Lupe Fiasco could’ve been one of the best-loved rappers of his generation.
The Chicago native is brash and outspoken, and his anti-establishment views on topics such as voting and President Obama (he’s not a fan of either) make him something of an outlier, even in the politically extreme realm of conscious hip-hop. If he were an underground rapper, those traits would make him a god. But thanks to a popular track about skateboarding (2006’s “Kick, Push”) and a hip-pop hit about fame (2007’s “Superstar”), he is instead a successful major label artist who makes radical music for a commercial audience. It’s why he threatens to retire every few years — neither he nor his art are built to withstand mainstream scrutiny.
Take “Lamborghini Angels,” from his latest, “Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Pt. 1.” The track examines, among other things, U.S. human rights abuses in Afghanistan — not the war itself, not the larger political structure, but the acts committed and those who committed them. It’s bold subject matter for a major label hip-hop release.
Much of “Food & Liquor II” feels similarly high-stakes, especially at a time when most socially conscious rap seems carefully engineered to withstand the glare of the spotlight. Whether it’s Killer Mike examining old Reagan-era policies or Big K.R.I.T talking about eradicating economic inequality, the trend is to be thought-provoking while remaining relatively low-risk.
Even when Lupe tries low-risk, drama ensues. “Bitch Bad” looks at how the derogatory word has been reclaimed as shorthand for strong and independent, and how confusing that can be. It is a well-intentioned message track, but on it Lupe uses the word “lady,” and many women took offense. Hip-hop heads know Lupe has spoken against misogyny and seemed inclined to give him a pass on the gaffe, but those less familiar with his work eviscerated him.
“Hood Now,” is a look at the amazing strides African Americans have made — in everything from pop culture to politics — despite centuries of oppression. Lupe, who has called Obama a “terrorist,” acknowledges the historic achievement of a black man in the White House, but still has to mention that, “You know me/I don’t vote.”
Tracks such as “Form Follows Function” and “Put Em Up” make one wonder why Lupe bothers being outwardly provocative when his lyrical gifts allow him to conceal his message in masterful word jumbles that only die-hard hip-hop fans can decode.
The answer is revealed on “Heart Donor,” as Lupe explains why he continues to make renegade hip-hop on a major label. He hopes “my stories can keep you off Maury,” out of prison, off the streets and out of trouble in general.
“I’m a heart donor/Everything I got/I give it all to you/My heart and my soul,” goes the hook. Lupe Fiasco fancies himself a conscious hip-hop superhero, determined to use his platform to share his views with the world — even if the world isn’t always so receptive.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.
“Hood Now,” “Lamborghini Angels,” “Form Follows Function”