Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lupe Against the World


There’s been a lot of controversy, debate, and straight up drama surrounding Lupe Fiasco around the release of his most recent album, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1. This is, honestly, rather true to form for the rapper. Lupe has a real knack for provoking debate with both his music and his comments, if for no other reason than the fact that both willingly draw outside the lines of what hip-hop is “supposed” to be.

First came the Chief Keef beef, with Keef physically threatening Lupe over Twitter the day after he had told reporters that Keef “scares” him. Keef has become one of the most controversial rappers to emerge from Chicago this past summer. His uber-violent rhymes have once again provoked that tired debate over what is “wrong” with hip-hop culture, and all the not-so-thinly veiled racism that comes along with it.

Keef later claimed that his Twitter account was hacked, and that it wasn’t he who threatened to “smack” Lupe next time he saw him. This didn’t stop Lupe from sending out a series of increasingly agitated Tweets that first attempted to play the moral high-ground to Keef and culminated in his threatening to retire from hip-hop altogether (and not for the first time either). Though the Twitter war lasted all of a day, the chatter it caused in the blogosphere and in entertainment media was nearly enough to overshadow the release of Food & Liquor II.

Then came another worn-out hip-hop chestnut: sampling rights. “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free,” the first single released from F&L II, sampled the iconic sax-and-drums beat from Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.).” Pete Rock, once again over Twitter, expressed straight outrage at Lupe’s decision to sample the song (ignoring the fact that “T.R.O.Y.” itself was taken from music written by Tom Scott and James Brown). Though Pete apologized soon after, the relationship between he and Lupe remains rocky.

As if this weren’t enough, Lupe then made a rather poor choice for the album’s second single, “Bitch Bad.” The song, an unsuccessful attempt at deconstructing the use of the word “bitch” in hip-hop, ended up backfiring. The song’s refrain, “bitch bad, woman good, lady better,” was interpreted -- rightly -- as reinforcing the same standards that Lupe was trying to break down. Says Nikeeta Slade writing about the song in Red Wedge magazine:

“This hierarchy in which ‘lady’ is ‘better’ ultimately divvies up which women are worthy of being treated like human beings and which ones are not. Ideas of ‘proper’ womanhood and ladylikeness are too subjective and ever changing to use them as standard measures for deciding which women deserve to have their humanity and dignity honored. The politics of respectability always seem to dictate that we tell young girls and women how to be more ‘respectable’ but the more apt and important message is that all girls and women are worthy of respect.”

Slade’s criticisms are spot-on. Lupe may have been raised steeped in radical thought (his parents were both Black Panthers in the ‘60s), but that doesn’t by itself immunize him from backward ideas. The same is true for all of us; history is filled with those trying to fight oppression who end up slipping into some of the very same ideas.

Wedged in the middle of these odd bookends, Lupe has once again found himself at the ever-shifting and precarious tipping point between hip-hop’s pain and promise. It’s difficult to look at F&L II separately from all of this (and why should we after all?). The tragedy here is that there’s a lot on the album that can solidly stand on its own as great hip-hop.

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Stepping back and merely looking at the album’s title, there are a couple things that stand out immediately. One: this is “the great American rap album.” Two: it’s only the first part. The second part of F&L II is scheduled to be released later in 2013. Now that the considerable amount of dust that was kicked up this past fall has settled, we can actually ask ourselves whether this album lives up to its pretense? Or, alternately, has it at least begun to carve out a place so that years down the line, when we look at both parts, we can see this was a turning point for rap music?

Fiasco is definitely aware of the need for his genre and style to turn a corner from the obsession with “hip-hop presidency” that has been bogging the mainstream for the past four years even as the term itself has faded into distant memory. The album’s opening track is a poem by Lupe’s sister Ayesha Jaco stirring ghetto poverty, US empire and the racist killings of Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd into a climactic hope that “the revolution is becoming second nature.” There’s little more than Ayesha’s rhymes and background street noise here, and it sets the tone of the album well.

From there, Lupe takes over in “Strange Fruition”:

“Now I can't pledge allegiance to your flag
Cause I can't find no reconciliation with your past
When there was nothing equal for my people in your math
You forced us in the ghetto and then you took our dads
The belly of the beast, these streets are demons' abs
I'm telling you that setup in them sit-ups is so sad”

Lines like these are Lupe at his best: symbolic, clever, and yet, somehow, incredibly plainspoken and almost humble in his delivery. The same goes for many of the album’s other songs, whose lyrics balance between the personal and political in a deft enough way that neither overtakes the other, and both remain genuine.

To some listeners, it might seem that Lupe can’t quite let some things go. He’s aware of this (his response to “Lupe rappin’ bout the same shit” is “that’s cuz ain’t shit changed”). And some of it seems to spring from the fact his position -- that of a rapper whose mainstream success hasn’t cowed his social consciousness -- is unfortunately somewhat unique. Fifteen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so difficult to find rappers who dared to lay down a few harsh truths about white America. Now, after two decades of music industry consolidation, saying these kinds of things makes one a target.

Once again, Lupe is conscious of this. In “ITAL (Roses)” he mentions the gasps provoked in 2011 when he called out President Obama’s silence over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza: “Called the President a terrorist / Corporate sponsors like, how the fuck you gon' embarrass us?”

Much of what mars this album flows from the same corporate reality. Lupe’s previous album, Lasers, put excellent tracks like “Words I Never Said” and “All Black Everything” next to transparently “radio-friendly” songs. Lupe fought for two years for Atlantic Records to release Lasers, and even then they would only do so if much of the album was watered down. This same pressure to put quantity of units sold before the quality of the album is likely at play in F&L II’s weakest moments.

The aforementioned controversies that have dogged the album, while frustratingly tabloid-esque in their content, provide a bit of a window into this. Take, for example, the hubbub around the audio for “Around My Way.” The song is a solid listen. Lupe’s lyrics are eloquent and sharp, and they without a doubt mix with the saxophone soul of the beats. But those very same beats aren’t so much reappropriated with producers B-Side and Simonsayz’s own twist as they are lifted almost wholesale from “T.R.O.Y.”

Though there are plenty of strong moments on the album, those points when creative beats and Lupe’s unique rhymes manage to collide, there are also significant missteps. Sometimes, such as “Battle Scars,” the beats are there but the lyrics get lazy. Others, like “Cold War,” are just the inverse. There’s room for a lot more originality here, and facing the facts, that room might not get taken up until the label execs are knocked back on their heels yet again.

So what’s the problem? Simply that while Lupe has refused to let himself be completely gentrified, he’s still only one person against a whole system’s bulldozers. The “great American rap album” this isn’t. That being said, hip-hop is a lot richer to have artists in its midst still trying to reach those heights.

First published at WIN Magazine

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