I remember exactly where I was when I heard Lupe Fiasco for the first time. It was 8th grade, and I had just come home from being cut from the basketball team. Feeling dejected, I came from practice, holding the crumpled up rejection letter in my hand, and turned on MTV. The 13 year-old version of myself loved to watch MTV for old episodes of Pimp My Ride or Cribs. Seeing that neither of these was on, I left the TV on and went to drown my sorrows (and sweat) in the shower.
When I came out and heard the TV playing the strings and horns of Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick, Push” I was instantly infatuated. I watched the entire music video, and then, instead of doing my homework, I downloaded each individual track from Food & Liquor from LimeWire (sorry, mom, desperate times call for desperate measures). I burned the album to a CD and made my parents play it in their cars, and then I burned 10 more and forced all of my friends to get into Lupe and Food & Liquor as much as me.
Lupe’s fearlessness to address topics that aren’t typically seen in hip hop (immigration, rape, fatherlessness, etc.) was the main reason I was so drawn to his work. Mr. Fiasco showed me that hip-hop could be something more than flexing about clothes and cars, but rather that it could tell a story, and have that story be both meaningful and musically sound. Tracks like “Hurt Me Soul” and “He Say She Say” took shots at violent and gluttonous culture, and revealed some real problems in urban America, while others like “The Cool” and “Daydreamin‘” told vivid audio-metaphors. This was the first album in my memory which made me actually listen to the lyrics with a critical ear.
Lu’s second album, The Cool, was another great example of his seemingly amazing talents. Lupe combined the three characters of The Game, The Streets and The Cool and how they represented all of society’s ills. Though this concept may seem a bit campy or too intricate, Lupe wove a fictional allegory into an album, which truly was a testament to his story-telling ability. The music itself was innovative as well, drawing on key tracks like “Intruder Alert” and “Streets on Fire“.
The Cool cemented Lu, in my mind, as one of the greatest Chicago rappers of all time, placing him in the same ranks as legendary acts like Kanye West and Common. Fans like myself were thirsty for innovative and groundbreaking music from Lu, and up to this point, he had failed to disappoint.
Lupe’s third album, Lasers, was one of the most anticipated releases I can remember. The album itself went through a couple different of names (The Great American Rap Album and LupE.N.D., most notably), and was held up countless times due to label delays, which even prompted fans to hold a protest outside of Atlantic Records’ headquarters.
According to Lupe, he was subject to a manipulative 360 deal. This, in turn, meant that Atlantic (according to Lupe) had full control over all of his artistic creativity, even in areas that had nothing to do with music. When Lupe refused this 360 deal, Atlantic then told him that they could choose whether or not to promote his newest record, thus leaving Lupe prey to the label itself. During this time, without label backing, Lupe released “I’m Beamin’” and “Shining Down,” which flew fairly under-the-radar as far as exposure goes.
Upon release, Lasers was met with less praise than his first two albums, drawing criticism from diehard fans due to the album’s nature. Lasers featured a more pop-friendly sound and message, possibly due to label pressures, and this lead to a lot of disappointment throughout Lupe’s fan-base. Thus, Lupe seemed to be losing touch with the community from which he got his first praise: the diehard lyrical hip-hop fans.
The release of Lasers marked a nearly cataclysmic change in the way Lupe seemed to interact with his fans, and the general public as a whole. Whether it was because of the pressures of fame or the mixed reaction to his latest release, Lupe’s mistakes seemed to rapidly outnumber his successes. Shortly thereafter, Lu was destroyed by Bill O’Reilly (as much as I hate Bill O’Reilly, he won this debate) on national television, got in many petty Twitter fights, and got kicked off of stage at a Presidential Inauguration concert in January of 2013.
Despite all of these public incidents, Lupe still managed to release Food & Liquor II, which gained a Grammy nomination and symbolized a near return to the Lupe of the past. Unfortunately, however, Lupe’s apparent affinity for attention, and not necessarily the right kind of attention, has since been trying the patience of many fans.
Now, however, seven years removed from his breakthrough freshman album, Lu seems permanently attached to controversy. Just last week, at a concert in Salt Lake City, Lupe responded to a heckling fan by calling her a “fat, white bitch.” According to reports, Lu then stopped the entire show, and after the fan refused Lupe’s pleas to come to the floor, he cancelled his set entirely.
What is so bothersome about the incident isn’t the explicit language or even that Lupe cut his set short; these things happen in hip-hop all the time. The bigger problem is in the irony of the message that Lupe is sending listeners. Just last year, Lupe released “Bitch Bad,” a track which aligned itself closer with spoken word poetry than a top-40 single. The track was received by music critics with very mixed reviews. A negative review from Spin Magazine was the catalyst for the #BoycottSpinMagazine Twitter campaign spearheaded by Lupe and his fans (myself included, might I add).
What’s so ironic about this, however, is that “Bitch Bad” is anti-misogynist in nature. The hook of the track itself goes: “Bitch Bad/Woman good/Lady better” highlighting a hierarchy of names for women. For the rest of the track, Lu paints a vivid picture of hip-hop’s sexist views of women and the problems that lie within it.
Thus, whenever Lupe calls someone a “fat, white bitch,” in what ever context it may be, it makes it seem like he doesn’t legitimately practice what he preaches about. It makes Lupe look like a puppet for a subset of intellectual rap that he doesn’t really believe in, and as a lifelong fan, that’s a deceiving and saddening conclusion to be forced to draw.
What happened to Lupe? He who was once the brightest shining star in hip-hop has suddenly become one of the biggest social pariahs in the game. It’s nearly impossible to search for him on Google and not find a link that is attached to some sort of controversial statement or action. I mean, hell, the dude’s Twitter isn’t even public anymore.
So where does Lupe go from here? The names of artists, in any genre, who struggle for relevance is vast, but I don’t think Lupe will fall down that crevice. He’s got too much going for him – too much experience with innovation and success – to drop off. Maybe that’s my personal bias, but I honestly think he’s almost too big to fail. His new album Tetsuo & Youth, is a reference to the classic anime that the Lupe used to rap about, and may signal a shift, not necessarily backwards, but in a better musical direction for the emcee.
Perhaps it is major label deals and the stresses of stardom that have lead to the slow and steady change of Lu, or perhaps Lupe is legitimately evolving in the way that his actions depict. Either way, what is apparent, is that since the release of The Cool, both Lupe’s focus and the focus of the press, has become much more centered around gaining attention than perhaps creating more groundbreaking art.
I’m not advocating for more of the same from Lupe; every artist needs to evolve and keep moving forward. I’m not even saying that Lupe’s doing anything wrong if he’s doing what he legitimately believes in. What I am saying, however, is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to defend Lu and his actions, especially when they delineate from what he advocates for in his art. It makes it seem as though his music is, in a way, illegitimate, and that’s the worst way one can feel about an artist.
It’ll always be FNF over everything, but sometimes I wonder if Lupe himself even believes that.