The world isn’t ready for “Something About Shirley”

The latest collaboration from rapper Fatboi Sharif and producer Roper Williams is a nightmarish journey beyond the bounds of modern hip-hop.

February 16, 2024
The world isn’t ready for “Something About Shirley” Fatboi Sharif. Photo by George Douglas Peterson.  

There’s something in the water in New Jersey — a close-to-deadly concentration of wormwood, perhaps, or of fresh blood drained from an inexhaustible supply of sacrificial virgins. Whatever it is, Fatboi Sharif and Roper Williams are drinking from the tap.

Sharif and Williams first established their elite chemistry as a rapper-producer duo with 2020’s Gandhi Loves Children, further showing off their symbiotic bona fides on its 2021 deluxe edition. An anachronistic endeavor in terms of Sharif’s byzantine rhyme schemes and Williams’s stark, menacing beats, the project had historical precedent; much of its tracklist would sound at home on a mid-’90s Wu-Tang solo record. Even on 2023’s Planet Unfaithful, whose three drumless cuts are light years away from most contemporary hip-hop, Sharif and Williams stuck to a conventional format: six discrete tracks that, taken together, unmistakably comprise a rap tape.


On their new collaboration, they enter uncharted waters. Billed as an album but dressed as a single on the DSPs, “Something About Shirley” isn’t either, exactly. It fits more comfortably in the classical tradition of the “art song,” a story-poem set to music, but that designation doesn’t account for the uneasy interplay between the vocal and the productional that plays out across the piece’s precisely 10-minute run time. What’s happening here is more akin to Scott Walker’s late albums than the early work of Schubert.


The story we’re presented with belongs to Shirley, a woman under the influence and attacked from all sides. She’s got more than one nasty drug habit, a ticker tape of mental health problems, and no support system fit to handle the quotidian pressures and humiliations of life in the late-capitalist American Empire. Sharif once bore witness to a cross-section of her despair during a chance meeting in Los Angeles, according to a poetic press release from Passion of the Weiss founder Jeff Weiss, who released the song on his POW Recordings imprint. But none of this is apparent from Sharif’s lyrics, even upon close reading.

Instead, we’re introduced to Shirley slantwise, through a thicket of references, more Buñuel than Cassavettes. In just the first two short verses, we hear nods to Dylan/Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, and Sun Ra, who’s pictured “opening for Satan at the Bowery Ballroom.”


Just as important as what’s going on in these flights of lyrical depravity is what happens between them. In Sharif’s absence, Williams conjures dark environs far too jarring to function as ambient interludes. These rough textures underscore a hysterical 911 call from a young girl struggling to describe what sounds like domestic violence; slurred insults shouted as if at a bouncer who’s just kicked out the drunkest girl at the club; a white-knuckled, claustrophobically looped funk groove; a preacher exorcizing R. Kelly’s demons; and a chorus of glossolalia clipping into horrific static.


Whether all of this amounts to the sum of Shirley’s parts is ultimately unimportant. Instead of repeating the sorry details of a flickering existence, Sharif and Williams capture and concentrate its essence into a rough, surreal, visceral thing that defies classification.


Stream “Something About Shirley” above and read the illuminating (but still enigmatic) poem Fatboi Sharif wrote for the project’s back cover below.

“Something About Shirley” back cover
The world isn’t ready for “Something About Shirley”

Spirit and heart-wise detached from an emotional wrecking ball
thru year of despair, heart, and disappointment liz
different from how you view me
but magnified through a level pressure paralyzed heart strings
taught situations feeding madness into my psyche
strange addictions and desires kept at a distance hidden from world’s view
my love is the greatest weapon turned against me
blood dripped down into a starlight fear hall of fame
first dose of lust was stronger than fear
sitting on my shoulder walking up my spine
fog aroma covered the forest
grew myself deleted its frame forwarded skeletal frame fantasy
yellow rose petals and pink tall grass sheltering warzone stains on heels
hearing loud screams miles inner distance
tied down crooked smiles
beautiful skin glowed
bound golden windows
clown makeup searching grim postcards traveled
vomited up the world on a daily
barely got a helping hand.

The world isn’t ready for “Something About Shirley”