On Bizarre Ride II and Labcabincalifornia, The Pharcyde seduced a generation with the promise of pop music's endless summer, offering a sunny Southern California analog to Native Tongues' effortless bohemian cool, complete with goofy humor, bong hits for everyone, and a surplus of good vibes. But by the time Pharcyde ejected Fatlip, and he released the brilliant 2000 single "What's Up Fatlip?", it was clear the group's dreamy summer had given way to a bone-chilling winter.
Indelibly documenting the tragicomic decline of a "fresh kid turned rotten," "What's Up Fatlip?" sounds like a cross between a music box and a merry-go-round. But Fatlip's raggedy voice and self-lacerating lyrics made it clear that for him, the carnival left town long ago, taking along any vestiges of hope. The song, Spike Jonze's video, and the accompanying documentary short—which follows Fatlip as he sorts soberly and not-so-soberly through the wreckage of his life and career—would all be hilariously funny if they weren't so sad.
Though "What's Up Fatlip?" shows up on Fatlip's long-awaited solo debut, along with its video and short film, the song haunts The Loneliest Punk as much as Fatlip's Pharcyde past. Though much of the album's lyrical content covers ground similar to that of the single, the context has shifted radically. On Punk, Fatlip raps about living with his mom, squandering money and fame, and the ravages of cocaine abuse, but his candor is defanged by consistently upbeat tracks and a cheery optimism that insists big paydays and good times lurk right around the corner.
Pharcyde took its musical cues from the East Coast, but Punk is straight West Coast, with G-funk bass and synthesizer lines, vocoder hooks, and Parliament/Funkadelic choruses. It's hard to begrudge an artist for holding out hope, but the album's optimism and paper-chasing seem facile compared to the soul-baring intimacy of "What's Up Fatlip?" And when Fatlip launches into a strangled-cat croon, it sounds as if he's committed horrific violence against his vocal chords, and they're enacting revenge. Still, as long as listeners don't expect an album full of songs as painfully brilliant as "What's Up Fatlip?", Punk marks a fairly solid return from an artist who lost nearly everything, but retained his scruffy underdog charm.