“Everybody that knows me knows, I’m the last of the bar kings.”

Fred the Godson, whose death at the age of 41 after contracting COVID-19 was announced on Thursday, described himself that way when I interviewed him in 2017, and it wasn’t just hip-hop braggadocio. 

Frederick Thomas’ nickname came, he said, from a doctor of his who once saw him rap and, surprised and delighted, compared him to Jesus. But as a native of South Bronx, and as a kid who literally grew up in New York City’s famed Tunnel nightclub (where his father was a bouncer during Fred’s teen years), the name had additional significance: he was a sort of godson of rap itself, doing his best to keep the art form true to its essence, while always pushing for perfection.

“The listener that fucks with Fred, [they] want to think,” he told me back then. “They want to put it together. They want to call me a week later and say, ‘Now I got it.’” And Fred’s dense, punchline-filled lines were aimed at exactly those listeners—listeners not unlike a teenage Fred, who used to turn the bass down on his CD player in order to be able to hear the lyrics better. 

Fred’s drive for the perfect homophone (“They call your girl Kim/’Cause every time the car dash, she in” is a typical mind-bending example from a Funk Flex freestyle) was born of struggle. As a young child, his family–five siblings, a mother, and a father who had struggles with crack cocaine—lost their home when his younger brother, barely a toddler at the time, escaped his crib at night and accidentally burned their apartment down while playing with the stove. The incident forced all eight of them into a shelter.

Fred became obsessed with rap’s intricacies after hearing Phife’s famous “Bust off on your couch/Now you got Seaman’s furniture” punchline on “Electric Relaxation.” Thrilled and delighted, he ran around to his friends in wonderment at the double meaning. And once he started rapping in earnest, Fred would make that same device a centerpiece of his style. 

It took a few years of co-signs, awards, and the typical rapper ups and downs for Fred to really break through. He was named to XXL’s 2011 Freshman list, part of one of the greatest cohorts to ever earn that honor. The year included Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, YG, Big K.R.I.T., Yelawolf, and Lil B, and Fred belonged right up there with them. The following year, he would sign a deal with eOne. 

As his rap career grew, Fred battled not only other rappers, but also a litany of health issues, including asthma, kidney failure, high blood pressure, and diabetes. But he continued growing as an artist, showing he was capable of much more than clever punchlines on songs like “Monique’s Room” and “Black Power,” tracks that balanced out his wordplay with real songwriting chops. 

We’ll never get to see what else Fred had in store for fans of lyrics. But we have the work he left behind: countless songs where the joy of exclaiming, “How did he think of that?!” is always just around the corner.

“I don’t know how it happens,” Fred told me about how he wrote his rhymes. “It just pops in my head. And I don’t know why. But I know it’s different than everybody else.” He was right.