Overrated/Underrated is a hip-hop column where we examine the legacy of a rapper and try to determine once and for all: Are they overrated or underrated? Today’s candidate: Lupe Fiasco.
Lupe Fiasco Is Overrated
Lupe Fiasco tells a story on “Dumb It Down,” from his ostensibly high-concept sophomore LP, The Cool. It’s intricate, elaborate, detailed, winding, and damn near cluttered with rhyme schemes that few could ever match. It’s also complete and utterly pointless, Alice In Wonderland nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong; by no means does that make it wack. In fact, so much of hip-hop is built on silly, pointless, stream-of-consciousness strings of rhymed puns that there’s nothing truly unusual about “Dumb It Down,” except for its reliance on a hook that does what far too many modern rappers do: Lament the state of hip-hop, calling its audience morons so a select few fans can feel smarter than the rest. This is exactly why Lupe Fiasco is overrated.
Considering that song came out in 2008, and rappers had been doing the same thing since 1998 (and those rappers’ complaints were as staid then, given that many of their forebears had been making similar arguments throughout the ‘90s), “Dumb It Down” wasn’t as clever as it pretended to be. In truth, its verses did little to prove any main idea other than Lupe’s lyrical dexterity, which was never in doubt; no one was asking him to dumb down, and his rhymes elsewhere are far more entertaining than enlightening.
But this is what you get with Lupe Fiasco; a solid core of genuinely interesting and engagingly technical rap with a rather obnoxious veneer of pretentiousness that distracts from just how good a rapper Lupe is. His fans, however, eat it up because the message he is projecting is the same one backpack rappers from ’95 to 2017 have always endorsed: Because you like my music, you are more intellectual, more cultured, more tapped into “real” hip-hop than everyone else. His fans then place him on a pedestal since he’s telling them exactly what they want to hear.
Around the same time, Lil Wayne was in the midst of his ridiculously strong run of declaring himself “the best rapper alive” in the wake of Jay-Z’s “retirement” with The Black Album in 2003. Wayne’s bars had become colorful, descriptive, and instructive of practically every rhetorical device a rap writer could cram into four or five minutes of instrumental, often foregoing hooks to leave more space for punchlines and metaphors.
In contrast with Lupe Fiasco, Wayne’s endless string of seeming nonsequiturs always circled back to that main idea: “I am the best rapper alive.” He wasn’t just saying it, he was proving it. No punchline was too lowbrow (“B*tch I’m the bomb like tick tick”) but there were also astonishingly clever comparisons (“Okay, you’re a goon, but what’s a goon to a goblin?”), but at no point did Wayne ever pretend that he was doing anything other than rapping about how good of a rapper he is.
Meanwhile, The Cool was a textbook example of Lupe’s reach exceeding his grasp. He promised a concept album, with an in-depth allegory about the life and times of Michael Young History, the zombie drug dealer from his Food & Liquor standout, “The Cool.” Instead, he somehow delivered “Superstar,” the believe-in-yourself anthem featuring pop singer Matthew Santos, “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” the unauthorized biography of Houston rap superstar Slim Thug, and “Little Weapon,” an awkward diatribe about child soldiers, yet The Cool is somehow considered by fans a borderline classic, despite its failure to follow through on its promise of a high-concept, cohesive body of work.