November 2, 2006

Like A Breath of Fresh Air: Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor

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Twenty-four year old Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco’s emergence this year was by many measures an anomaly in hip-hop, or pop music generally. A rapper who skateboards rather than drives a Benz, who is more likely to reference Akira than Scarface, who doesn’t drink, who wears glasses, and who has said in interviews that he prefers jazz to hip-hop, Fiasco is defiantly eccentric—a nerd, really. He is out of place in today’s pop landscape as he might have been in a high school boys’ locker room, surrounded on the CD racks by ostentatious gangstas and brooding, tough white guys.
The beautiful first single “Kick-Push,” an unlikely rap ballad narrating the story of two young skaters in love, became a classic even before the release of this album. And the rest of it does not disappoint. Though aptly-named producer Soundtrakk sometimes veers towards Hollywood bombast, the beats are generally satisfying. Fiasco’s nerdiness has been routinely described as a welcome antidote to today’s rap. This album is not quite that special — those ostentatious gangstas put out some killer tracks — but it is more solid than most recent releases, and refreshingly out of the ordinary. On his infectious Neptunes-produced single “I Gotcha,” Fiasco brashly offers himself as an alternative to the posturing of Top-40 hip-hop. “You want the realness,” he asks? “Well, I gotcha … I know you sick of them players’ big car and watch, ya/ Either they pimps or they macks or they mobsters.”
But Fiasco is set apart from the broader cultural landscape for another, perhaps even more significant reason: he is a devout Muslim. In the post-9/11 climate of racism and ethnocentrism manifest everywhere from the White House to TV news to the opinion pages of this newspaper, few Muslims have gained attention for anything besides their faith and its political affiliations. But while he announces his beliefs proudly — even with the album’s title, representing an Islamic dialectic of good and evil — Lupe defies tokenism. He is, pure and simple, a brilliant artist; clever without being snide, sincere without being saccharine, and when it comes down to it, a just plain dope MC.
And he stands in a long, significant lineage—it is rarely mentioned today, but the origins of hip-hop music are inextricably connected to African-American Islam. One particular church, the Nation of Gods and Earths — also known as the Five Percent nation — can claim among its members Nas, Rakim, Gang Starr, members of the Roots, every member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and several others on rap’s Mount Olympus. It is also inarguable that the dazzling linguistic figuration used by most MC’s since the aforementioned R-to-the-A-to-the-K-I-M is often indebted to the “divine sciences” of “Supreme Mathematics and Alphabets” that are part of the NGE’s mythology. Ever wonder why exactly Nas says “word” all the time? Or what “droppin’ science” means? Or why Method Man calls Raekwon and GZA “God”? They didn’t just make all that up.
His faith is clearly more confusing for Fiasco than he is likely to admit. Sometimes his internal turmoil slips through, as on the poignant, unsettling state-of-the-union commentary “Hurts Me Soul,” in which he admits that he “used to hate hip-hop — yep, because the women degraded.” He describes coming up with his own verses because he had to figure out ways to imitate the rhymes of rappers he couldn’t resist — without using the word “bitch.”
One the languidly psychedelic “Daydream,” featuring Jill Scott — a story about his pet robot — he moralistically mocks contemporary rap videos, calling out, “come on everybody, let’s make cocaine cool/ We need a few more half naked women up in the pool/ And hold this MAC-10 that’s all covered in jewels/ And can you please put your titties closer to the 22’s?/ And where’s the champagne? We need champagne/Now look as hard as you can with this blunt in your hand/ And now hold up your chain slow motion through the flames/ Now cue the smoke machines and the simulated rain.”
Three songs later, on “Pressure,” Jay-Z — Mr. Cristal-and-Blunts himself — drops a typically excellent verse. (Though it is probably his fault that Linkin Park’s guitarist produces “The Instrumental,” the lamest track herein.) While he elsewhere calls himself a “hypocrite,” Fiasco is really just honest, candidly exploring the tension that can creep up in troubled times between his desires and his conscience. And his conscience is large. “American Terrorist” sees him offering a concise history of U.S. government policy concerning ethnic minorities: “It’s like: don’t give the black man food, give red man liquor/ Red man fool, black man nigga/ Give yellow man tool, make him railroad builda/ Also give him pan, make him pull gold from river/ Give black man crack, glocks to teens/ Give red man craps, slot machines.”
Incendiary words. If he keeps it up, he may have to watch his back; the White House’s recent efforts to legalize torture indicate that governmental power is getting increasingly paranoid and tyrannical. Let’s hope that Lupe Fiasco’s emergence is representative of something else — people getting sensible and speaking up.