Fresno emcee Fashawn prepped his debut album Boy Meets World just in time for his 21st birthday. But if his youth seems striking now, bear in mind that the young man born Santiago Leyva began releasing mixtapes when he was 15, which was just a few years after his troubled youth (incarcerated father, addicted mother) brought him to a group home at age 12. The biography is easy to hitch one’s headline to, and frankly, even if Fashawn’s not a household name just yet, it’s hard not to find his coming-of-age story inspiring.
And yet, the backstory would be a moot point if not for Leyva’s talent, which is eye-opening to say the least. Boy Meets World, Fashawn’s debut album and collaboration with West Coast producer extraordinaire Exile, is, simply, the best hip-hop debut of the year. Sorry Kid Cudi (what happened there?) and Wale (runner-up isn’t so bad), but Fashawn’s first official album is nothing less than a triumph.
Fashawn’s synergy with Exile is fluid and dynamic, as perfect a pairing one is likely to hear in hip-hop today. This is apparent right from first track “Intro,” which, in spite of the name is a strong opening two minutes of high-energy hip-hop. Fashawn’s verses are focused and sharp, cutting like a laser through Exile’s meaty organ samples with a combination of homage and boastfulness: “rock like Aesop/ sound like a fable/ kerosene flow/ melt microphone cables.” That nod toward contemporary influences continues with “Freedom,” as Exile kicks off the track with a Black Star sample, but soon enough, Talib Kweli’s voice is all but forgotten as Leyva lays down a laundry list of icons and issues that rivals Mos Def’s verse on “Two Words.”
No matter how fierce Fashawn sounds, however, Boy Meets World is ultimately a positive and powerful statement. When he says “the world is yours,” on “Hey Young World,” he’s not nodding to Nas so much as sending a message of inspiration to the listener. Likewise, “Stars” finds him reflecting on his own youth and his dreams of stardom over a charming, old timey sample. But the album hits an early peak with “Life as a Shorty,” an infectious, reminiscent single that finds the young lyricist both adhering to a silver lining and standing his ground: “Kids used to make fun of my clothes/ till one of `em got punched in the nose/ Kinda like I was forced to be tough/ life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough.”
Boy Meets World isn’t short on highlights though. Pick any song at random and you’re bound to come across something fantastic, from the haunting piano keys of “Our Way,” the heartbreaking determination and resignation in “Why,” the choppy soul samples in “Samsonite Man” and the introspective and achingly lovelorn “When She Calls,” which finds Exile sampling Joanna Newsom to surprisingly incredible effect. With emcees like Fashawn taking the reins, the future of hip-hop is in good hands.
Blu & Exile – Below the Heavens
Black Star – Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star
Finale – A Pipe Dream and a Promise
Video: “Our Way”