The Loneliest Punk
sn't it rich?
Isn't it queer?
Losing my timing this late in my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.
Stephen Sondheim, "Send in the Clowns"
The modern metropolitan folktale: small town talent hits the big city streets in search of the All-American Dream. It is a story retold endlessly like a familiar riff: "A family walks into an agent's office and tells him they have an act..." What follows is invariably painful (think Midnight Cowboy), comic (think David Cross' observations), or bizarre (think Mulholland Drive). It is a plot both past due yet ripe for ridicule, so city slickers continually jaw on about it. But should one of the city's own fall victim to this starry-eyed crime, the story becomes a tragedy. The logic goes that an urban denizen should know better than to have the wool pulled over their own eyes; that's their job! Yet, even the city forgets that the same lure that draws in outsiders also keeps its brood close. The odd kid straying from the pack and becoming lost in the mire is inevitable. However, when Derrick "Fatlip" Stewart encountered this fate, an entire nation mourned.
Millions of hip-hop headz—and, perhaps even more important, non-headz—first recognized the Los Angeles native's gifts through his former group the Pharcyde. Their debut Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde contained brilliant observations of adolescent fun ("Ya Mama") and pain ("Passin' Me By"), but many fans were particularly drawn to the drooling flow and hilarious wit of the 'lip. Although his mates came with witty snaps at every turn, Fatlip took particular command by consistently upping the ante: when a co-member rhymed harmoniously like King Pleasure, Fatlip went straight for the gutter and talked about his STD; when another bragged about baggin' your mom, Fatlip confessed to accidentally picking up a transvestite; when the third puffed his chest after getting no play, Fatlip made a crank call that would have had
However, for all his lyrical and musical talent, Fatlip also demonstrated little social or business maturity. As the group got its first taste of fame, he distanced himself by remaining immersed in a lifestyle of weed and rhymes, leading to his ejection from the group in the mid-'90s. Prior to his dismissal he had spoken of doing a solo record, but a complete lack of behavioral control led to a half-decade lapse in public activity. Then, at the turn of the millennium, hope flickered for fans. The record suddenly had a name, Revenge of the Nerd. There was even an actual single—on his old label, no less. Yet, to call the result "What's Up, Fatlip?" a shock was an understatement. The song was not a complete reversal from everything fans associated with the man —fun, funny, and funnier—it was a downright erasure. The beat dragged. The song cried. The voice practically choked on its own spittle, sounding virtually unintelligible. "Over the years seems like I'm gettin' dumber / Reminiscing to a time when I was younger with a hunger." As hip hop approached 30, Fatlip achieved an embarrassing first by documenting a mid-life crisis. The booty shakin' b-side "Goldmine" hinted at some of the good ol' times, but listeners quickly removed the needle to prevent further depression. The record drifted, the album never arrived, and the Bizarre Ride began to bear a familiar, bitter taste.
Truth is, fans never really had to lose hope; they just had to be patient. Many of "What's Up"'s seeming shortcomings were its greatest strengths. Instead of being an emcee with standout verses, Fatlip had graduated to being an independent artist. He translated his experiences into a complete song, owning every aspect of the music's personality. Fatlip's transformation was further confirmed in the Spike Jonze-directed "documentary" of the same title. The first two minutes of the split personality piece summarized his genius. The clip opens with Fatlip wandering the streets of Hollywood in nothing but a flasher's trenchcoat, a diaper, dirty boots, and a walkman. He hollers at passer-bys, accosts club-goers, and speaks emphatically into the camera about being a "V.I.P." The jaw-dropping segment seems to confirm in graphic detail the pitfalls of the modern industry legend, but it concludes with Fatlip dipping into the comfort of a plush minivan and cracking up at how much he freaked out his own camera crew. Fun, funny, funnier, "Yeah, you still got it..."
Finally, after a decade since his rude entrance into independence, Fatlip has released his proper solo debut, The Loneliest Punk. The wait has been anxious, but well worth it. Like the lead single, which is still included here, the album is a complete departure from expectation. There are no brilliant observations on "real" "artistry." There are no outright jams like "Soul Flower." And there aren't even too many memorable snaps. Instead, the album expands on "What's Up" by inverting the failure myth into a creative personal comment. For every sad aspect of his life, Fatlip has the last word: he borrows money from his mother, but attributes a bad case of writer's block to his fleeting success; his voice is "wack," but he plays it up to O.D.B. proportion to garner your sympathy; and he still can't swing this love thing... which isn't any different from the past. Ultimately, Punk is an album of emceeing and heart, just as Fatlip always wanted.
Although Punk summarizes Fatlip's traumatic post-Pharcyde life, the record is buoyant with character. He is at his best when kicking dope verses over bangers, seething on the frenetic "Joe's Turkey" and howling through his Delta duet with Chali 2na on "Today's Your Day." His trademark wordplay remains intact as he performs lyrical gymnastics on "First Heat:" "Flip flow acrobatic / Back flip / I'm back at this, so get to this style." Although he litters his lines with references to his condition, he keeps the emphasis on his style over your sympathy: "I pay my dues / Refuse to lose / So fuck the blues / And your bad news / You can chip if you choose." In spite of his apparent state of arrested development—the mackin' tale of "Cook" is played out, while "All on Fly" attempts to resurrect the aforementioned crank depravity—Fatlip has become content with balancing life, art and business. Maybe it's the hunger, maybe it's his "six kids," but the message is clear: "Now all you gotta do is buy my joint."
The funny thing is that Fatlip's life really isn't so bad. Fuck rumors and reality TV wishes, he did not become a crack addict, he did not become homeless, and he did not lose touch with human kindness (contrast this with the rise, fall, and comeback of his former and current collaborator J-Swift, as documented in the new film 1 More Hit). He is still a relatively young man who simply lives with his mother, limits his partying, and keeps a close circle of friends. His story is fantastic because he was offered considerable financial success, but he was unprepared to take on that responsibility. It just took him a few years to realize that his teenage ambition was a viable life mission: rhyme pays. So, listen to this story that must be told. It just might pay his bills this month.
Reviewed by: Dan Nishimoto
Reviewed on: 2005-11-29