Confession: I have part of a Lupe Fiasco song tattooed on my arm. They’re lyrics from the second verse of “Hurt Me Soul” off Lupe’s debut album, Food & Liquor, a song that remains my favorite example of my ex-favorite rapper’s ability to rap. The tattoo itself was a dumb decision made by an even dumber 18-year old in the basement of my very dumb friend who was an amateur tattoo-artist. This terrible choice seemed like a smart idea at the time—it would serve as a permanent shrine to the deft display of poetry put out by an up-and-coming rapper with potential seemingly spilling out of every pore. I would be able to point to this tattoo five years later, when Lupe Fiasco dominated the conversation for “GOAT rapper” and say “I knew this would happen, I have been down since Day One with the world’s most superlative rapper.” But now, six years after exiting my friend’s basement, it serves as nothing but a simple reminder to what once was and what could have been, embedded in ink on my right tricep.
Recently, Lupe Fiasco announced that he would make an original, one-of-a-kind song for anyone who could come up with $500, cash. The single-verse track would be recorded over any production of your choosing, and could cover any theme you wanted. Immediately, my mind jumped to the most hilarious options available: I could have Lupe record a Pokemon rap over a Zaytoven beat, or have him rap about how dope Noisey is. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I could have Lupe Fiasco record any song I wanted in the whole world, I would have him write me an apology. Not an apology for making me believe in him to the extent that I would get that belief permanently marked on my arm—that falls on me. I’d want an apology for him building up the false hope of thousands of fans, just to let them down without even proving a point in the process, going from brilliant rap prodigy to a cautionary tale, a fallen angel with more haters than fans.
The first time I heard Lupe Fiasco was when, at 16, I listened to “I Gotcha” and became immediately hooked. Here was this artist rapping about fragrances for an entire verse without it sounding forced, and dropping subtle references to things that I really identified with as a young high school student, like skateboarding and Banksy. I ran home and jumped on Kazaa, downloading everything that popped up when I searched for “Lupe Fiasco." Lupe’s songs before Food & Liquor painted him as a street-wise poet laureate who was able to detach himself from a situation enough to be able to view all of the threads involved while still being able to see the beauty that exists in each of those stories. For that year, up until the release of The Cool in 2007, I was a Lupe superfan. I listened to nothing outside of his music as I walked to and from my part-time job as a Starbucks barista and as I took the bus to and from school. I almost went as far as writing fanfiction about Michael Young History, the fictional protagonist who acts as both the cautionary tale and main character in a number of songs on Food & Liquor and The Cool. I memorized numerous lyrics to obscure tracks, and read up online about everything I could surrounding Wasalu Jaco (a name I swore I’d give to the dog I promised to buy myself one day).
In 2009, Lupe announced that he had recorded his follow-up to The Cool, but that his label Atlantic didn’t want to put it out because it didn’t have the chart-topping single they were looking for. Apparently label reps brought him a number of songs that they wanted him to lead the project with, including what would go on to be B.o.B’s “Nothing on You”. But Lupe turned them all down, and a stalemate that would end up lasting over two years began. In an attempt to free his album, Lupe released a rallying mixtape titled Friend of the People, and called upon his fans to put the pressure on Atlantic to release his record. He asked his fans to prove to Atlantic that they still cared about him, which led to legions of Lupe stans crowding the lobby of Atlantic Records in a publicity stunt he’d term “Occupy Atlantic,” which ended up serving as an odd precedent for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Miraculously, this worked, and Atlantic finally gave Lupe a release date which, after a few push backs, resulted in L.A.S.E.R.S..
In asking his fans to occupy Atlantic Records, Lupe wasn’t just trying to get his album released. He was asking his fans to physically demonstrate their belief in him, their certainty that his music mattered. Just because some of us weren’t there didn’t mean we didn’t felt the same way—we believed that Lupe’s music was important, not just sonically, but on a social scale. What lessons had Michael Young History learned since coming back from the dead in The Cool, and what knowledge would he pass onto us, his faithful listeners? But instead of following through on his fans’ good faith, he put out an album that created a cognitive dissonance between what he’d been promising and what he produced: L.A.S.E.R.S. was a record that, for all Lupe’s hemming and hawing about independence and free thinking, sounded like something meant to appease his major label overlords. Despite vowing to put out something different, he released a record that sounded like a shittier version of everything else. It didn’t take long after pressing play on this new album for me to realize something was wrong. Lupe wasn’t rapping to me anymore, but was now rapping at me, militantly and with an air of detachment. He wasn’t sliding entendres and puns into the nooks of his lyrics, but was now crafting raps that could be shouted at stadiums, call and response style, to thousands of buoyant fans. For the first time since I had gotten it, I felt regret when looking at the lyric that ran down my arm.
He attempted to reclaim fans with Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, but the themes on the project seemed to come from a place of hurt, not inspiration. He went to great lengths to prove that he was still the same razor-sharp poet that he has always been, but the album was bogged down by pedantry and ultimately proved to be too little, too late. It wasn’t defiant, it was defensive; it wasn’t better, it was bitter. If L.A.S.E.R.S. broke his fans’ faith in him, then Food & Liquor II was the application of a cast, performed to prove to people that the plaster was just as good as the flesh and bone beneath. Had Food & Liquor II come out before L.A.S.E.R.S., there’s a chance that Lupe’s story would be more unfortunate than tragic. Despite the fact that it didn’t reach the standard set by the first Food & Liquor, this album wasn’t terrible. It had Lupe speaking about social issues over soulful samples, and fulfilled all of the other tropes set up by the first two albums, but the damage from L.A.S.E.R.S. was done, and it would take more than the layups attempts on Food & Liquor II to fix it. Even if he did have the ability to release a classic rap album, I wondered if I would even care enough to listen to it and acknowledge it as such. Because of all of the time and energy expended towards it, it’s impossible to simply ignore L.A.S.E.R.S. or pretend that it never happened, and because of that, it’s for me hard to view Lupe as an artist who innovates. Instead, his work is reactive—he saw an opportunity for a post-Kanye everyman rapper, so he became that. His label wanted a record that would perform well commercially, so he turned himself into a stadium-rapper. His fans hated the new Lupe, so he tried to give them the old Lupe. But projecting your own ideals onto an artist will never end well, especially when the artist tries to engage with them.
At this point, Lupe’s career is just as irreversible as that tattoo running up my arm, but unlike me, it’s not something he can just cover up and laugh off. For better or worse, it’s something he’s going to have to deal with—his fans don’t want the old Lupe, they just want the real Lupe. Sadly, it seems that he still doesn’t know who that is. That’s why now when people ask me what that is, written on my arm, buried under layers I’ve added to deflect attention from the original quote, I give a half laugh, and admit that it’s a Lupe Fiasco lyric.
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