Lupe Fiasco can come across as a teacher, preacher, cutup, conflicted citizen, jazz head, skilled rhyme machine and political radical.
His new album, “Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Part 1” (1st and 15th/Atlantic), touches on all those personas. Fiasco — born Wasalu Muhammed Jaco 30 years ago — was part of a wave of socially conscious Chicago rap artists on his 2006 debut album, “Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor.” Since then, he has grown into a respected hip-hop veteran who has sold nearly 1.5 million copies of his first three albums while growing only more fearless in his outspokenness.
In the past, he has been critical of everyone from his record company to Barack Obama. This summer, he fretted over the rising murder rate in Chicago's toughest neighborhoods and how it was spilling over into the music of rising rap stars such as Chief Keef and Lil Reese. Keef in turn lashed out at Fiasco.
But it would be a mistake, Fiasco says, to interpret his new album as a critique and commentary on recent events. The subject is America in all its contradictions, but it's about looking deeper than Keef's recent music or the president's policy on the Middle East.
“The bulk of this album speaks to how America hasn't changed,” he says. “The great turning points in history, we romanticize them too much. The general arc of the way society works hasn't changed in terms of racism, class bias, oppression, happiness, joy, displacement, urban decay and urban renewal for decades. There are certain things we have to address, but have not really addressed for decades, really — youth violence in the city, for one. The same cycle of violence keeps happening in Oakland, Detroit, Miami, Houston, Chicago.”
Fiasco himself was a product of those violent streets, growing up on the West Side where gangbangers and drug dealers ruled. He dabbled in gangsta rap himself as a teen before realizing it was a dead-end creatively. So when upstart Chicago rappers like Keef began waving guns and chronicling street violence in their music, Fiasco told a radio interviewer this summer, “Chief Keef scares me. Not him specifically, but just the culture that he represents.” Keef responded with an epithet-laden message on Twitter.
“My first comments were to express concern about the incubators of violence,” Fiasco says. “I was more distraught and concerned about what causes all this violence to happen in the first place. Many of my friends are gangsters. Some of my best friends in the music business are gangsta rappers. I'm not flinching at a gun in a video, or a song about selling crack. I talked about the same things in my older records. It's not like this is brand new. My concern, and what everyone's concern should be, is that the circumstances that create a culture like that haven't changed. There have been no real solutions. So why wouldn't you expect a new crop of music like this from all cities?
“The mimicking of the culture you see now, the style of the music, originated in Atlanta, imported from (Atlanta rappers such as) Waka Flocka and Gucci Mane. Where did that come from? Detroit, Oakland. It starts to go around the map. It's the same venting in the music, how it sounds, its attitude, the callousness and aggressiveness. Underneath, what's there? I'm afraid Chicago is becoming Detroit. I'm afraid Chicago is dying. There is some semblance that society is running as normal. But as soon as you go two blocks outside the downtown radius, it's a wasteland.”
Fiasco says he feels driven to counter the nihilism that has cropped up in the new Chicago hip-hop: “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 it, an opposing voice. It's always been like that in Chicago. My piece can be just as strong and aggressive (as the gangsta rap), and I put that on the album.”
On the new album, Fiasco hammers away at a range of heavy topics, including the perpetuation of stereotypes (the five-letter “b” word comes in for a complex, song-length exploration), the perpetuation of slavery and ecological desecration in the name of expansion (“Unforgivable Youth”), the mistreatment of Native Americas in South Dakota (in “Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)”) and CIA brainwashing (“Lamborghini Angels”). It's no wonder he's a fan of the late historian Howard Zinn, whose 1980 classic, “A People's History of the United States,” documented the toll paid by common people so that the political and economic elite could advance their agendas.
If that makes Fiasco seem like a scold, he's not apologizing. “I know you're sayin', ‘Lupe rappin' 'bout the same (stuff)'/ Well, that's 'cause ain't (nothing) changed,” he raps on “ITAL (Roses).”
"Howard Zinn had a sense of humor, and he realized the unpopularity and the futility of some of his views,” he says. “But he never backed away from the importance of what he was saying. He was saying, ‘I am preaching at you. I am a teacher. I have no shame in doing that.' Some of the people we hold in highest regard in this society, whatever our background, whatever our experience, are preachers."
That leaves less room for the warmth that defined Fiasco's breakthrough single, “Kick Push,” but it returns on the closing track, "Hood Now." It's a celebration of how far African-American culture has come in recent decades, despite the obstacles still to be overcome.
"They gave us scraps, some of it old," Fiasco raps, "We cooked it up and called it 'soul.'"
"The fact that we've been able to capture and repurpose some of the things that were meant to destroy us, or keep us out of the mainstream, is worth reflecting on," he says. "That's something we need to preach about too."