Music Review: Fat Rat’s companion album to Columbia exhibition is sprawling and diverse

TRIBE album cover

Fat Rat da Czar, TRIBE (Czar)

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The cover art for TRIBE, Columbia OG rapper Fat Rat da Czar’s grand and expansive 25-song double album, is telling. Crafted by graffiti-inspired artist and designer Karl Zurflüh, the image makes totems of a microphone, a spray can and a pair of kicks, with a hand roughly shaped like the state of South Carolina lifting them up. A circle surrounds the set of laden symbols. At the center, a crown, around which all seems to revolve.

And that’s how Fat Rat operates over the course of this sumptuous collection, playing the master of ceremonies, primary storyteller, and mindful watchguard for the legacy of hip-hop in the Palmetto State. Those roles have long been a part of the self-made mythos of an emcee who for two decades has held a distinct sense of pride about the steady upward rise of hip-hop culture in South Carolina, his place within that movement, and his (fairly legitimate) grievance at what a slow, Sisyphean grind it has been toward respect, from within and outside the state.

TRIBE feels like the culmination of these efforts. Inspired by the Columbia Museum of Art exhibition of the same name celebrating South Carolina hip-hop culture, the MC has gathered 30 other featured artists from across styles and generations and nine of the state’s most respected producers to make beats for what feels like both a sincere homage and a career-defining statement

As a listen, TRIBE demonstrates what a demanding and exacting executive producer Fat Rat has become over the years. He gets the best out of his many guest artists and maintains an ironclad sense of proficiency on his own verses despite the sheer number of them here. On the opener “Big Dreams,” R&B singer Courtney J brings a neo-soul melancholy to the proceedings as Fat Rat rhymes his way through a series of brushes, successes and travails of South Carolina hip-hop artists. “Carolina,” the lead single, follows with a Petey Pablo-esque clamor of state pride.

After the table has been set, the album bounces around thematically and stylistically a bit, there are traces of Outkast/Goodie Mob-ish funk grit, Southern swagger in the lineage of Clipse and Scarface, and some of the hardened battle-rap-with-a-twang at which rappers like Killer Mike and Big K.R.I.T. have staked their legacies. Fat Rat does his usual turns as the hardened man of the streets, wizened mentor, emotionally earnest partner or winking lothario (with an occasional awkward flush of toxic masculinity), but it’s the cavalcade of guests that often steal his thunder. 

Longtime sparring partner Dan Johns sounds especially feisty on his verse-and-hook contributions to “Surplus,” spitting bars with a poised venom that recalls Pusha T’s latter-day technical effortlessness. Deeper down in the LP, both Ran Bruce and H3RO drop some serious tongue-twisting heat as if making pointed rejoinders to Johns as they jostle for dominance. Collardgreen, another 2000s contemporary of Fat Rat’s, also delivers a standout verse and brings some country-rap excellence to “Dollars and Cents.”

And while the album is of a piece with much of Fat’s prior work, it’s worth noting how many contemporary flourishes he also allows, as if bending toward the forward motion of hip-hop even as he celebrates its history. His sing-rapping on the contemplative “18 Months,” for example, finds his sharing in the downbeat melancholy that featured artist Milah typically occupies, and the often-gruff rapper actually does a pretty good Drake impression. On “Funeral,” echoes of T-Pain and Future crowd in and overwhelm his steely verses over the course of the song. 

In the end, though, it’s beatmaker MIDIMarc, long a critical behind-the-scenes player in Fat Rat’s orbit, who steals the show. His unusual turn on the microphone on “Neighborhood 2” is delivered with boisterous confidence as he recounts his own origin story as it intertwines with Fat. Two poor black kids from Hopkins, who once reveled in spitting over homemade beats played over a tape deck, now at the state epicenter of the culture they love more than anything. 

That’s a legacy worth celebrating. 

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