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Using the world "destiny" to describe Fashawn's trajectory toward a hip-hop career might be a bit much. He'd prefer to think of it as more of a calling. At 3 years old, Santiago Leyva wanted to be a preacher, having been raised in a trailer behind a church, which apparently isn't that extraordinary in his hometown of Fresno.
"There's one apartment building on First Street and maybe one building across the street, but the rest is just churches," says Leyva. "I always found it odd when I had so much [negativity] going on and it felt like [there] was a dark cloud over my [housing] projects the whole time. I didn't understand how, exactly, it was possible to be surrounded by so much holiness."
Though he never quite made it to the pulpit, he managed to find a career that depends on his passion and persuasiveness behind a microphone.
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Today, the 23-year-old's success as a rapper is still on the right track. A steady slew of mixtapes presented his life story through a kaleidoscope of soulful beats and blunt-rolling braggadocio before his impressive full-length debut, 2009's Boy Meets World, served as an introduction to the masses. The next year, he proved to be more than an average backpack rapper, standing on the cover of XXL magazine's 2010 Freshman Class issue alongside such breakout stars as J.Cole, Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean. And now, the rapper is readying his anticipated sophomore release, The Ecology.
But few things hold as much importance to Fashawn as the first ounce of respect he got for his rhyme skills, which he won during an impromptu performance for friends back in his preteen days. The opening lines—"Yo, masculine type/Airtight/I shine like a light/Or a diamond that's bright"—weren't exactly the most earth-shattering, but his friends really dug it. They questioned he might've found them: Was it from something by underground Oakland rapper A-Plus? An old Biggie verse, perhaps? "That was really when I got the confidence, that moment right there," he says. "When somebody [mistook] my verse for [a] legend's verse, I was like, 'I got this shit.'"
As a performer, Fashawn is solid, though not an imposing presence. His flow is confident, his rhymes fit. He's been compared to Nas and collaborated with DJ Green Lantern on an entire mixtape, Ode to Illmatic, dedicated to the Brooklyn rapper's iconic debut. What Fashawn lacks in mind-blowing punch lines and unusual vocabulary he makes up for with consistent themes and evocative narrative images.
"Life As a Shorty" from Boy Meets World plays to his strengths, delivering a keyboard-plunking, look-at-me-now saga of [someone] growing up poor in a broken home but managing to make something of his life. The story's crux isn't new, but Fashawn fills the song with enough detail and charm to give it authenticity. Although he says he's not into identifying what genres he prefers for beats, he has exhibited a preference for soul, funk, and R&B samples.
As a lyricist, Fashawn doesn't have a regular writing schedule, and, he says, he usually ends up procrastinating. He finds on-the-spot, in-the-booth inspiration is key. "I just to have to say what I feel, and place the chorus where it should be, and place the bridge where it needs to be," he says. "That's just mathematics, man."
When the ideas start flowing, Fashawn says, he feels like a scientist analyzing DNA, picking apart patterns in his brain to determine every syllable on a dime. "I'm trying to invent new patterns that only these [beats] provoke me to invent," he says.
And when those words hit, they arrive with enough truth and fluidity to captivate his congregation. "You get all this frustration and all this happiness and all these different emotions you hold in all day, [and] you get a second to express 'em," Fashawn explains. "It's just a release."
Of course, had he been wearing the collar instead of rapping all these years, he might've said he was testifying.
This article appeared in print as "Divine Verses: Rapper Fashawn went from being a preacher wannabe to a rapper we can believe in."