Pop-rap singles don’t come much better than “Breathe,” the 2004 hit that marks the creative zenith of Fabolous’ career. It’s a middlebrow masterpiece, with its glitzy Supertramp piano sample (from “Crime of the Century,” no less), clacka-boom drum track, and semi-extended metaphors about choking and asphyxiation. The subtext of the beat and the rhymes—that Fab is, y’know, a serious rapper—is ridiculous. But “Breathe” is a serious piece of commerce: For four-and-a-half minutes, it leaves the impression that New York went upscale without going Disney. Pass the popcorn, yo.
The delusions on From Nothin’ to Somethin’—the follow-up to “Breathe” vehicle Real Talk—are much less entertaining. Fab sounds unconvincing no matter what topic he’s handling, whether it be his romantic side (“Make Me Better”), his street steez (“Gangsta Don’t Play”), his prowess in the sack (“First Time”), or the fantastic redundancy of his bling (“Diamonds”). It’s as if he decided that his signature nonchalance is too easily spoiled by any hint of charm or emotional complexity. It’s also currently the top-selling hip-hop album in the country, so the question becomes: How does a total dullard get to be so successful?
Fab’s supporters offer multiple defenses: His vocal monotone is the manifest destiny of Jay-Z’s laid-back example; he gets cross-cultural love because he’s a Northerner with a pseudo-Southern flow; he’s really a punchline rapper at heart, and real fans listen closely; he brought out Young Jeezy on “Do the Damn Thang,” which should count for something.
None of those points hold up as From Nothin’ to Somethin’ rolls on, with guest star after guest star dutifully providing all the spice while the producers (Timbaland, Jermaine Dupri, up-and-comer Reefa, and a few others) deliver standard-issue pop-gangsta product. Almost every track flattens out as soon as Fab opens his mouth. Take “Return of the Hustle,” which boasts snazzy horn and string samples, courtesy of “Breathe” maestro Just Blaze—it has a little drama, a little swing, and way too many Vegas-flash rhymes. “My money’s stacked high/How high? Shaq high, Yao high/That’s why yours is Bow Wow high,” Fab raps. Phonetically, it’s a somewhat interesting string of syllables, but the actual content reads like a sixth-grader’s brainstorm.
When the subject is New York, Fab sometimes shows life, but those moments are rare. “I’m from the era of the shootouts for the drug spots/Happy to be here, so I smile in my mug shots/The David Dinkins years/I even dug Koch/Before the George Bush drug watch/Blood clot,” he raps on “Gangsta Don’t Play,” which features some raggae-lite crooning by Junior Reid, who seems to be collecting regular paychecks from such gigs. He’s probably the most manly singer on the album, though. Ne-Yo, Akon, and Lloyd all check in with wispy R&B melodies, while T-Pain throttles back his charisma on the ultra-disposable “Baby Don’t Go.”
It would be easy to harp on the bloated guest list as an undeniable sign of Fabolous’ lameness as a performer, but the fact that 13 of the album’s 15 tracks have a cameo probably has deeper significance. The presence of all those guys (Jeezy and Clipse’s Pusha T are there) and gals (Rihanna and Lil’ Mo, too) points to Fab’s appeal as a tool of the industry. He’s not perceived as overly soft, so commercially viable gangstas can hop onboard without killing their cred. And he’s not serially profane, so lovey-dovey hitmakers get extra shots at the Top 40. Thus, as Fab gets more monotone, everybody else gains stature. It’s a shrewd existence, however unintentional it might be. Somewhere at the top of Def Jam, Jay-Z is counting the money.