Lupe Fiasco: interview

Lupe Fiasco is more likely to watch ’Doctor Zhivago‘ than MTV Base and says his positive approach stems from Islam. Not that he likes to big up himself too much, he tells Time Out

  • Over here in backwards Blighty we think that hip hop is all about glamour and coolness and all that stuff. But for Chicago native and white-hot rap star Lupe Fiasco, hip hop is about as sexy as Drynights lingerie.

    ‘I don't really get the same kinda romance that I would get from, like, jazz,’ he says. ‘And even to a lesser extent to rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll has a romance to it – how can I put it? – a very vulgar romance, but still a romance; whereas hip hop has more façade. The romance of hip hop is like the struggle to get on. The romance is doin’ the ciphers and try’na get studio time and being on the bus and reciting your rhymes. That’s the romance of hip hop – the struggle to get there. But, once you get there, it’s gone.’

    Right now, Fiasco is there. In many respects, the struggle pretty much ended for him following his guest appearance on Kanye West’s ‘Touch The Sky’. This, plus successful solo single ‘Kick, Push’ (using skateboarding as a metaphor for his ambition to progress hip hop, nerd fans), ensured that his debut solo album ‘Food & Liquor’ become one of the most talked-about (if not quite paid-for) hip hop albums of 2005. Fiasco’s new album, ‘The Cool’, builds on a character created on a track of the same name from his debut. The story concerns the influence of three seductive characters common in the urban ennvironment, namely The Street, The Game and The Cool. Wisely, he has chosen to limit the concept to just a few tracks rather than go the whole ‘Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’, but even so we won’t go into the whole thing here because it’ll just get very confusing. Narratives aside, the new record also features one of the first forays into beatitude from baby-manatee-resembling Patrick Stump, the singer-guitarist with emo juggernaut Fall Out Boy who are, coincidentally, signed to Jay-Z’s label (he’s also produced newcomer Tyga’s semi-novelty track ‘Wow’, which will most likely be the next ‘Crank Dat’ – cheers Pat).

    As you may have noticed, Lupe’s influences and associates don’t belong to the usual pantheon of hip hop. Fiasco states that most of his education has come from reading National Geographic and watching documentaries on television; while when he’s not listening to hip hop, he’s chilling watching ‘Doctor Zhivago’.

    ‘I take it as a challenge to talk about certain things,’ he says, ‘to kind of break the monotony and break the boredom. And not even for fans, but for me, to see if I can actually do it, to accomplish something. To achieve a masterpiece of some sort. I look at people like Picasso and Da Vinci and Escher and Miles Davis and they’ll write or paint that one definitive masterpiece of maybe 50 that they have that’s really trying to go outside the box, trying to do something that’s tough. And then when you accomplish it, you look back and go, “Yeeaaaah – masterpiece.”’

    Once he’s knocked off his ‘Guernica’, Fiasco aims to quite the game. He has previously stated that he’ll only produce three albums and then quit, although we’ve heard that before and ‘retirement’ in the hip hop community carries about as much weight as ‘just the one’ among drinkers. After all, Tupac’s busier than ever and he’s been dead 11 years. Fiasco’s reasons for announcing that ‘LUP End’ will be his swansong are at least refreshingly open: he doesn't think he'll have that much else to say.

    ‘I already got my cookbook.’ he says, ‘and I'm on page 50. But there’s 75 pages in my cookbook. So I’ve already cooked a lot of the stuff that I was preparing. The struggle is about if I can articulate it or not. And sometimes it’s like: Wow, I can’t rap about that, it’s too deep, or I have to expand it, make it a subtle plot for a story.’

    It’s not just taming his subject matter which keeps Lupe struggling. Critical and commercial success haven’t been able to cushion him from life’s harsher realities, harsher even than property prices and Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy. During the recording of ‘The Cool’, both his father and best friend died. His mentor and business partner Charles ‘Chilly’ Patton was sentenced to 44 years in prison following a 2003 drug bust in which six kilos of heroin were found in a storage locker rented by him.

    Fiasco deals with these events philosophically, however, rather than whinge about them explicitly (well, except for on self-explanatory album track ‘Free Chilly’). Still, Fiasco’s conscious, positive, high-minded rhymes are not a replacement for the thugged-out gangsta porn we know and love but an alternative artistic stream. In fact, there was a time when Lupe couldn’t get a record deal as no label could believe he would actually be able to sell any records. ‘The Cool’, predictably enough, has spent the last month at the top of the Billboard rap chart since its release in the US. Lupe puts this odd cultural conservatism down to a lack of strong examples.

    ‘There’s a few, but more for the kind of success. Like Jay-Z, he’s a very dope artist, but I respect him more for his business sense nowadays. Like, man, we wanna be Jay-Z. Because we can rap like Jay-Z, and have some of the same lyrics as Jay-Z and even be compared to Jay-Z, but what he trumps everybody with is his business sense. Every couple of weeks there’s a new announcement of Jay-Z buying something. The people that I see that are really role models – that inspire you to be a better person – is people like Bun B from UGK: little quietest cat, he’s probably like the godfather of hip hop, on the low. Especially in Houston, because he’s very influential and he’s such a cool, effective kind of a dude. But the main people that are meant to be our role models aren’t really our role models. You know, 50 Cent’s not a role model.’

    Much of Lupe’s positive-minded aspiration stem from his religion. Although he doesn’t like to talk about it too much, Fiasco is a practicing Muslim. ‘It’s definitely my driving force in the whole thing,’ he says. ‘To do positive things in the world, that comes directly from being Muslim. But I don’t wanna be looked at as the poster child for Islam because it’s a double-edged sword. All the enemies of Islam will look at all my flaws, like, “See? This is Islam and there’s holes in it.” And people who are Muslim will see me as a source of inspiration and they’ll look at it as, “Well, Lupe doesn’t do that so I don’t have to do that.” So I kind of keep it on the low, you know?’

    It’s a fair point: after all, God is the first name in the thank-yous on every hip hop album yet the likes of Snoop or Sir Mixalot don't get described as ‘Christian rappers’. ‘Right,’ says Fiasco, ‘but I'll get tagged as a Muslim rapper. You know, my goal once I leave the music business, is like, “Man, Lupe didn’t lead us astray.” It comes directly from Islam: leading people astray is the worst thing you could do. Especially in perpetuity; like, your music continues to go on and live without you. That risk is too great for me, I’m gonna keep it positive.’

    ‘The Cool’ is released on Atlantic on January 21.

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