Image via George Douglas Peterson

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Will Hagle hopes the ghost of Gene Wilder haunts Timothy Chalamet at night.

Like his heroes Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, Fatboi Sharif builds maniacal worlds. It starts with the way he presents himself. Whether he’s shirtless, wielding a knife in clown makeup, or hopping off stage in a hospital gown, he performs like he just escaped from a haunted psych ward. His lyrics use shocking imagery, but hint at personal and societal truths. His theatrical background helped him craft a rap persona like Jack Nicholson in both One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining. His background in poetry makes his bars something of a jigsaw: grotesque puzzles to either decipher or blow your brain to smithereens.

The surface level hip-hop analog is ODB. Sharif is aggressively bizarre. But he doesn’t need the dustiness of RZA’s kicks and snares. He just needs the dust: the sounds of the universe fragmented and broken down to their essence, then built back up into controlled chaos. This is what longtime collaborator and fellow Jerseyite Roper Williams does for him.

Most MCs rap over beats. Sharif’s bars sprout up from the soil that Roper Williams lays for him. If David Lynch directed Jack and the Beanstalk, Sharif would play both roles in the fairy tale. He’s Jack, a regular guy acutely aware of the darkness of society, making calculated moves to carry himself skyward. He’s also the Giant, an otherworldly figure bellowing couplets down from the clouds.

Roper Williams produced the entirety of Fatboi Sharif’s 2021 POW LP Gandhi Loves Children, which opens with a series of lines describing various tragedies. Sharif raps, “Nancy Benoit, let’s have a family meeting / Slave plantation, for nine days / Waiting for Kanye / Paul Walker on the highway!” The album’s title, taken from that track, “Tragic,” is a reference to allegations that Ghandi—a revered figure of nonviolent protest—slept nude with underage family members to test his celibacy and self-control. Many of Sharif’s lyrics operate like Hannibal Lector or any other anti-hero in the films he loves, blurring the lines between the idealistic concepts of good and evil. A phrase like “Gandhi Loves Children” sounds nice until you intuit the horror beneath it.

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On Something About Shirley, again produced by Roper Williams, Sharif’s lyrics continue to pull listeners in opposing directions. The layers go even deeper than on “Tragic.” Throughout the ten-minute, one-track album, Sharif pairs beauty with dread. Rather than just mentioning the devil, he raps, “Sun Ra opening for Satan at the Bowery Ballroom.” He rhymes, “Dead body next to a rainbow / Touched by an angel!” In context, with Sharif’s emphasis, the latter phrase becomes infinitely creepier than anything that aired on CBS in the 90s.

In one bar, Sharif can both comfort and terrorize. He contrasts darkness with light, but also reveals how that duality is a facade. Nothing is straightforward, and the meaning is never on the surface. Sharif pummels your brain with words that deliver a pleasurably uncomfortable jolt in an instant. They run through your body like poison, sickening you until they settle in, and you either digest them or accept that they’ll never leave.

If Something About Shirley is a film, it’s Eraserhead. Sharif and Lynch both drop us into odd, familiar-yet-not worlds. They tell a story that progresses from one distinct section to the next, but understanding the narrative requires deeper consideration. David Lynch’s first feature film shows a man losing his mind while caring for a deformed, possibly alien baby in a gloomy industrial city soundtracked by grating mechanical noises. At least that’s what I thought happened in it. One POW writer recently told me Eraserhead is about the fears of new fatherhood. Another POW writer told me it’s about the harms of industrialization. That means it’s both.

The meaning of Something About Shirley—like all of Sharif’s music—is also open to interpretation. The imagery of each line is like the scene in Eraserhead where they carve up a chicken for dinner that appears to have a beating heart, strange and compelling enough to keep listening. I don’t know what the seemingly random yet concisely descriptive line “Ants vs. Aliens” means, but it could work as a blockbuster film franchise, and the album is full of these seemingly random but concisely descriptive lines.

Listening to each section of There’s Something About Shirley is like being dragged through Sharif’s carnivalesque fun house. It starts with a slow walk through a seizure-inducing strobe show in a hall of mirrors. There’s a deep descent into distortion overload. A moment of respite for a soulful, upbeat interlude. A hypnotizing spiral of insanity. A surprisingly serene resolution. You’ll know what I mean when you listen. Or you’ll come out with an entirely different experience.

Because Something About Shirley comes out on Valentine’s Day, I was going to call Fatboi Sharif to talk about romantic movies. Turns out, he’s not a fan. “I’ve just never seen one that super connected to me,” he says. “They just never really was my cup of tea.”

Luckily, Fatboi Sharif gets romantic about horror films. He’s been enamored with them since his mom showed him Candyman at 7-years-old. It sparked a lifelong relationship with the way horror depicts reality. It’s not about jump scares or ghosts or gore. These elements are secondary. The best horror operates like Fatboi Sharif– using striking imagery to expose honest and gruesome aspects of the human condition.

Movie-wise, I was never really a fan of horror comedies, like stuff like Shaun of the Dead, where it’s a horror film but there’s comedic elements. I was never a fan of that type of horror. I always liked more mental horror. What you would call, I guess, mood horror. Where you’re anxious about a voice you hear, what’s around the corner.

But I can definitely see how love and humor sometimes make things even scarier. If you look at a lot of the big, big horror movies over the past few years… Something like Get Out. That was a mixture of both. Like, the relationship between the couple. And different parts of humor within the craziness of the story alone, that a lot of people connected to. So I definitely think one could channel the other.

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