The Trouble With Lupe Fiasco Goes Beyond Pete Rock And Touching "T.R.O.Y."

via The LupEND Blog
It was all good for Lupe Fiasco just two albums ago. By 2008, the Chicago MC, co-signed by Jay-Z and brought on the Glow In The Dark Tour by Kanye West, had released two critically acclaimed albums, Food & Liquor and The Cool, and built on a reputation as a nimble lyricist with a political bent forged by a series of excellent mixtapes by demonstrating that he could write more traditionally radio-friendly singles ("Kick, Push," "Superstar") without forsaking his essence.

But those albums were only moderate commercial successes, leading Atlantic Records and Fiasco to squabble endlessly over what would eventually become 2011's Lasers. The struggle seemed to sap Fiasco's talents (Lasers is a mess of awkward collaborations and half-hearted you-can-do-it anthems that seemed like an ungainly swing at pop, despite Fiasco passing on what would become label mate B.o.B's "Nothin' on You"; Fiasco's last widely praised project was a 22-minute mixtape, Enemy of the State, released in November 2009) and embolden him politically (Fiasco, an avowed non-voter, called President Obama "the biggest terrorist" in 2011, has allied himself with Occupy Wall Street to the point of rapping "New gang alert, hashtag Occupy," and became one of the first rappers ever to look like an idiot in a dispute with Bill O'Reilly).

But Atlantic got what it wanted in Lasers, an album Fiasco confessed to hating: a hit. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard, spawned two top-40 singles ("The Show Goes On" and "Out of My Head"), and re-established Fiasco as a source of lucre for the label while giving him a forum for his Alex Jones-caliber conspiracy theorizing—"All Black Everything" imagines a counter-factual world in which the African slave trade did not exist but rap still somehow evolved in the same way, while "Words I Never Said" allowed Lupe to indulge his 9/11 truther fantasies ("9/11, Building 7, did they really pull it?") and self-mythologize ("I'm a part of the problem, my problem is I'm peaceful") over leaden Alex da Kid production. With "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)," released Monday night, Fiasco proved that he and Atlantic understand the template for his future commercial success—rap on pop tracks and continue to vomit incoherent political screeds—but have completely lost the plot when it comes to critical respect.

"Around My Way" is another sunny polemic ("First off, I say peace to Pine Ridge/ Ashamed at all the damage that the white man wine did," Lupe begins, becoming one of the first rappers to draw directly from Nick Kristof for lyrics; he explained the subject matter by saying "a lot of stuff on that record is stuff that I just recently learned about America") that devolves into word-association worthy of Andrew Breitbart and laments "But freedom ain't free, 'specially round my way." It would be merely suitable for both the general public to ignore or Lupe's sizable flock of acolytes to mine for gems if not for its sample of the source material for Pete Rock and CL Smooth's crucial "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," which spurred a Twitter rant from Rock and could spark a much-needed discussion over the politics of sampling in rap.

"T.R.O.Y." is considered an all-time rap classic because it is almost a hermetically sealed bit of perfection: Rock looped a glorious sax run from Tom Scott and the California Dreamers' "Today" and threw just the right drums underneath, and CL spun his own tale and that of Troy "Trouble T-Roy" Dixon, a close friend of both the producer and rapper. It's universally respected, but rarely covered or reworked, both because of the sacred subject matter and because the potential blowback outweighs the potential benefit; the original pairing collaborated with Mr. Cheeks in 2003 on the sacrilegious "Reminisce '03", uses virtually the same instrumental, adds a new CL Smooth verse, and allowed both artists to pay respect to the fallen Freaky Tah. While both Rock and Smooth signed off on it then, Rock would gripe about that decision in later years after a falling out with his MCing partner of nearly two decades.

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