Lupe Fiasco on rap’s nihilism, retirement & Lil Wayne

By// Kyra Kyles

Anyone who follows the career of Chicago-born wordsmith, Lupe Fiasco, knows he gives great headline.

From his seeming ambivalence to voting to scathing critiques of President Barack Obama, Fiasco courts controversy at almost every turn.  His most recent (and mercifully short-lived) dust-up with fellow Chi-towner, Chief Keef, created an important, though painful conversation about the thick thread of nihilism running through rap music and the streets of the Windy City.

But no matter what you think of Fiasco’s politics, his use of his platform, or his sometimes mandatory look-that-ish-up lyrical content, you have to be real with yourself.

This young man is a true intellect and a poet, pushing the boundaries of hip-hop music to uncomfortable places that might not always move the masses. And he doesn’t seem to care.  That is why it was imperative that JET talk with him, one-on-one during a visit to the Johnson Publishing Offices. We wanted to get into his head about the content of his latest, Food and Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album, find out whether he felt he crossed the line between pointed and “preachy” in his conversation-starting “Bitch Bad” track/video and get his take on the possible void he’ll leave behind when he enters his announced rap retirement.

Seated in our war room, the rap outlier was insightful and thoughtful in his word choice, but also possessed of a sly sense of humor.

Spoiler alert: This ain’t no interview with the Ying Yang Twins, so get a glass of water, take your red pill and get ready to go deep into the musical Matrix.

Q: Why did you revisit the Food and Liquor album title for this effort?  What’s the connective theme?

Conceptually, there’s not a connection to it, more so just in the name alone. The concept on this record is more so in the second part of the name, the Great American Rap album. And that’s like the focus.

Q: You’re not known to mince words, but in “ITAL” you are pretty explicit about your message. Not only that, you convey that message in the language of those you are addressing, using the n-word and instructing them that we’ve got enough drugs, women, stripper talk in the rap industry? Do you anticipate any blowback?  Some mainstream peers might hear themselves in this message. Has anyone said anything back to you?

No, no, no.  Some of my best friends are those kind of trap, gangster rappers. For example, Trouble Trouble who is the epitome of that. [laughs] I mean, his name is Trouble Trouble. But these rappers are good brothers and they have good hearts. They’re very intelligent.  My point, like you said, is to speak to a person in their language. But I’m not speaking to a rapper, rather, I am speaking to an audience.  The same way Rick Ross or even my brother, Trouble, the way he speaks with a certain aggression about his life, a lifestyle and what they do…with a certain urgency about what they put out there.  I feel if somebody did that with something that’s a little more wholesome… but with the same intensity, I wondered would the message get through. So there’s just a little aggression behind the positivity.

Q: But whomever you are addressing, it’s clear that you see monotony in the rap music out today.  Do you see an antidote for that in the near future?

I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with artistic expression, but when you start examining the cultural impact, it’s something that has to be considered. Me and a few of the brothers, the masters in this genre, this music are thinking of starting an organization specifically for that to meet those kind of demands. But it’s not the route that I think people would expect in order for us to achieve that. You’re not really going against rappers, you’re really not going against artists. What you’re asking is how do we fight these corporations that profit off of this? They profit off of it because every video is a commercial for a clothing brand, a commercial for a car, or a watch. Why do young kids know about Audemars? Audemars, they don’t have ads in the hood, but do they have ads in the hood?  The answer is yes because Jay-Z talks about Audemars, Rick Ross has an Audemars and that’s what he talks about and Waka Flocka has one. How do you create a cultural construct that has the same weight or can become a worthy adversary to that corporate construct?

Q: So is this an album, a foundation or an artistic movement?

It’s like a guild.

Q: Who’s in it?

It’s a secret society. [laughs] Sorry.

Q: Well, you haven’t heard the last question from me on this. I’m going to find out who is in this guild… But moving on, I want to talk to you about a song you currently have in rotation on radio, “Bitch Bad.”  Some really like it and think it’s refreshing, but I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary that it hits you over the head with the meaning.  That the lyrics, and the video, are too “preachy.” Have you since rethought the message and delivery?  

I’m not really worried about the myriad reaction. I’m  just happy that we got reaction which was my main point. But as far as preachiness, I think that when people say that, it expose their unreasonableness in the sense that you know Malcolm X was a preacher; he died preaching. Martin Luther King was a preacher. Jesus was a preacher. There’s nothing wrong with being preachy, especially when you look at who were the actual preachers. Father Pfleger is a preacher. I’m more scared of those who don’t preach. Those seem like the guys you should steer clear of. Preachers challenge you. People just don’t like to be challenged. People like to feel safe and comfortable in their own zone.  And the preacher challenges you to step outside of that.  It’s one thing to be annoying…that’s another piece. Annoying and preachy aren’t the same thing. Now if everybody says “oh, this is annoying,” then it becomes like, ‘Alright, [feigns embarrassment], okay, then I’ll just go in the next room.’

Kyra Note: Lupe and I had a little chuuuuch/call-and-response thing going on this question, so I am sharing the clip to do it justice.

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