Most artists don't consider premature retirement until after they've made it big — really big. But Lupe Fiasco isn't most artists. His first album, 2006's Food & Liquor, earned excellent reviews, a trio of Grammy nominations and sales that remain just shy of gold status, and his entertainingly scattershot new disc, The Cool, seems likely to build on this success. Still, he says he expects that his next recording will be his last.
Why? "It's more the rigmarole of the music business," he says. "The accolades are fine, the critical acclaim is fine, and everything is welcomed with open arms. But there's always the premise of the Big Brother Record Company doing you bad over your shoulder. And the only way to really kind of escape that is to stop for a period of time. I will still perform, I will still create. But the music will be in a different format. It wouldn't be in a CD. It's like, if you want to hear the next Lupe Fiasco album, you've got to come out and see a show on his thirty-city tour, because he's going to perform the new album, and it's all live." He likes the idea of fans checking out his work "the same way people had to listen to music in the 1400s and 1500s. They had to get dressed and go out and hear it once and really appreciate it — where everyone is really quiet, listening to every word. I guess I'm kind of a romantic in that sense."
Such renaissance fantasies only hint at the idiosyncrasies that season The Cool, an effort that mates ambitious arrangements and beats with lyrics that kill cliches on contact. Several songs on the album feature a trio of figures with emblematic monikers: the Streets, the Game and the title character, "a hustler supreme who sold more dope than anybody, made more money than anybody, had more power than anybody, wreaked more havoc than anybody," Fiasco notes. "He's represented as this rotting corpse with a rotting right hand. They won't let him into heaven or hell, so he's forced to walk the earth after his death and had to dig out of his own grave."
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These conceptual aspects are interspersed with material that merges social consciousness with a sensibility that's often as loopy as it is Lupe. "Intruder Alert" is built upon a series of deeply felt vignettes about a rape victim learning to trust again, a drug addict and a destitute father trying to sneak his daughter into the country even though he knows she'll be branded as an illegal. In contrast, "Gotta Eat" is a bizarre pro-nutrition narrative in which the protagonist, a killer cheeseburger, spits out lines like, "When niggas gotta eat, that's when shit gets greasy." Then there's "Dumb It Down," which addresses the stigma against brainy hip-hop: "You going over niggas' heads, Lu (dumb it down)/They telling me that they don't feel you (dumb it down)/We ain't graduate from school, nigga (dumb it down)/Them big words ain't cool, nigga (dumb it down)."
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Fiasco stresses that "Dumb It Down" is about more than attacking his naysayers. "It's as personal as people telling me, 'Lupe, your music's too smart,'" he concedes, "but it's also about the pseudo-man who's behind the scenes pushing buttons. Someone who's like, 'They're starting to think smart is cool. Dumb it down. You're giving them too much information. You're messing up this little thing we've had going for the last few hundred years. You need to relax a little bit.' It's as big as that — as direct and as indirect as both of those things. But I like that. I always like to leave my music open for the most complete and the most ridiculous interpretations possible. I think that's what gives it some of its life."
From the beginning, Fiasco has been nurtured on contradictions. Born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, he came of age in a dodgy portion of Chicago. "I grew up around prostitutes and drug dealers — finding drug needles and bags of dope and crooked police," he says. "But then there's the other side, where there were artists and musicians and sculptors and painters and comic books — that whole world. And it was always together. It was like I was always in both. And I guess it's still playing out as far as how that's going to affect me within the music and my career."
True enough. Fiasco personally eschews drugs and alcohol, and "Baba Says Cool for Thought," the first track on The Cool, undercuts the thug mentality by way of some derisive imagery: "They think it's cool to stand on the block/Hiding products in their socks/Making quick dime-bag dollars." But the cut is followed immediately by "Free Chilly," a shout-out to Charles Patton, Fiasco's partner in the 1st and 15th record label, who was sentenced in 2007 to 44 years in stir on charges related to a Cook County, Illinois, arrest for possessing six kilos of heroin. Although Fiasco was never formally accused of complicity in illicit matters, the state's case links 1st and 15th and smack peddling — a troubling connection given the rhymer's straight-edge reputation. He admits that he finds the general public's eagerness to buy this scenario to be frustrating, if unsurprising. "I know that certain stereotypes are certain people's reality, so it's almost like it's expected," he says. "On a really base level, it's like, here are these black guys from the hood having all this success, so there has to be something lascivious there. It's that stereotype, and I know some people believe it. But understanding that keeps me sane. It keeps me rational in what are sometimes the most irrational situations."
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This attitude has helped Fiasco handle the hoopla that's attended his claim in a recent interview that he'd rather Hillary Clinton be elected president than Barack Obama, an African-American senator from his home state. He hardly sees himself as a Hillary booster, and dismisses his inclination toward her campaign as a trivial preference based entirely on gender. "For more than 200 years, the country's always been led by men, and there have always been problems. Let's see what happens with a woman. Just roll the dice and see what happens with a woman," he says. "And that's really it. It's really that non-thought-out and basic of a statement to make. Because the more thought-out argument I have is, I don't have faith in the system. I don't have faith that any candidate represents our whole idea of democracy," a noble principle whose origins are far from unstained. As he notes, "The Greek definition of democracy was written by people who owned slaves, who believed that women shouldn't vote and that slaves shouldn't vote, that people outside the capital shouldn't vote, and that the farmers shouldn't vote — that it was only for landowners and the elite." He thinks those who believe a new president will solve all their problems would be better off focusing their energy on local elections that might actually impact the way they live day to day.
Meanwhile, Fiasco isn't acting like a man ready to hang up his microphone. Items on his agenda include Child Rebel Soldier, a proposed hip-hop supergroup that would team him with Kanye West and Pharrell — if, that is, enough red tape can be slashed. "The CRS project is a monster, a seven-headed monster in itself, because there are three different record labels and three different, active artists on three different parts of the planet at any given time," he says. "Always when we brought up, like, 'Let's do CRS,' somebody would be like, 'All right, but I've got to go to Germany. I'll be right back.'"
Nevertheless, Fiasco insists that he's 85 percent certain he'll withdraw as a solo artist following the release of a third album, to be called L.U.P.End. But that leaves him some wiggle room in case he's beseeched to continue by someone like Cornel West, the Princeton professor whose suggestion that we have to "make it cool to be uncool" gave his latest CD its title and theme. "I actually just did the Tavis Smiley show, and he brought up Cornel West," Fiasco says. "He was talking about how one of Cornel West's lectures at Princeton is all about Lupe Fiasco. So to know that is there and to continue to give him material for his lectures...well, that's part of the other 15 percent."
Visit http://blogs.westword.com/backbeat/ for more of our interview with Lupe Fiasco.