Lupe Fiasco’s Pop and Polemics: The two Lupes go on tour
Lupe Fiasco is going on tour with material from his upcoming album Tetsuo and Youth. But that doesn’t exactly tell us which Lupe we can expect.
Words: Adria Bani and Ali Jones-Bey / November 11, 2013
Lupe Fiasco has been politically outspoken since early in his career, but the “conscious” label hasn’t always applied to his best-known tracks. His upcoming release of Tetsuo and Youth, an album that Rolling Stone reported won’t have much political content, and his newest bubblegum-hook single signal a continued alliance with the mainstream. But anyone who’s listened to his albums would characterize Fiasco as a serious emcee, not a pop star. So who is Lupe, really?
Lupe began his hip-hop life in Chicago and entered the culture as somewhat of an outsider. As a child of Muslim parents who exposed him to many classic forms of expression, he was more drawn to jazz clarinet and poetry than hip-hop during his teenage years. But a love for poetry eventually became a love for rap, and his book nerd persona became that of an overachieving hip-hop academic. In the early 2000s an assist from Jay Z led to a record deal with Atlantic, and his first album release, Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor in 2006, garnered three nominations and a Grammy win for “Daydreamin”. Throughout his popular rise, he has voiced radical political views and made controversial headlines as anti-label and anti-establishment. But the combination of his undeniably mainstream singles and multiple collaborations with pop vocalists (including his just-released “Old School Love” with Ed Sheeran of Taylor Swift and One Direction fame) and his more radical views is contradictory. Is it a ploy, or is Lupe simply being honest about the complexity and inconsistencies of artistic expression in an extremely commercialized medium?
Many hip-hop artists have fought the battle between producing conscious and mainstream rap. Jay Z addressed this himself in 2003 in his song “Moment of Clarity” (The Black Album): “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars/They criticized me for it yet they all yell ‘holla!’’ Criticism of commercially successful emcees by those who are explicitly indie and political hasn’t changed the game. It’s no surprise that in a genre known for its rebellious spirit, the shit-talking directed at rappers who flood the airwaves with tales of strippers and blunts hasn’t made radio music deep. Rappers like Lupe Fiasco, perhaps hoping to follow in the steps of Jay Z, have blurred the line between mainstream and conscious rap, refusing to compromise their views (such as stating that the US “inspires terrorism” in a 2011 CBS interview) while still creating radio-friendly songs.
By refusing to follow the stereotypical lines of commercial rapper or conscious rapper, Lupe forces us to question this dichotomy. Is it is false, and should we reconsider how we view rap artists? They are, after all, people, and most people can hold more than one opinion at a time. A lot of people even do work they don’t like so they can pay the bills. Maybe the most progressive path for hip-hop is to embrace these inconsistencies and allow for infiltration of the mainstream by the conscious and vice versa. This bleed-through is Lupe’s greatest contribution to hip-hop outside of his undeniably superior lyrical skills. As he remarked in an interview with the Guardian during his most controversial release to date, Lasers, “...there’s the duality again. I can be Picasso if you want that, and I could do Guernica for you all day. Or, if you want me to paint your dog, I’ll come to your house and paint your dog.” His new tour for Tetsuo and Youth is bringing fans a chance to experience Lupe’s music outside of record label filters, a chance to watch Lupe Fiasco play Picasso, as contradictory and radical as he may be.