Where reality TV, prison and blissful ignorance have derailed the careers of his less fortunate peers, Brooklyn’s own Fabolous has somehow managed to fill a number of different roles: Ladies-drink-free smooth-talker, trusty sideman, pop-rap crossover star, even the occasional focus of rap nerd chatter. After five studio albums and countless mixtapes, it’s safe to say that the 36-year-old is more of a survivor than a thriver, but Fabolous has become something few Big Apple MCs ever managed to—dependable. The Soul Tape 3, the third and final installment in his trilogy of soul-sample-heavy mixtapes, attempts to reinforce his status as a go-to for those in search of Gray’s Papaya-grade comfort rap. Dropped on Christmas day, it’s a gift for true fans, but casual onlookers will likely be disappointed that Fab’s strong suits—memorable punchlines, rap radio standouts and charismatic tough talk—are less evident this time around.
Like the whole of Fab’s career, the Soul series could best be described as satisfying, and now with 3, you can now cut-and-paste together a pretty excellent mixtape from the choicest bits of all three. Though 2 remains the high-water mark of the series, 3 continues on in traditions that made the project interesting in the first place, and largely avoids caving to the whims of the current marketplace’s taste. Fortunately, his ear for beats is as keen as it was back in 2011 with the original Soul Tape, which featured an impressive stab at Kanye West’s “Devil In a New Dress”. Here, Fabolous kicks things off by doing his best with Drake’s “Paris Morton Music 2” (“Everything Was the Same”) and closes things out with the inspired idea of rapping over the euphoric break in Kanye’s “On Sight” (Holy Name of Mary Choral Family’s “He’ll Give Us What We Really Need”). But as with the previous Soul Tapes, Fabolous is clearly more interested in presenting all he has to offer, making for a varied but uneven listen.
Despite the constant recycling of the struggle-hustle-succeed-repeat formula, the original material on Soul Tape 3 often hits the mark. The tape gets its first authentic “WHOOO!” moment on “The Hope”, with a colossal beat from Araabmuzik and a guest verse from an alert Jadakiss (“Your life’s worth nothing, the goons had it appraised”), and follows up strong with “You Know”, featuring the currently embattled (Young) Jeezy, finally offering a solid hook (something the trilogy hasn’t been known for). The tape’s biggest talking point, “The Get Back”, comes courtesy of Kendrick Lamar’s titanic “Control” verse (and, to a lesser extent, Trinidad James), but smartly avoids trying to hastily capitalize on the vitriol. While others scrambled to the booth, Fab has wisely let a cooler head prevail, offering a measured but firm stance on King of New York politicking. “Whenever you ven aqui to that mighty NYC/ We gon’ check that name you claim, bring your [an inserted sample of Kendrick’s ‘YAWK’ ad-lib] and ID.”
Had the rest of The Soul Tape 3 been merely mediocre, a lot of the aforementioned material might have really popped, but instead it’s nearly all but drowned out thanks to generic MMG bluster (“Foreigners”), charmless Autotuned warbling (“Playa”) and a trio of painfully dull loverman joints (one is called “Situationships”) that round out the tape. For a guy who’s made a name for himself as a for-the-ladies specialist, the tracks have a particularly deadening effect, especially in light of the highly entertaining “Cuffin’ Season”. It’s been a long held belief that Fabolous’ mixtapes are always much stronger than his official releases, and there’s some truth to that, despite the fact that The Soul Tape 3 isn’t the strongest piece of evidence. But with the kinda-awesome 2 Chainz-assisted “When I Feel Like It” that’s supposed to appear on the long-delayed Loso’s Way 2: Rise to Power feeling like a good omen for the LP, who knows? Trying be everything to everyone has often prevented Fab from being truly great, but it goes to show how that, a good deal of the time, the approach can often yield more than a few real gems.