*** (out of four)
As violence in Chicago reaches increasingly staggering levels, Chicago’s drill music has escalated as well--entering into the national hip-hop spotlight while its artists, Chief Keef in particular, have come to represent for many the violent surroundings writ large, reported upon by rappers with little moral reflection.
Local rapper Lupe Fiasco, whose dense, politically charged lyrical style is almost entirely at odds with Keef's, has naturally been drawn into the conversation about Chicago violence at various turns, expressing sadness about the conditions facing some of Keef’s young fans and offering a harsh rebuke, in particular, to Keef’s callous Twitter response to the murder of young South Side rapper Lil Jojo. It's been refreshing to see Lupe, a prominent voice in the Chicago scene, speak out on the violence in the music. Yet there's also something slightly disingenuous/self-promotional about it, since the not-so-tacit suggestion following Lupe's comments has been that his forthcoming album “Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1” is the thinking rap fan's solution to the problem.
It also raises a tough question: At a time when the general circumstances of life in Chicago/America demand a radical reaction, how can an artist make music that is both political and engaging?
There are lots of ways for music to be political that don't involve smugly name-checking freshman-dorm-style liberal concerns like planned obsolescence (as he does here [on "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)"]) as proof of the ills in the world. The emotional vacancy of Chief Keef's music has become synonymous with the violence in Chicago not because The Media or Record Labels want to shove that image down consumers' throats, but rather because it highlights the terror of the environment. It draws attention to a frequently marginalized problem – surely an act with some political value.
And fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, one of the few rappers prominent enough to land in gossip magazines, rather than bowing to the media-friendly idea of post-racial celebrity makes a point of discussing racially biased incongruities in songs that still manage to score major radio play.
Lupe, on the other hand, conveys politics by delivering lectures that veer toward condescendion and often forget that one of the central ideas of music is that it's supposed to serve as entertainment. It's hard to imagine anyone under the age of 40 seriously getting into the cranky old man hook on the “F&L II” track “Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free),” for instance, which includes the phrase “a bunch of nonsense on my TV.” Lupe too often succumbs to bad instincts with grandiosity. He serves as a cautionary tale for how a great rapper might end up being memorialized by some as the guy who rapped from the point of view of a cheeseburger, as he once did on "The Cool" track "Gotta Eat", while being celebrated by the most annoying kind of listeners: rigid fans who dismiss detractors as unable to get the message (there's nothing complicated about "Bitch Bad" -- it's just a bad, patronizing song).
So it's satisfying to see Lupe pull off the trick of making an effective political album in an era when politically charged pop music is generally uncool. Perhaps it’s a sign of the gravity of his purpose, but Lupe sticks to his strengths, delivering structurally complex but conceptually straightforward raps over simple beats with just the most necessary shadings of sonic experimentation. This is his most focused album to date, which marks a big step up from last year's troubled "L.A.S.E.R.S." Tracks like “Put Em Up” feature the kind of virtuosic rhyming his fans expect; songs like “Audubon Ballroom” and “Hood Now” engage racial politics with something approaching a sense of humor; “Lamborghini Angels” actually has a cool hook.
Lupe doesn’t have the visceral immediacy of some of the current generation of Chicago artists like Keef or Lil Reese, but he’s never claimed to. He is necessarily dense, and he provides a reassuring alternative voice to the chaos the situation demands. As always, more voices are a better thing for hip-hop, and a better thing for the city.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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