Image via Wiki Commons
The year is 2015, and I like the new Lupe Fiasco album. I didn’t think I’d find myself in this position ever again. I was a high school student during Lupe’s rise and as a teenage angst-filled black nerd, I was the perfect audience for Lupe’s brand of self-important, “I’m not like those other rappers” conscious rap. I loved Food & Liquor and The Cool and listened to them religiously and I felt like an intelligent, thoughtful human being for doing so, but much more importantly, I felt better than everyone around me for choosing to listen to him.
In high school, I was socially awkward. I had a few good, reliable friends and a bunch of people that I desperately wanted to be friends with. I felt like a loser. One time in the hallway, a kid asked me if I had heard “that new Plies.” When I said no, he began to laugh with his friends and talk about all the shitty music I probably listened to instead (he called it “honky-tonk” music). That’s who I was: the white boy of the black kids.
These days you can go on twitter and see some dumb tweet about how you need to have a high IQ to appreciate J. Cole or whoever. Well in 2006, that kid saying dumb things like that used to be me but with Lupe Fiasco. Listening to songs like “Hurt Me Soul” and “American Terrorist” made me feel like I just read some great American novel like Moby Dick, and I walked around with the attitude that I was better than anyone who chose to listen to that “trap music trash” over this “real hip-hop” shit.
So when everyone was partying to snap music and records like Thug Motivation 101 and Wayne’s Dedication mixtapes were still everything to the kids at that time, I ran away from it. I listened in secret and denounced them publicly because all of it reminded me of the kids I resented. I embraced Lupe because he was the guy rapping about skateboarding and anime. He dressed like I wanted to dress, he was into math like I was, and he seemed to have similar opinions as me on current black culture. To me, he was the polar opposite of what was popular in rap and he was navigating a sea of sharks just like how I was. He made me proud to not be like the others.
Time changes things of course: you go to college, truly discover your blackness, read The Fire Next Time a hundred times, get girls to talk to you and admit to yourself that you resented those kids in high school because you wanted to be them. As you learn more about yourself, you become at peace with who you are and cultivate a space—not a space where better than anyone, but space where you can just be you. I learned I wasn’t different than other black kids; my thought process on blackness was just fucked up. Those kids felt separate from me only because subconsciously, I didn’t want to be associated with them. I was in the wrong and, suddenly, listening to Lupe’s “otherness” in his music became a turn off for me.
These turn-offs continued with Lupe’s output of “intelligent radio music” and his Alex Jones level Anti-Obama rhetoric (lest we forget, he called Obama a “terrorist” in 2011. There was also his grating twitter behavior: railing against perspectives on blackness not his own, treating bad reviews like some sort war on consciousness, and getting into beefs with rappers like Kid Cudi and Childish Gambino who, let’s be honest, are more or less flipsides of the same Lupe coin. Moments like these, along with Lupe’s post-Cool music, made me feel like the guy I thought was so smart and daring only felt that way because I didn’t actually know anything. My admiration for him turned into disappointment, then just plain annoyance.
I felt like I met the man behind the curtain and he was nothing but a cantankerous and insufferable faux-intellectual who was completely self-serving, highly judgmental, and just all-around a huge dick. He is the slam poetry coffee shop guy who reads books on Wikipedia and acts like he’s read them. He is the dude with a dashiki and wood ankh medallions that refers to himself and his homies as king or queen.
So, you could say that I’m not the biggest Lupe fan these days. Still. I’ll say it. Lupe Fiasco’s new album is good.
This time around, Lupe just comes off as a nerdy kid making the kind of music that makes him happy. For example, a song like “Body of Work” that’s about using bodies to traffic drugs is strewn with pop culture references. I think creating these little mazes and layers in his music genuinely excites him; it’s a challenge to him to see if he can do it. Maybe that’s what I was really responding to when I was a teen.
I think my need to hate Lupe’s music comes from the fact that I used to love the guy too much and I felt let down. It wasn’t his fault, I became something else when I went to college and my outlook on things became different. The fact that this new outlook no longer included my favorite rapper and the fact that he seemed to go even more in the other direction disappointed me. Ultimately, I learned that, as a kid, I thought of him the way he wanted to be thought of: a truly enlightened figure. I hated Lupe because he continued to remind me of that black nerd superiority complex that I once swore by. That desire to prove my worth by denigrating those I thought lesser of was all I could think of when I thought about Lupe. Really, I was angry with myself and took it out on him.
I still think Lupe is incredibly bright, just maybe misguided in places, and blind to other thought processes. You can say these things about literally all of us though; what I know is what I know until I know something different. Before, I thought I knew that I was done with Lupe Fiasco, but this album taught me that he still has music in him that can absorb you.
“Dots & Lines” might be my favorite song on the record. It has a twangy, Iron & Wine banjo intro and outro that sounds like it could soundtrack a “running in the woods” sequence from O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It’s also a very typically Lupe song: smart for the sake of being smart (you can nearly see him with the Max Fischer smirk throughout this song) and incredibly wordy. But again, this is my favorite song on the album, so even I can’t resist Lupe at his most Lupe (also I’m an engineering graduate so I’m attracted to math references whether good or bad).
There’s still a lot about this record that makes me roll my eyes with fervor. Lupe will never stop himself from trying to be the rappityest rapper that ever rapped a rap, for example. There’s also things in this album that are cute little ploys of message promoting; the irony of something like “Prisoner #2,” a song about prison and the new Jim Crow corporations, having a trap sounding beat isn’t lost on me. There are lovely little moments of “I see what you did there” like that one strewn about: “Deliver” is seemingly about pizza men not wanting to drive to homes in the hood but wait, it’s actually be about how there’s no deliverance for people who live in the hood and “Madonna (And Other Mothers in the Hood)” draws parallels between the virgin Mary and, well, mothers in the hood. It’s all very clever; you sometimes wonder if the cleverness is in service of the message or in service of showing that Lupe is a very clever person. Nonetheless, these are genuinely insightful and thoughtful things. I felt this throughout the album and I’m surprised that that surprised me.
Whenever many rappers get into “message” mode, they tend to fall into empty sermonizing, and it pushes me away. On Tetsuo & Youth, Lupe comes off less like young Malcolm X and more like the dude in the barbershop who has hot, hot takes on the illuminati; and—just like with that crazy guy—you enjoy the conversation even if you don’t think he has all the facts. Lupe’s no longer my champion, he’s just a guy whose raps I enjoy. I may not need his sermons anymore, but I’m happy to hear what he has to say. Just please never make another Lasers again.
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