FEATURES Fatboi Sharif Takes His Music’s Temperature By Phillip Mlynar · February 20, 2024
Photo by Kevin W Condon

Fatboi Sharif‘s music is set in a purgatorial underworld. On last year’s Decay, the New Jersey MC sketched a scenario in which Jesus Christ is held captive inside a glass cage in the craggy realm, while latest release Something About Shirley—produced by longtime collaborator and fellow Garden State resident Roper Williams—peaks with a fantastical vision of Sun Ra opening for Satan at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Casting himself as a tour guide to this phantasmagorical hellscape, Sharif signposts pitfalls and doles out gallows humor to wandering lost souls through a strikingly haunting strain of hip-hop.

“Really, it means the everyday power struggle of good versus evil on display for the viewing of others,” says Sharif from the more earthly locale of a bar in his home town of Rahway, addressing the lyric about Sun Ra onstage with the devil. The image is meant to convey the idea that balancing positive and negative influences is a “constant decision that needs to be made.”

The push and pull between light and darkness is a recurring theme in Sharif’s music. Growing up in New Jersey—first in Irvington, then in Rahway—he recalls growing up in a home that resembled a soundclash: Sharif’s grandmother would play Tina Turner and The Supremes in one room while his uncle was listening to Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes in another. When hip-hop entered the picture, Sharif remembers his parents enjoying more mainstream artists while an uncle introduced him to the underground styles of Chino XL, Goodie Mob, and The Boogiemonsters. Before discovering hip-hop, Sharif was a committed grunge fan. “That’s still some of my favorite music ever,” he says, name-checking Pearl Jam and Silverchair. “Even when I jumped all the way into hip-hop, that element never left me—all those classic albums and videos I grew up on.” Sharif’s early interest in writing poetry gradually led to studying the tenets of rap writing, after discovering albums like Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, Canibus’s Can-I-Bus, and Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP.

Soon, he was offered the chance to co-host a rap radio show titled Strangers With Hip-Hop that was broadcast out of Kean University on KWNJ 90.3 FM. During one of the show’s cipher sessions, which were arranged by DJ Boogaveli (who maintains a role as Sharif’s live DJ to this day), a group from Hoboken that happened to include Roper Williams passed through. Williams and Sharif hit it off, both personally and creatively. “When I first heard Sharif rap, he had a lot of the intangibles that make someone great, so I knew I wanted to work with him,” recalls Williams via email. “People with that type of skill set make being a producer fun.”

Though Age Of Extinction, released in 2016, marked the beginning of Sharif’s discography, it was Sharif’s ongoing relationship with Williams that blossomed into their 2021 breakthrough Gandhi Loves Children. The album is the ideal entry point into the world of Sharif, showcasing a stylistically fleet MC who can switch from cipher-sharp braggadocio to noir-ish imagery on a dime, and who’s equally comfortable conveying focused concepts as open-ended abstractions. On “I’m Buggin’,” Sharif suggests that Malcolm X and Jeffrey Dahmer are “the same person” over a prowling piano-laced backdrop, while the trampoline bass of “Fly Pelican” propels buoyant bars from Sharif and guest YL that recall carefree summer days fueled by fried clams and André champagne.

After Gandhi Loves Children, Sharif kicked into overdrive, releasing Cyber City Society (produced by LoneSword, the beatmaking alias of Tase Grip MC Lungs), Preaching In Havana (with noface), and Decay (alongside Steel Tipped Dove) in a single 15-month stretch. Sharif, who prefers to work on groups of three projects simultaneously, says the multi-tasking allows him to, “always put my body and mind in different zones and places.” The exquisitely lo-fi Preaching In Havana feels like it belongs on some dust-ridden dubbed tape discovered in a rickety thrift store, the way it shifts between clandestine recordings of secret society meetings and snippets of psychoanalytic therapy sessions. For 2023’s Decay, released via billy woods‘s Backwoodz Studioz, Steel Tipped Dove was tasked with conjuring a contemporary gothic rap soundtrack heavy on sizzling cymbals, pained guitars, and somber strings—the perfect backdrop for lyrics that shuffle into gloomy and fatalistic territory.

Decay is a cold album,” Sharif says. “When you get towards the tail end, with ‘Boogie Monster,’ that’s like a 29-degree song—all navy blues and light grays.” In fact, Sharif’s writing process involves assigning temperatures and colors to tracks as a way to establish their emotional resonance. “‘The Farewell Outfit’ is like an 18-degree song with maybe a mixture of sad pink and bright yellow, the crying yellow, the sad type of shit,” he continues. By comparison, Sharif describes Preaching In Havana as, “probably my hottest album. Like, ‘Static Vision’ is 88 degrees.”

No matter who’s behind the boards on a Sharif project, it’s the MC’s booming voice that remains the captivating draw. Sharif’s delivery has the unbridled force and destructive potential of a natural disaster; his baritone is voluminous, booming, and resonant. “Fatboi’s voice is perfectly round, but in a 3-D or spherical type of way,” says Williams. “It’s like rolling a bowling ball around on a memory foam mattress: You don’t see a path in front of it, you only see the trail it left.”

Merch for this release:

During the mixing process, Sharif’s vocals layered in a way that creates a disorienting effect, enhancing their dramatic impact. “I’ll do four or five different ad lib tracks where it might be a regular voice, then a deeper voice, then one recorded across the room where I’m screaming,” explains Sharif. “I’ll tell the engineer to have this come out here, then cut this out here, put some distortion here, make sure these specific words are clear.” Sharif says his hazy vocals on Preaching In Havana were mixed, “to hit a certain way—hit in a circle, so it’s sort of hypnotizing.”

Following late-2023’s brilliant Insomniac Missile Launcher EP with former Company Flow MC Bigg Jus comes the latest installment in Sharif’s catalog: Something About Shirley. Produced by Williams, the project is svelte but potent, clocking in at just 10 minutes, and sequenced to play out as a single continuous listen thanks to the inclusion of spliced-in vocal samples, skits, and blasts of distortion that break up the MC’s verses. “Shirley isn’t based on a person per se,” says Sharif, “but it symbolizes a lot of us and things that go on with people that they might not be tapped into, whether it’s certain physical sickness or different forms of how we treat other people. There’s a lot of Shirleys in the world that deal with a lot of things she deals with in the project—situations with love, situations with drugs, certain types of mental situations. Sometimes we need help and we don’t search it out.”

Classified within Sharif’s temperature and color index, Something About Shirley opens at around 55 degrees, but drops to 37 or 38 degrees by the end, and is constructed from “square-shaped pinks, a couple of octagon-esque yellows, and some peach colors. It’s chaotic,” admits Sharif with a knowing glint in his eye, “But it’s different forms of love and expression that, if you recognize and touch on each part of it, can make your journey a little easier at the end.”

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