Higher Learning 2 Mixtape
By Colin McGowan | 17 February 2011
Being neck-deep in this rap shit is sometimes more chore than passion. The perpetual optimism of someone who continually digests and subsequently vomits up mediocre-to-abhorrent mixtape schlock isn’t that dissimilar from a homeless man’s dumpster diving: there’s a lot of quixotic verve required, and a lot of aural coffee grounds and rotted banana peels to search through. And even in the gems reside cracks and imperfections. I have learned to modify my vocabulary when speaking to those not versed in mixtape-speak, because “great” can carry an implied “half of it is pretty awful, though.” When Weezy decided he was going to devote every ounce of his being to recording music, it seems the rap world took notice and ambitious emcees started living out of their studios. Their work ethic is commendable, but even if they had Wayne’s heaven-sent gifts, releasing three or four hours of material each year stifles a rapper’s ability to self-edit. This lack of restraint results in 26-track, 74-minute sprawls that can vary wildly in quality from track to track, which places a burden on yours truly and my ilk. The rap listener in 2011 has to do the work of the little voice in any given rapper’s head that should be saying “you might wanna leave that one in the chamber.”
This should explain why Fashawn’s Higher Learning 2 sounds like a thousand angel’s trumpets to my ears. I want to make a declaration from the rooftops: “Thank the Lord: it bangs front to back! (Save for a few skits but, y’know, whatever.)” Listening to Fash’s latest tape is archetypal of the rare phenomenon experienced by the relative handful of people who devote a few hours a day streaming random stuff off of DatPiff, lazily clicking through the array of horrendous mixtape covers and poorly assembled best-of comps. One’s ears prick up around the twenty-minute mark, incredulously wondering: “Wait, this is still good?”
And Higher Learning 2 continues being good for the next forty minutes. Seriously, even the weed tracks are terrific. Fashawn spitting over “Papers” is one of the tape’s highlights. Drenched in Ursher’s melancholic majesty, Fash bounces along, his fastidious flow punctuating the track’s slow-motion hop. He concludes his first verse with a coy pass at a woman “I’ma teach you how to smoke while you playin’ / I don’t do dope, just promote maryjane,” before the reworked hook drops and makes explicit that this jam is the leader in the clubhouse for Weed Anthem of 2011. In a surprising turn, Higher Learning 2 leans towards anthemic. Despite featuring a track called “Nothin’ for the Radio,” the tape functions as a pleasing clash of technically impressive bars and choruses that utilize big synth washes and/or smooth crooning.
These are big words, but in combining technically-proficient, “traditional” rap with stadium hip-hop, Fashawn creates something exciting and new, even if its components aren’t paradigm-shifting. On B.o.B.‘s debut album, The Adventures of Bobby Ray (2010), it was painfully apparent that B.o.B. was trying to expand the boundaries of hip-hop. It was also, intermittently, painful to listen to because it featured tracks that were heavy-handedly thrashing in an outward direction. So, while the album was enjoyable, there was a good deal of bullshit shoehorned into the record’s complexion. Listening to Adventures felt a lot like having a conversation with an incredibly intelligent person who, for some reason, keeps shifting the topic of conversation every three minutes, interrupting mid-sentence whatever coherence they were beginning to build. Adventures talked about guitars, talked about synths, talked about rapping, talked about singing, talked about reggae, talked about Hayley Williams—until you kind of just wanted it to pick one thing or shut up.
Higher Learning 2 knows it’s good at a lot of things. Fashawn is good at rapping, his producers are good at crafting poignant thump, his friends are good at shit-talking and silky hooks, and all of them have a clear affection for dense, lyrical rap. Instead of creating a schizophrenic hodgepodge that leans in so many directions it splinters, they find a way in which to combine these elements into single, seamless entity. The needle in all this is Fash’s buoyant flow, which dances through, over, and around each beat. He puts on an impressive exhibition, smooth-talking over “Just Another Day,” shadowboxing with the fervent drums on “The Graduate,” and weaving together pro-black imagery on “Strange Fruit.” Fash glow brilliantly throughout, eclipsed only by J. Cole’s furious verse on “Relaxation,” in which he unsheathes a slick double-time flow, basking in the full knowledge that he’s killing it: “I burn rappers like Henny on the liver / Grant death wishes like a genie, I’m a killer.”
I’m not one for title-based observations or puns, but it’s fitting that a tape entitled Higher Learning 2 is so incredibly smart in every facet. On the tail end of “Nothin’ for the Radio” Fashawn relates a brief story of substance abuse and spiritual awakening. It’s a charming yarn—engaging and personal and bereft of preachiness. It also functions as a metaphor for this tape’s brilliance. Fash and friends avoid the trappings of talent, uniting their myriad skills under a singular vision. It is a triumph of construction: deftly paced and consistently dazzling. When “Going Home” closes the lid on the best rap record of this young year, I physically swoon. It is the heart-melting denouement that drips delightfully from the goodness contained in the tape’s first 58 minutes. And I just used “denouement” in reference to the last track of a mixtape. Fashawn’s truly done something incredible.