For Lupe Fiasco, it was in some ways a heartbreaking year. In an interview last summer with MTV he broke down as he watched a 2006 video of himself and friends in his old West Side neighborhood, the laughter and easy camaraderie undercut by the realization that a number of those acquaintances were now dead, victims of gang violence.
Then he found himself the target of a nasty hate tweet from Chicago's latest hip-hop star, Chief Keef, who objected to Lupe's misgivings about the message sent by the new breed of gangsta rappers in a city with an alarmingly high rate of shooting deaths. Soon after that exchange, Lupe suggested he might quit hip-hop altogether, shaken that the message he intended to send was twisted into something personal between him and Keef.
"My concern, and what everyone's concern should be, is that the circumstances that create a culture like that haven't changed," Lupe later explained in an interview with the Tribune. "There have been no real solutions. So why wouldn't you expect a new crop of music like this from all cities?"
More forcefully than ever, Lupe rose again as a voice of reason in what has been a deadly year for Chicago. Born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco 30 years ago, he grew up on the bullet-scarred West Side and initially started emulating gangsta rappers before forging a more contemplative, socially conscious style that turned him into one of the most respected voices in hip-hop.
On his fourth studio album, "Food & Liquor: The Great American Album Pt. 1" (1st & 15th/Atlantic), released a few months ago, he upped the ante again with his most ambitious set of lyrics. It's nothing less than a minihistory of the United States, filtered through the teachings of scholars like Howard Zinn, whose 1980 classic, "A People's History of the United States," documented the toll inflicted on common people by political and corporate power grabs.
Lupe takes on the role of teacher and cutup, preacher and street poet, a conflicted citizen who embraces the resilience of African-American culture even as he laments the community's penchant for self-inflicted wounds. His songs laser in on the perpetuation of female stereotypes, the mistreatment of Native Americans, the abuse of the ecology and CIA brainwashing. Heavy lifting, for sure, and yet the best songs also have a spring in their step. You can even dance to some of it. The closing "Hood Now" is a celebration of how far the African-American community has come, the beauty it has created in spite of the odds. It's a grace note on an album brimming with time-to-wake-up urgency.
"I'm afraid Chicago is dying," Lupe told the Tribune this year, but he believes his city's fate isn't sealed. There is a strain of violence and hopelessness in some of the more popular hip-hop emerging from the city this year. But there is another Chicago tradition of soul and affirmation that stretches back to Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers through the work of rappers such as Common and Rhymefest that Lupe insists can be just as relevant.
"You have people coming out of the city that carry the same DNA of progression, change and hope, which inspires musicians and poets to combat (the culture of violence), an opposing voice," he said. "I hope to be one of those."
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