Lupe Fiasco, on a Winning Streak But Losing a Few Points in Overtime

The Chicago rapper played (and played, and played) to a sold-out crowd Wednesday at the 9:30 club.
The Chicago rapper played (and played, and played) to a sold-out crowd Wednesday at the 9:30 club. (By Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008

Nascent rap star Lupe Fiasco has been threatening to retire after he releases his next album, and the possibility has more than a few hip-hop die-hards quaking in their limited-edition Nikes. For Fiasco's early exit from hip-hop would rob the genre of one of its most compelling and refreshing talents.

As he's demonstrated on his two wildly acclaimed albums, "Food & Liquor" (from 2006) and "The Cool" (No. 1 on Billboard's rap chart since its December release), he's an idiosyncratic artist with an ingratiating voice, a dexterous flow, a wicked sense of humor and a serious intellectual streak.

In concert Wednesday at the sold-out 9:30 club, those same appealing qualities were on full display, along with another one: endurance. Or was it gluttony?

Though Fiasco's discography spans just two clever albums, he turned his victory lap here into a marathon -- a two-hour performance that ultimately became tedious, suggesting that perhaps he really doesn't know when to quit.

Some fans had an idea, starting toward the exit around the one-hour mark, just after Fiasco's superlative performance of "Daydreamin'." The Grammy-nominated song opened with the rapper singing over a spare, moaning electric guitar and then exploded as the full band kicked in (all detonative drums and howling synthesizers) and Fiasco began chanting with the help of four backing vocalists.

As the song went skyward, it had the feel of a finale. Alas, Fiasco was just getting started. (And stopped, as there was plenty of dead air between songs.)

The Chicago rapper, born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, performed 20 songs in all -- a generous showing, given that he wasn't feeling particularly well. "I'm a little sick tonight," he said.

Might that explain why his vocals were pushed back in the mix throughout the show? They were swallowed whole by the over-modulated drums on "Real," washed out by the wall of synths on "Hip Hop Saved My Life" and crushed by the metallic guitar of "Pressure." Elsewhere, as on the lithe "Sunshine," feedback marred the mix.

The show wasn't without bright spots, though. On a mash-up that artfully used the Gorillaz song "Happy Industries," Fiasco showed off a nimble, athletic flow, machine-gunning lyrical triplets. He was hot in the mix during the percolating "I Gotcha" and sounded clean and precise over the woozy fuzz-tone guitar of "The Cool."

He somehow hovered above the crowd's rap-alongs during "Kick, Push," a skateboarding anthem about perseverance. And during "The Coolest," after a wardrobe change, he ran a cappella vocal intervals, shifting to double time and back, to jaw-dropping effect.

Not that Fiasco himself was impressed.

While Kanye West waves his ego like a flag, his protege, Fiasco, won't engage -- even if he's the superior rapper. In fact, in "Superstar," Fiasco's current arena-rap semi-hit, he noted: "Wanna believe my own hype, but it's too untrue."

Instead of self-aggrandizing statements, he proffered jokes, riffing, for instance, about the intelligence deficit in modern mainstream hip-hop -- which led to a ridiculous ring-tone-style rap about fancy wheels and designer shoes whose lyrics were: "Rims and Tims/Rims and Tims/Rims and Tims," etc.

It was his introduction to "Dumb It Down," something Fiasco most certainly does not do in his music.

One just wishes he'd been a little smarter about the conceptualization and execution of his live show.

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