Great Debates: Lupe Fiasco - Is He An All Time Great, Or A Fiasco
HipHopDX's new series looks at Lu's triumphs and tribulations, from an actual debate between our editor Omar Burgess and staff writer Slava Kuperstein.
Arguably one of the worst things about the Internet is the lack of any kind of coherent, civil discourse. Classic barbershop debates such as who won the battle between Jay-Z and Nas or if Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac really are the greatest emcees ever can’t happen because most of you are too busy hiding behind fake screen names and hurling insults at each other to have an informed, calm discussion about it. You’re still more than welcome to insult each other and us in the comment section. Since it helps keep the lights on around here, we hope you keep doing it. But in the meantime, we hope to bring back those arguments to the Digital Age courtesy of the occasional “Great Debate.”
As a matter of timeliness, we thought we’d set things off with Lupe Fiasco. There are probably few emcees in Hip Hop as polarizing as Lupe. His combination of cadence, storytelling, subject matter, timing and technical precision make him one of the Top 10 emcees to emerge within the last decade. And this isn’t just hyperbole. Lupe’s first two albums ( Food & Liquor and Lupe Fiasco's The Cool) scored favorable reviews from your favorite Hip Hop magazines and websites as well as more mainstream outfits like the Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. The accolades were topped off with three Grammy nominations in 2006 and a Grammy win in 2008 for “Daydreaming.”
Each piece of Lupe-related content HipHopDX posts generates both an insane amount of traffic and an equal amount of fighting among readers who choose to comment. But it hasn’t always been this way, and we were curious to find out why. Since Lupe’s or any other artist’s popularity isn’t exactly something you can quantify, longtime fellow HipHopDX writer Slava Kuperstein and I took a long look at all the factors to see if the recent Lupe backlash was overblown or if Jeff Weiss’ 2008 statement that “no one wants to smoke a blunt with Lupe Fiasco” was the proverbial handwriting on the wall.
Words I Never Said
Slava: Well, I think you and I can begin by acknowledging that Lupe Fiasco is, without a doubt, among the two or three most talented emcees to come out since the mid-2000s, so no one here is questioning his music abilities.
Omar: Yeah, I would totally agree there. He had all the things I look for in an emcee: technical precision, personality, storytelling, etc. etc.
Slava: Interesting that you threw in the “had.” Any brief thoughts on the new album?
Omar: I love the subject matter on most of those songs. Few current emcees have the balls to make “Words I Never Said” or “All Black Everything,” let alone make them palatable and not preachy. But…the production is ass, in my opinion. And he's using simple cadences and lazy metaphors. Where’s “Go Go Gadget Flow” and “Daydreaming?”
Slava: I essentially agree. A brief run-through is more than enough to show that the man’s on cruise control for almost the entire album. A friend described this as an “inferior Blueprint 3,” and I can’t say I disagree.
Omar: Word. I figured we agreed that this laser beam misfired...The main knock on Wasalu, and I guess the point of our editorial, is that there’s a real disconnect with die-hard Lupe fans versus even a seasoned Hip Hop listener, let alone the casual fan.
Slava: That could mean a lot of things. I imagine that several things would put off someone who grew up listening in a bit of the earlier times. Perhaps the primary issue is whether Lupe’s spoken/rapped rhetoric is in line with his actions.
Omar: That's interesting…I mean, it's a valid argument. But I'm old and jaded, so I don’t assume any of these rappers are doing what they actually talk about
Slava: Well, that's certainly true. I mean, look at Rick Ross and Dr. Dre. One was a C.O., the other wore sequins. My issue isn’t with whether Lupe is authentic. My issue is, what that authenticity, which he goes to great lengths to champion, makes him feel entitled to.
Slava: Perhaps we can cue a sound effect of a petulant child. We'll get the audio folks on that.
Omar: You might have hit the nail on the head. Because whether you're talking about his blog beef, Atlantic or his fans, you’re coming across issues of entitlement on both sides. The online community helped get Lu to where he is. Bloggers and Internet-savvy fans championed him as the next great emcee when casual listeners didn’t know who he was
Slava: Without a doubt. No one was trying to sign a rapper rhyming about robots and skateboards in 2005. Aftermath's thugged-out run from 2003-2006 should be plenty evidence of that.
Omar: But does that entitle some of them to free music?
Slava: Certainly not. But you have to look at the way the game goes and has worked. Mixtapes have been around since lord knows how long, and emcees have been hocking free music for ages. It’s pure arrogance for any artist—particularly a rapper (particularly one not named Eminem or Jay-Z)—to think they can get by without giving something up for the crowd.
Omar: Very true. So on some level did Lupe think the same fans that created his buzz were obligated to spend money on his music?
Slava: I’m sure he did. And that’s a fair assertion. But what’s everyone else doing? How does Raekwon get by? Cuban Linx II had the Internet going nuts, but the guy didn’t sell that much. And yet, Rae’s participated faithfully in dropping joints online intended for free release. He knows that’s the game now.
Omar: Agreed. So there go two fairly clear-cut cases of entitlement, where neither side made any concessions. Lupe ends up with less viral/online support. Bloggers get less Lupe-related page views. Everyone is in fact losers, not lasers.
Slava: Not to mention Lupe’s decision to confront certain bloggers—both on Twitter and by other means (which he vehemently denies). The rub about this, the thing that really gets me is: why, when you bite the hand that feeds you, are you surprised when you no longer get support? And it’s not just the blogs. MTV, who has given Lupe love in the past, released an editorial about him, to which he responded like a little kid whose lunch money was stolen.
Omar: Well, I can count on one hand the amount of times a rapper or blogger has apologized to me for obviously being in the wrong. But with the MTV thing you now have a pattern of him confronting an outlet he had some kind of mutually beneficial relationship with then vehemently denying it. For those of you keeping score, that’s A Tribe Called Quest/Hip Hop Honors, the blog issue then MTV.
Slava: I’m glad you mentioned the Hip Hop Honors “fiasco.”
My question is, and it's a very, very simple one: Why would you agree to do an award show, for which the purpose is to honor another artist, and come out half-assed like that? What part of being a “great emcee” is that?
Omar: Unfortunately there’s a long list of artists mailing in similar performances. Obviously only the parties involved know the truth, but the show’s producers and Q-Tip are repeatedly keep saying they didn’t specifically beg him to perform. Lupe stuck to his story that they did. Somewhere in all of that lies the truth.
Slava: I see it like this: Lupe’s a smart guy, and even though he denies listening to A Tribe Called Quest growing up (let’s just say I find that claim questionable), he has to recognize the artistic similarities between the two - thus presenting him with a market he can tap into.
Omar: I’ll concede that. Songs like “Go, Go Gadget Flow” or “Superstar” have way more in common with Tribe than 8Ball & MJG, Spice-1 or the other people Lupe has cited as early influences.
And we’re in a climate where fans don’t have to buy your album. That shit is on Pirate Bay two weeks before the release date. So if people can illegally get it free with little to no repercussions, what’s the incentive to give you $12 for an album if you appear to be entitled and show possible authenticity issues?
Slava: Ah, but you’re forgetting! Lupe used to rap about bussin’ his guns in ‘03. In ‘06 and beyond, he’s the conscious, Muslim emcee!
Omar: See, that's where we differ. I vaguely remember some tough talk early in his career, but I didn't pay much attention because records when Lupe was in Da Pak or some of the “Mean and Viscious”/“Lupe the Killer” type stuff? He very well could’ve had a change of heart. I care as much about his former “gangsta” persona as I do about Rick Ross’ (nee William Roberts) C.O. days. It’s the post-Food & Liquor behavior that puts me off.
Slava: Maybe it’s just as inconsequential, though I certainly disagree. Rick Ross is a cartoon character. Who really believes that he knows Noreaga, “the real Noreaga?”
Omar: I think as a paying fan, you have the right to demand that of any artist you support. Whether they’ll get it is a completely different story.
Slava: Funny thing is, I don’t think fans can demand that the artist be genuine. Art is art. All that matters, at least to me, is what you get out of it.
Omar: But, I look at some of the online comments and get the feeling a large amount of Lupe’s fans are demanding he be genuine—which I think is totally naïve.
Slava: Agreed. My problem is that Lupe has found a “conscious artist” niche for himself, which is fine. But uses that as a platform of self-entitlement, indignation and that awful self-importance. I call it “Nas syndrome.”
Omar: Wearing the conscious hat can be the kiss of death. Because fans then assume you don't fuck promiscuous women and enjoy making money. I don’t mind the early “gangsta” stuff, because at best, it makes Lupe one of Hip Hop's conversion narratives. The fact that people like Trae ride for him and the Chilly allegations, suggest he really did live that life at one point. Which is neither a good nor a bad thing in my book. Maybe the conscious hat is him overcompensating? I don’t know. I’m no fucking therapist, but it’s a theory
Slava: Not just the allegations against Chilly, but also that Lupe was heavily implicated in that whole mess. Though, and we should be clear with this, there was no formal charge against him and no one is presuming that Lupe was/is guilty of anything.
Omar: It’s semantics but “heavily implicated” is a slippery slope. I don’t want to get sued, so here is where we paste a copy of the court testimony from the Chicago Sun-Times.
“While prosecutors did not present evidence of a link between Patton's drug dealing and the recording company he owned with Fiasco—whose legal name is Wasalu Jaco—the connection was implied, authorities said.
“Fiasco, who has carved out a national name for himself as a Muslim rapper who doesn't drink or dwell on rap's negative themes, was never charged. But he was at Patton's home when Patton was arrested in 2003 -- and he testified at trial about several phone conversations with Patton.
“In the recorded conversations, Patton and Fiasco discuss splitting up 'whole yellow' and 'whole red' ones.
“A prosecution witness directly involved in Patton's drug operation testified the colors referred to the mixing and prepping of $10 heroin packets. Fiasco, testifying for the defense, said they referred to mixing and prepping of music tracks. He denied any involvement in drugs.”
I only brought it up to say, that maybe his overuse of the conscious hat is more about his former life than trying to grandstand. But we’ll never know.
Slava: Perhaps, but it certainly spills into how he conducts himself. All I can say with regards to how Lupe “transformed” is this: if it looks like shit and smells like shit, you probably don’t need to eat it to tell that it’s shit.
Omar: As a one-time fan and a listener, I’m genuinely intrigued when someone like Jeff Weiss says, “Lupe doesn't seem like the type of person you would smoke a blunt with.” Then his peers Phonte and Q-Tip call him out. Yet Trae says he’s like a brother to him.
Slava: Well, I guess the closest thing to a conclusion on this particular facet of the discussion that I can come to is this: whether it matters that Lupe is who he says he is depends on the individual fan. But, looking at all the factors we’ve discussed: I ain’t buyin’ it.
Omar: For some reason, I don’t care about that part. But in the authenticity department, there has clearly been enough of a disconnect with knowledgeable Hip Hop fans to damage both his popularity and sales.
Slava: And maybe it matters more to me than Rick Ross’ obvious farce because I’m more concerned about people pushing subtle half-truths than obvious full-blown lies. And especially when their fans feel that they’re gaining something positive from the music.
Omar: Good point. I think there are a segment of fans clearly more emotionally invested in Lupe than both you and I. It sounds like you’re saying they have been persuaded as opposed to won over.
Slava: Agreed. I think we should run with this theme of Lupe “shooting himself in the foot” and get your thoughts on how he’s handled the whole Lasers situation. To me, that’s a perfect microcosm of everything we’ve been discussing.
Omar: If you listen to “High Definition” or “Superstar,” that's as commercial as Lupe can get. Those songs were not only dope, but effective and catchy. When he reached the point where they were asking for him to be more commercial, he and Atlantic didn’t know their respective limitations. Because if you really don’t want to make an album, you either pull a Saigon. Or give back some advance money and go independent. But saying, “Atlantic made me do it” is a weak excuse in my opinion.
Slava: The crazy thing to me is the triangle between Lupe, Atlantic and the fans.
Omar: Exactly! There’s enough entitlement to go all around. Each entity is kind of sabotaging the other.
Slava: Before Lupe ever even mentioned anything about label pressures and whatnot; he encouraged and thanked fans that petitioned Atlantic. Which seems strange to me. Because months later, when the songs from the album began leaking to reviews that were, at best, mixed—all these stories about label pressure came flooding in.
Omar: Yeah, you kind of see him playing Atlantic against his die-hard fans and doing the same with bloggers. But there’s an overlap between some of those groups, so it gets muddled.
When it was all said and done, Lupe moved 204,000 copies of Lasers in one week. By way of comparison, last December, Michael Jackson’s patched-together, posthumous effort, Michael, sold 228,000 copies during its first week. Those aren’t Kanye West or Nicki Minaj numbers, but in a declining sales climate, they’re enough to give Lupe the top-selling Hip Hop album of the week. Despite several interviews where he seemed to trash his own album, Lupe and Atlantic managed to pull off the great compromise. Die-hard Lupe Fiasco fans purchased this album, and the commercial success of “The Show Goes On” generated enough crossover success to bring in some new fans.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native by way of Flint, Michigan. In addition to contributing to various magazines and newspapers, he is an editor at HipHopDX.com.
Slava Kuperstein has been a staff writer for HipHopDX.com since 2006. He is from Odessa, Ukraine and lives in Maryland.