Fashawn was ready to retire. With his 25th birthday approaching, the Fresno-raised rapper felt like he’d plateaued. Once prolific, the former teen phenom’s recordings slowed to a crawl. Even though his 2009 debut, Boy Meets World, had been hailed as an underground classic, no label showed interest in his sophomore LP, The Ecology.
Then Nas stepped in.
“I didn’t want to drop it for free. I know we’re in the era where we can do that stuff, but I wanted to give it a proper release,” Fashawn says in an Eastside coffee shop. He wears a Thrasher hat, reflecting his skater past. Dark tattoo script inks his forearms. He splits his time between the Central Valley and L.A., often staying up the street at the Echo Park house of his long-time producer, Exile.
“But it wasn’t happening,” adds the half-black, half-Mexican MC born Santiago Leyva. “I wasn’t hearing back from many labels and the options I did have, I could’ve just done it myself. So when I got the call from Nas” – the legendary Queens rapper turned co-founder of Mass Appeal Records – “it couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Fashawn is now 26, but if you didn’t know any better, you might peg him as older. He has the deeply sunken eyes of someone who saw too much too soon: growing up surrounded by poverty and substance abuse in Fresno, a mom wracked by addiction, his dad locked up.
“Kids were playing with Crayolas, and I was learning how to load a pistol, how to feed myself, learning how to acquire money, learning how to live off no food,” Fashawn says. “You know how they say, ‘Act your age not your shoe size?’ I was acting my waist size: 32 when I was 15.”
There were stints in group homes, endless hours of skating and writing raps to cope, and skipping school to ramble around the country. He had a baby daughter not long after becoming eligible to vote.
But he had a legitimate career, too. Initially discovered by Fresno mainstay Planet Asia and co-signed by sample choppers Exile and The Alchemist, Fashawn was anointed as one of the West Coast’s most promising young artists following the release of Boy Meets World. XXL named him to its vaunted “Freshman 10” list.
National tours and collaborations with Wiz Khalifa and J. Cole followed. So did a few mixtapes, EPs and a collaborative album with Murs. But until this month’s The Ecology, he’d never released his sophomore LP.
“I’d decided that hip-hop could go on without me,” Fashawn says. “But then I got that call from Nas and it reminded me of the artist I am and the man that I am. I can’t give up now.”
Taking its titular inspiration from Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” the album finds Fashawn ruminating on dreams and parenthood, his home state, the joys of creation and fears of premature demise. There’s heartfelt realism, raw raps and endearing warmth. It’s avowedly traditionalist but without nostalgia. Guest spots come from Nas, Aloe Blacc, BJ the Chicago Kid and Dom Kennedy, over production mostly courtesy of Exile and The Alchemist.
“The boy on Boy Meets World was very naïve and thought he knew how the world was,” Fashawn says. “The man on The Ecology is more thirsty for knowledge. He understands that he doesn't know much at all. He’s a real father, not some kid with a baby on the way. I’ve matured. I’m a man. If you thought I was an old soul then, I don’t know what you’re going to call me now.”