It’s gotten to that point in the evening when someone suggests a strip-club run. It usually happens once the bill is paid, the bottles are empty and the conversation has petered out. Tonight, it doesn’t get past the idea stage, which is probably a good thing. “I want to lay down,” says Fabolous, who, minutes earlier, was the guy making the proposition. He’s now rubbing his belly like a pregnant woman. “The food and the wine got me in lay-down mode. If I’m not at a party, all drinks make me sleepy.”

Fabolous spent the last three hours in the wine cellar, which doubles as the VIP room, of Philippe, a posh Midtown Manhattan restaurant, entertaining his party of eight. And Fab was entertaining. He played pranks (sharing his appetizer, squab, with friends—only to inform them, after they’d declared it delicious, that squab is pigeon). He told stories (reminiscing about teenage days spent at Brooklyn’s Empire Skating rink). He cracked jokes. (When asked if he owns a pair of those $15 sneakers endorsed by New York Knick Stephon Marbury, he said, “Hip-hop ain’t dead like that. I ain’t doing that bad.”) Fully in his element, he was the life of the party.

If only the public could have seen it.

Fabolous has a bit of an image problem. Actually, the problem is that he doesn’t have much of an image. There are no shocking stories from his past. He doesn’t have a captivating presence. He’s not controversial. His real name is John Jackson, for Pete’s sake. He’s just a regular guy from Brooklyn who raps really well and makes good music. Sometimes great music. (His 2004 single “Breathe” is one of the best displays of pure mic skills in recent memory.) Unfortunately, that might not be enough. “It used to be just about the records,” says Fab. “Now, you have to make that connection imagewise, with charisma and personality. People have to buy into your brand… It’s a little stranger.”

“There are some artists who make that connection,” he continues. “I think I’m one of those artists where you don’t hate me, but people aren’t waving the flag like, ‘I fuck with Fab. I like Fab’s shit.’ They do like it. I mean, I have a fan base.”

That fan base, however, has never been clearly defined. Fab has spent his six-year career straddling the line between teenybopper pinup and serious street MC—rapping candy on R&B collabos for high school girls (“Can’t Let You Go” with Lil’ Mo), while spitting gristle for hard-rock hip-hop heads (“Keepin’ It Gangsta” with Styles and Jadakiss). His versatility, in this sense, has hurt him.

Compounding the matter, Fab has intimacy issues, lyricswise. He keeps his listeners at arm’s length. Yeah, there was “One Day” on his debut, Ghetto Fabolous, where he rhymed about the risks of hustling and the price of fame, but he’s never really bared his soul on a record. He’s never made a “Cleaning Out My Closet” or a “Regrets” or a “Many Men (Wish Death).” He’s not that type of artist. “I just don’t get personal on a lot of my records,” he says. “You see how Eminem makes a song about his mom? I don’t make personal music. I just try to make entertaining music... My personal story isn’t mundane, but it’s not spectacular. Everybody don’t want to hear your personal story.”

fabolous2.jpgThat’s debatable. There’s a reason why MySpace, Facebook and blogs are so popular: In 2007, people want to know everything about everyone. Especially their favorite rap stars. During our interviews, Fabolous frequently censors himself. Anecdotes about his family are preceded by, “This is off the record.” An admission to a recent two-year-long relationship is followed by, “I don’t want to let this personal stuff [be the focus of the article].” Even his age is confidential. Sort of. (“We can say late, late 20s,” he says with a smile.) But he realizes he has to make concessions. “In the last two years, I’ve grown a lot,” he says. “I’ve started to notice that you have to let people see who you are as a person.”

Like a lot of lessons, it was learned the hard way. Fabolous is opening up to the idea of opening up, in part because, while both Ghetto Fabolous and 2003’s Street Dreams were certified platinum, his last album, 2004’s Real Talk, barely scraped past gold. He faults his former label, Atlantic Records, for various mistakes: coming too early with “Breathe” as a lead single, not servicing the follow-up (“Baby”) until weeks after the album’s release, not releasing the Neptunes-produced “Tit 4 Tat” as a single (though they shot a video for it) and, finally, not “pushing” the video for “Do the Damn Thing,” which Fabolous shot out of his own pocket for $30,000. (That song, incidentally, gave an as-yet-unheralded Atlanta rapper named Young Jeezy his first major-label exposure.)

While he accepts some blame for the falloff (poor album cover, his choice), Fab “wanted to get away from that system.” In early 2006, he was let out of his contract and officially signed with Def Jam Records, after a de facto trade that sent Def Jam R&B singer Musiq to Atlantic.

So it’s a new day. But Fab knows his album From Nothin’ to Something is entering an industry environment significantly different from the one Real Talk was released into. Younger artists like Jeezy, T.I. and Lil Wayne have been anointed rap’s new superstars—a position once seemingly reserved for Fabolous.

“I’m not bitter about it at all,” he says. “I don’t feel like they are in my lane. If it was somebody who made music exactly how I made music, I would be like, ‘Okay, I dropped the ball. Someone put the jersey on and stole my spot.’”

------- Read the rest of our Fabolous feature in XXL’s May 2007 issue (#91)