Its appeal lies not in its subject matter or social conscience, for it has neither, but in the verbal resourcefulness with which it tells us about nothing in particular.
Rappers are worth little if they’re not clever, and plenty are proficient in keeping their verses fresh even as their themes stagnate: Lil Wayne, Ghostface Killah, and the Virginia duo Clipse, to name three, have founded solid careers on rapping inventively about selling cocaine. What sets Fabolous apart is his single-minded exploration of an image’s literal and figurative plasticity, his dogged commitment to the extended metaphor. (The noirish video for “I’m Raw” contains ample footage of him butchering raw meat.)
Fabolous does punch lines, but at his best, as here, he deals in tightly coiled triple entendres that reward undergraduate-level close reading. See: “I’m raw, dog, y’all safe sex / You dicks belong in latex, not tape decks,” in which the first line demonstrates what the Greeks called a paraprosdokian, a device where the end of a sentence compels a re-parsing of the beginning. Here, as soon as safe sex is invoked, “I’m raw, dog”—which initially glosses as “I’m redoubtable, homey”—loses its comma and suggests that Fab is “raw dog” (unprotected intercourse) compared to the sissy prudishness of rival rappers, who, in the next line, are likened to “dicks” in both the anatomical and pejorative senses, by way of an image that would be downright Lynchian if interpreted literally. His analogy, about a minute later, between gunfire and female orgasm is even raunchier, and even more convincing.
What’s good about No Competition 2, a better release than any of his proper albums to date (one of which is called, ironically enough, Real Talk), is that it suggests that there doesn’t need to be anything else. Like most rap mix tapes, it is bloated and cluttered, filled with dull interstitial banter and canned logo-sounds—including a clip of Fab’s voice lowing “niiice,” played after particularly pithy lines. But the format lends itself ideally to an accumulation of little verbal triumphs, which in turn suggest something both distressing and heartening about rap in the present moment: that it embraces immediacy without urgency, that it uses its finest register of oratory to reinforce a mythology of cupidity and vice, that it can be listened to but not heard. Fabolous is good on tracks with weightier topics, on songs that tell stories, but he’s exceptional when he just shoots the shit—with a revolver up your ass, he might say—and “I’m Raw” is a slight but persuasive argument in favor of enjoying the chatter for how little it’s worth.
—Daniel Levin Becker (from May 2011)