By the late 2000s, rap music had seen itself evolve, age and change in countless ways. Over 30 years after its inception, hip-hop had been molded to the commercial appeal of the masses, and like any other type of music with any sort of lifespan, was continuously shifting in style to reflect new sounds and trends.
The late 1990s and 2000s came to be known as the “bling era” – a period largely defined by flashy jewelry, ritzy cars and expensive clothes, excessive and materialistic lifestyles, and rudimentary beats that focused more on mood and presentation than artistic innovation. The end of the first decade in the new millennium saw the game’s biggest names doing the biggest numbers. Based on first week album sales, the five highest-selling rap projects in 2009 belonged to Eminem, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Rick Ross and Young Money.
As bland, hook-oriented, vapid pop-rap infiltrated the airwaves, it’s easy to look back and criticize the works that were seemingly the “biggest” albums of that period. In the same breath, it’s worth noting that a myriad of veterans were releasing thoughtful and well-produced material at this time: Daniel Dumile’s (MF DOOM) Born Like This; Mos Def’s The Ectstatic; Q-Tip’s Kamaal/the Abstract; Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II; and UGK’s UGK 4 Life were records loaded with compelling concepts and great songs from some of hip-hop’s most revered acts, a couple of which (DOOM and Mos Def), were instant cult classics.
West Coast hip-hop’s position in the mainstream dwindled greatly in the late ’90s and 2000s, but in a creative sense, the region remained deep with talented artists. Crews like Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples gave Los Angeles new footing in the modern rap landscape, drawing back to classic rap’s roots of sample-heavy beats paired with sparse and conscious rhymes. The Alchemist and Madlib, now legends in their own individual right, were two of many beatsmiths helping bring the underground movements on the West Coast to the rest of the country, collaborating with the likes of Mobb Deep, J Dilla and other greats from around the U.S.
Amid the burgeoning underground scene in 2000s California was Santiago Leyva, alias Fashawn, a young rapper making his come-up on the streets of Fresno. After a steady string of mixtapes garnered him some local buzz, the aspiring Central-Cali spitter joined forces with Exile, a Los Angeles-based producer who had begun his illustrious career a few years earlier, earning massive acclaim for his collaboration with fellow Angel City MC Blu on their 2007 album Below the Heavens.
In a matter of months, Fashawn and Exile’s partnership would quietly yield one of the era’s most noteworthy bodies of work. Fashawn’s 2009 debut LP, Boy Meets World, introduced a fresh voice, one equally steeped in the aura of hip-hop’s golden age yet hungry to make its own imprint on the culture.
21-years old upon the day of the album’s release, Fashawn immediately showcased an astounding level of rhyme skills. His ability to articulate the depths of an adolescence ridden by poverty, crime and inner-city struggle was nothing short of captivating. His command over each instrumental displayed a demeanor completely unique in itself. Out of the gate, Fashawn bravely spread his wings. With the helping hand of Exile, a virtuoso producer fluent in both classic jazz and soul, he flew.
In the breadth of one album, Fashawn stood up to face grim realities, question God and ponder the life-altering questions that lie at the crossroads of prosperity and perish. Boy Meets World peered into his troubled youth and uncertain future through the same spiritual lens, searching both worlds for meaning and significance.
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The allure of the debut album in hip-hop culture is imminent; however, in the case of Fashawn, his introduction to the world came as the internet was playing an increasingly larger role in music discovery and blogs were becoming a fixture in rap culture. Officially released on The Orchard, a well-reputed yet low-profile distributor, on October 20, 2009, Boy Meets World gained much of its traction online. Its ripple effect was small, but for a kid out of Central California with little to his name, its impact was substantial.
His command over each instrumental displayed a demeanor completely unique in itself. Out of the gate, Fashawn bravely spread his wings. With the helping hand of Exile, a virtuoso producer fluent in both classic jazz and soul, he flew.
Just over 10 years after its release, Boy Meets World still resonates in a timeless way. For one, it’s a unique and dissectable timestamp from the powerful albeit short-lived “blog era.” There are lyrical nods to MySpace, as well as pre-Obama political references. Above all, the album feels like a snapshot of what indie rap looked like in the late 2000s. At 18 total tracks and over 75-minutes of run time, a rap album that long in the modern day is scarce. Some of the only projects seen stretching to such durations are regularly accused of being bloated for mass stream accumulation (looking at you Chris Brown, Drake and Migos). But in 2009, a 20-song record was not as tall of a task to sit through. The average listener’s attention span was not nearly as crippled by the high-volume music consumption cycle later brought on by streaming and social media.
It’s fun to tie small details to the past, but Fashawn’s debut has endured the test of time for much greater reasons than its birth date and structural makeup. Boy Meets World is a gem in the canons of both West Coast and underground hip-hop and holds up as one of the most compelling creations of its era. Its features include the likes of Blu, Evidence, Planet Asia and Mistah Fab, MCs with wide respect and credibility in the grand landscape of California rap. The tracklist also includes a young Aloe Blacc, rounding out a talented and balanced cast of supporting acts, alluding to just how special of a record the people who made it knew it was going to be.
Musically, the album serves justice to golden age tropes of tactical sampling and stitching together infectious beats from a collage of retro-flavored instrumentation. Exile’s mix of hard-hitting boom-bap production and vintage jazzy soundscapes is warm, dramatic and nostalgic. It openly leans on each end of California’s hip-hop spectrum: the laid back, sun-drenched attitude of Los Angeles and the menacing, trunk-knocking sensibilities of Bay Area music.
The results are spectacular – a mix of old and new, north and south, serious and light-hearted. From the serene and joyous piano melodies of “Hey Young World” to the fat bass grooves of the low-rider anthem “Sunny CA” to the Latin-flavored love song “Lupita,” rich sounds permeate the album’s atmosphere from cover to cover.
Amid this vibrant backdrop, Fashawn shines. His multi-faceted rhyme style translates smoothly over Exile’s varied beat selections. He proves he’s as capable of laying down a soft-spoken life lesson just as he is unleashing a grimy street cypher. The balance in his different approaches to verse and attacking certain lyrical concepts helps shape the album’s nucleus, which hangs its hat on consistent songwriting and Fashawn’s raw and real life perceptions.
In recent memory, few album introductions have been as memorable as the song tandem of “Intro” and “Freedom.” The former, ironically one of the last songs written and recorded for the record, is as striking a display of undying determination as ever laid to wax by a rookie rapper. Fash makes it known that he shoots to kill – “Coming from the bottomless pit / to the top of the globe / Santiago the prince / where the fuck is my robe?” – and his conviction is undeniable. Simply put, it’s an empowering, motivational and relentless declaration of arrival that sets itself and the rest of the album aflame.
From there, madness ensues. “Freedom,” “The Ecology” and “Our Way” punctuate Fashawn’s gripping street knowledge with harrowing accounts of murder and crime. His dark reflections on decisions made by him and his peers illuminate the violent struggles that plague gang-inflicted youth and the world they live in. Fash also channels this depressive state of mind internally, most notably on the suicidal ode “When She Calls,” the morbid exclamation point of all the album’s social commentary.
While Fashawn shows little fear in taking his listeners down a dark path in order to reveal a cold truth, he simultaneously captures the innocence of adolescence with joy and exuberance. His optimism for a brighter day fuels the inspirational messages behind “Hey Young World” and “Stars,” songs that still hold weight in the idea of never giving up on your dreams and valuing the power of imagination. “Know I’mma shine despite all of my hardships / I consider them lessons instead of losses,” he raps on “Stars.” It’s a sentiment so simple yet so profound – our problems birth our happiness. What you gain depends on what you are willing to struggle for. The true value of life’s journey comes not at top of the mountain, but in the climb up to it.
“I guess time flies when you’re having fun / so enjoy life, you only get one / I love my childhood, despite the gunfire / I was quite happy growing up in the slums,” he spits on “Life As A Shorty.”
The album’s overarching themes regularly come back to the existential burdens of Fashawn staying in the hood and the obstacles he’s bound to face when observing the course of his future. Subsequently, his brightest moments come in times of deep introspection. “Why” and “Father” see Fash taking a hard look at society’s wrongs, wrestling with the morality of major life choices while empathizing with the dire circumstances that ultimately lead some people to forego the high road and succumb to the pressures of sin.
He goes as far as to weigh his heavy heart directly on God, a common symptom of any young apprentice in his position. Naturally, when Fashawn drifts too deep into the “Whys” and “Hows” of life, he releases through escape, penning the most endearing songs on the entire record. “Samsonite Man,” a wanderlust backpack rap cut in spirit and a textbook demonstration of Exile’s sampling magic, is presented as a heartfelt essay about finding growth by seeking out the unknown, yet continuously stresses the importance holding on to your roots – it’s an anthem for the restless nomad.
This philosophy, along with the rest of the themes explored throughout the album, come full circle on the title track, a 10-minute ode to the journey of adolescence to adulthood and the constant battle humans face in walking the line between heaven and hell. It’s on this song where Fashawn determines his fate.
Recounting naive childhood memories and the simple pleasures of early life, Fash establishes the settings which informed the base of his personality and initial worldview. Reliving various key points throughout his life, he returns to the album’s primary mission, ‘the search for a better tomorrow.’ His conclusion is simple. “I think I found mine,” he reads in a spoken outro amid thank yous and dedications to family members, collaborators and other inspirations.
In reflecting on the tension between God and the urban nightmares of his youth, Fashawn reminds us that in times of uncertainty, maintaining faith can help us create our own reality and serve as a key to staying the course as we decipher the difference between right and wrong. If there is one thing to be learned from Boy Meets World, it is that salvation can be achieved through our dreams, no matter the circumstance. As hip-hop has become a global powerhouse, this sentiment has never been more widely realized.
Boy Meets World ranks among hip-hop’s most special debut albums, the ones that in hindsight are so clearly instant masterpieces, that it’s impossible to discuss the artist at hand without gushing over how remarkable their first impression was. Fashawn’s career has not been the bustling locomotive many would have hoped, but his material post-Boy Meets World, though sporadic, is of high quality. His catalog is filled with songs that are touching and vivid in detail, driven by compelling and human narratives depicting everything from his upbringing in the ghetto to the challenges of fatherhood.
Mixtapes like Higher Learning 2 and Grizzly City 3 find Fash as menacing and sincere as he has ever sounded, and 2015’s The Ecology, his long-awaited sophomore LP, offers a glance at life through a mature worldview – one only possible to attain at the expense of lived hardship.
Fashawn embodies the essence of hip-hop and what it means to be an MC. His mark on the game is permanent and carries as much weight in 2019 as it did ten years earlier. For every individual who finds themselves at the crossroads of prosperity and perish, like the rest of us, they must navigate through life’s most difficult questions to get where they are going. Fortunately, there are doctrines like Boy Meets World to abide by and look to for wisdom.