Lupe Fiasco's Self-Defeating Tendencies
The hilariously overblown Fiascogate story broke when I was on honeymoon, blessedly if temporarily free of the internet. When I got back, I was amazed at how the whole Fiascogate mess had found itself so much burn while something like Prodigy's long-ass prison sentence practically became a footnote. So Lupe flubbed a couple of lines during the Tribe Called Quest tribute segment at VH1's Hip-Hop Honors show, and then he got all defensive and aggro on the internet, none of which is particularly shocking. In an admirably perverse if confoundingly dumb canon-smashing move, Lupe said that 8Ball & MJG were better than a Tribe Called Quest. Shockingly enough, I don't agree with him there, though he might've convinced me to side with him if he'd brought up UGK or Goodie Mob instead. I understand what Lupe was trying to do; charitably, he wanted to argue for the worth of music that self-righteous gatekeeper types hadn't already enshrined. In the process, though, Lupe managed to make himself look like even more of a self-aggrandizing ass than the internet strawmen he was trying to attack. A little while before the whole Hip-Hop Honors kerfuffle, I'd asked Q-Tip about Lupe's claims that he didn't listen to Tribe, and one thing that didn't come across in my interview was the long, uncomfortable pause that settled over the room as soon as I brought up Lupe's name. Before Q-Tip could muster up some conciliatory words, he leaned back in his chair, pointed at a giant Lupe poster on the office wall behind him, and giggled. Given the tension that apparently existed between these guys long before the show, it's puzzling that Lupe would've even shown up in the first place to fete a group he doesn't like that much. It makes sense that Lupe wouldn't be too happy to be railroaded into the backpack-rap clique, but he's not going to do anything but alienate his own audience when, in trying to make himself look like less of a fuckup, he fires unprovoked bile at one of his audience's favorite groups; it's not like he managed to switch out the Tribe audience for the Ball & G one. Now Lupe finds himself in the bizarre position of having to sell his music to an audience he bitched at less than a month ago.
Lupe Fiasco is a genuinely great rapper. He crams his verses with enough freeform imagery that his tracks take multiple listens to unpack, and he delivers that imagery in a casual, conversational chirp that always sticks pleasantly to the beat. But as much as I liked his debut Food & Liquor at first, I haven't listened to it in months, and its problems (weak hooks, leaden beats, a general lack of comfort with ideas about song-structure) are all over the two songs I've heard from The Cool, his fourth-quarter sequel. "Dumb it Down," the first single, has a nice atmospheric synth-glide of a beat, but his extended metaphors float off into such indecipherable silliness that before the second verse ends he's talking about "flying on Pegasus while you flying on a pheasant." The pseudo-satirical chorus, all about how everyone keeps telling him to water down his ideas, is exactly the sort of self-important bullshit that always irks the fuck out of me. "Superstar," the other new one, has a beat I couldn't pick out of a lineup and an unbelievably lame and goopy lounge-singer hook from nobody Matthew Santos. It's worth noting that Lupe sounds really great when he's actually rapping on both of those songs, even if I have basically no idea what he's talking about, but the two songs just aren't strong enough to support Lupe's voice. 50 Cent loves to say that Lil Wayne is a good rapper who can't make good songs, but that charge is a whole lot more true of someone like Lupe than it is of Wayne, who actually has a pretty strong back-catalogue of singles. Lupe remains sadly attached to longtime cronies like Santos and Soundtrakk, who produced both tracks, when he really should be looking for collaborators who know how to get the best out of him. All the fluid verbal gymnastics in the world don't mean a thing if they don't come attached to songs that work.
The videos for "Dumb It Down" and "Superstar" don't help anything. "Dumb It Down" got an unbelievably cheap YouTube video that somehow served to make the song even more annoying. But "Superstar" went bigger. Hype Williams directed the video, which hit the internet today. Since Williams came out of semi-retirement, he's completely sidelined the weirdo imagery and quick-cut pyrotechnics that once distinguished him, instead going for a slow, gleaming aesthetic that shares more with, say, Stephane Sednaoui than it does with, say, Dave Meyers. Maybe the "Superstar" video will benefit from being seen on an actual TV rather than a computer screen, as the videos for "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Blue Magic" do, but right now it looks like one of Williams' weakest. In the video, Lupe falls asleep (the first thirty seconds or so are silent) and dreams of what it would be like to famous, giving Williams opportunity to give a dreamlike impressionistic collage of simulated red-carpet moments. In Williams' new world, everything moves glacially and reflects waves of light; his pictures are awfully pretty, but this sort of thing can get boring fast, and he doesn't push it anywhere. "Dumb It Down" and "Superstar" had basically no chance of becoming hits anyway, but these videos basically ruin whatever shot they had.
Look, I'm rooting for Lupe. He's got a great voice and a lot of interesting ideas, but he doesn't always seem to know how to use those ideas, and he could use some organizational help. For my money, the best thing that he's done since Food & Liquor is "Us Placers," the song he did with Kanye West and Pharrell over a gorgeously luminescent sample of Thom Yorke's "The Eraser." Those three share a whole lot aesthetically, and they sound deeply comfortable trading verses over ethereal IDM. All of them indulge their most pretentious impulses, but they all somehow keep each other in check in the process. But "Us Placers" was just a mixtape track. Lupe has said that the three of them have a supergroup called CRS together and that they'll be recording an album, but I'll believe that when either Kanye or Pharrell confirms it. I hope it does happen; Lupe has a whole lot to gain from working with people who know how to use him.
Voice review: Corin Fleming on Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor