The truth is, we never saw Fabolous coming. Indeed, the veteran Brooklyn MC, first introduced to the hip-hop nation by influential mixtape powerbroker DJ Clue in the late '90s, has always had a tougher sale when it came to competing with his larger-than-life New York rhyme counterparts. Fab was never as universally celebrated as lyrical deity Nas; he could never pull off the glorious cultural transcendence of the uber regal Jay-Z. And he never boasted the mythical street-cred of 'Get Rich or Die Tryin' era 50 Cent.

And yet Fabolous proved himself to be a savvy talent who went on to carve out a surprisingly long and rewarding career highlighted by platinum albums (chief among them, his 2001 debut, 'Ghetto Fabolous') and a dedicated mixtape fanbase. Mr. Punchline, who recently dropped his acclaimed underground project 'The S.O.U.L. Tape,' is not showing any signs of slowing down. He wants more. Here's why.

As an artist who is currently enjoying a hit song, 'You Be Killin' Em,' more than a decade into your career, you have been one of the few MCs from the late '90s to survive the unpredictable evolution of hip-hop. How have you been able to pull it off?

I pay attention to what's going on in the music scene. I pay attention to what people like and what the radio market pushes as well. When you make a record for the commercial lane, it's real easy for them to pick it up. Certain records are too vulgar, but they still end up being on the radio. But it's also important to keep that relationship with the streets and the mixtape scene.

So is it just as simple as making something melodic so you can crossover?

No. There has to be a demand for your music. But if you have something that is ready for the stations and Internet that's catchy, it's a win-win. It's not about being commercial. It's about keeping yourself visible whether it's through making a record with Trey Songz ['Say Ahh'] or releasing a mixtape for your core fans.

While you have always been ranked amongst some of the best New York-based lyricists for your clever usage of punch lines and witty metaphors, over the years you have also taken hits for some of your more overtly commercial songs. Is there one track that you look back on that you can't believe you recorded?

There's a song I did with Tamia called 'Into You,' which turned out to be one of my biggest hits. But at the time, I thought it was a little too soft to be released as a single. It was more female friendly, but the crazy part is it became one of those joints that guys would dedicate to their chicks.

That must have been a shocker, right?

Yeah [laughs]. But in real life not everybody is hardcore and gangsta all day. We have girlfriends, too. Maybe 'Into You' wasn't a song that you rolled around bumping in your hood, but when you were with your lady you turned it up in the car. I've also heard plenty of dudes in jail say that they've dedicated a song or two of mines to their ladies. So I think those female friendly songs can work on that level.

The other side of the coin has been your mixtape work. How differently did you approach the making of your latest underground project 'The S.O.U.L. Tape'?

Making mixtapes is an outlet for me. I wasn't worried about creating a hit with the 'The S.O.U.L. Tape.' This project is all the way around about my life over great soul beats. I wanted to make a statement with creative lyrics and some of my favorite [soulful] sample beats. This is a pure hip-hop album. That's the best way to describe it.

Have you been surprised at the positive reaction from younger fans given that 'The S.O.U.L. Tape' contains samples that seem more at home in the early '90s hip-hop scene of RZA and Pete Rock?

The response has been great. We recently had a listening session at the Recording Academy of the Grammys. They actually let us use their space! They reached out to me, which was crazy because I never heard of the Grammys even being in the same room with any kind of mixtape stuff. But I guess they wanted to be a part of it. We had a great time. We even had soul food. It was fun.

You are also one of the few New York MCs to rhyme over a Lex Luger-produced track. Did you feel like you had to do anything different lyrically over 'Lights Out,' off 2010's 'There Is No Competition 2,' given Luger's biggest hits have been with southern artists like Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and Young Jeezy?

You really can't approach it that way. Whatever I do, it's always me. I respect the [southern rap scene]. I love what they are doing right now, and I'm cool with a lot of the southern rappers like Wayne, who I have [collaborated] with. 'Lights Out' just felt like a good mixtape cut. We threw that one out first before 'You Be Killin' Em' to keep it in the space of a mixtape. We didn't want to just come out the door with just a joint for the ladies and a radio record. We wanted to still keep it in the mixtape space, but make some good universal music at the same time.

Overall, how do you see your legacy as an MC?

I just want to lead the way and show people as you get older, your music should get better. A lot of changes happen when you grow up. A lot of times, the audience wants to hear the old you. They want to hear the same rhymes and concepts. I'm guilty of it as well. I've listened to certain music and I'm like, 'Damn, I wanna hear the old Nas or the old 50 Cent.' But what I had to understand is as Nas got older he changed the style of his music. It's not the same as 'Illmatic' or 'It Was Written,' but he was still able to show he was a dope lyricist. He was making the kind of music that he was comfortable with, and that's what really is important. Nas is an evolved artist. That's what I want to be.

That's some pretty distinguished company to shoot for.

Well, I want to keep myself happy with who I am, but still make great music that people appreciate. To me, that's greatness.

Watch Fabolous' 'Wolves in Sheep Clothing'