Critical evaluation goes wrong when the critic uses the certainty that what he doesn’t cover isn’t important to insulate himself from what he doesn’t already know or hasn’t heard. The artists that the critic likes are important because the critic likes that artist. An analogy could be made of Sports writers: when an underdog beats the favorite in sports, the media takes a step back and analyzes what was wrong with their projections. The Sports media guesses in the same way that many critics of major art forms do: their opinions can be full of politics and agenda. This is why the most valuable mixtape artist in 2011 is someone who was rarely reviewed by important critics. It doesn’t make Fiend less important though. When I went to see Fiend, Curren$y and the Jet Life crew in Boston the line was wrapping around the corner. The place was packed with followers who understood how self-validating good music is.
Fiend released five mixtapes this year and one, Life Behind Limo Glass, was reviewed on this site. The former No Limit soldier has redefined himself for the current market without contradicting the artistic beliefs he’s always held close. The character of International Jones gives him an artistic outlet for nearly every talent. He establishes the laid back style that defines his voyage right from “Day at the Office”, the first track on Tennis Shoes and Tuxedoes; here he leads you through his day where he checks his Facebook and Twitter accounts lazily adding, “Did I mention I got my feet up?” From the beginning to the end of tape, the character is abundantly clear: A newly rich, semi-mature goof of a person struggling to ground himself in his roots. In Cross the Atlantic, he goes from instructing women not use teeth during oral sex, to talking about the horror of murder, adding “Why would I like, I closed Pops eyes myself.” The image is temporary and horrifying, but it passes with more calm braggadocio. No dramatic differentiation is made between the important topics and the stupid ones. “Coup Conversing” begins “my soul ain’t meant to touch the ground/ and when I speak to my god its normally through sound.” The occasional lashing out with poetry and somber self-awareness is what made the tape last so well through repeated listening. “Sweet Mary Jane” is a gorgeous weed song, and the title track boasts a reference to “Go-go gadget magnums.” Is this keeping it real? No, but that’s what making up a character entails. The real strength is the moments when Jones falls away and Fiend peels away layers of frustration.
Life Behind Limo Glass, built on the established themes quite well. My discovery of The Sweetest Hangover, which I believe came out earlier, really threw me for a loop. It is a mixtape that lives up to its name completely. It has a trunk rattling weed track “Baby” that turns the typically established laid back format on its head. Songs like this are still lyrical, but they are defined by the fun times that his deep Barry White- like voice denotes. “Gracias”, “Make Summer Come”, and “Cigar Lit” keep us on board for so much of the good life that it’s literally intoxicating musically. A few choice tracks in a playlist boost the mood to an amazing degree. Keep in mind that I am not complaining at all, but the difference between this tape and the other three, on the downside, is that the catchiness is the catch. The chorus, the beat, the swooning are the draw, and we saw so much more weight woven into the other mixtape.
Whenever an artist drops three mixtapes full of mostly original production in one year and none of them are bad you need to take a moment to admire that. He also did this while giving repeated guest spots on each tape to Cornerboy P, who has terrible breathe control and a voice on the male side of Fran Drescher. Cornerboy is just as hopelessly charmless as Fiend is charming, which might be why they end up working so well together. They have some kind of unreasonable union that works.
Cool is in Session was his fourth tape this year, and it is at this point that he distances himself from the pack. From “The Amazing Race” on you know this is going to be lyrical. “Take a Pull” is as smooth and sexy as anything on Sweetest Hangover but songs like “All Summer Long” bang in the old school way “I’m the type of flow that make a river stand still/ how rude of me, I didn’t ask how the band feel.” The lines are rewind-able while still being effortless; he seems to be laughing at his own skill while dancing around the thick, muggy, sound bed of each track. “If an ice cube jumped out the cup and walked with a strut/ already got the pussy now he working on his cut.” Never a moment of doubt through all twelve tracks, on Cool Is In Session Fiend becomes one of those teams that wins enough to be unbeatable. Just as melodic as Drake, but happier with his experience and more dedicated to the craft of spitting. Full of the jazz and loose affection you can’t get out of a Kid Cudi, Kanye West, etc, etc. Four for four was before Smokin’ Champagne.
The final tape just came in October and showed all the growth you hope for an artist. Songs like “Best to Do It” showcase the lyrical potential from Tennis Shoes and Tuxedos actualized. It is a song where he doesn’t have to croon or make it catchy; all he has to do is spit bar after bar “How are you going to oppose the rose that grew from concrete?” He asks the question in a menacing yet thoughtful way that so many don’t figure out how to balance. Of course Smokin’ Champange still revolves around talking women into three ways, nice luggage, and more sex, but when your bobbing your head to the hook, you can hear the light sound of Fiend in the background “…You ain’t got to lie to me, I get it out the mud I ain’t hit the lottery.” He remains deceivingly poetic, coming from the mud and earning the luxuries, celebrating them the way we would all expect someone in his position to: inviting us to join in if even for a song. He never sounds like he’s rubbing it in the listeners face.
The growth is charted on tracks like “Really Wit It” and “Keep The Lights On” where the beat isn’t a vast and airy or thick and bass driven thing, but rather a simple guitar riff or a barely mentionable piano riff. He carries these tracks with his flow, his words. When he finds himself next to a prime time artist like Big K.R.I.T., he laces very aware street life meets real life meets fun life bars to compliment K.R.I.T and nearly matches him at his own game. Fiend gives simple advice, saying that when times get chilly get a bowl of crackers and a sweater. Maybe that’s not deep, but its true as hell. I’ve been in a sweater with a bowl of crackers. It makes things better. The tape ends with our star by himself on “Verbal Transit”. Here he is getting a vest to prevent gunfire and teaching his girl who doesn’t know a lot of English how to say three words “International”, “Yes”, and “Jones”. He’s always funny and always meaningful, weaving rich imagery into traditional formats, and leaving them changed in his wake. It’s an absolute pleasure to listen to all five of his releases.