Overrated/Underrated: Did Lupe Fiasco Brick His Career, Or Is He An Unfairly Overlooked Rap Superstar?

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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.

Lupe then went on to have a very public fight with his label, Atlantic Records, over the creative direction of the follow-up to The Cool, Lasers. While Lupe supposedly “won” the disagreement, securing a release date for Lasers after dozens of fans descended on the Atlantic offices to protest on his behalf, the final product left much to be desired.

In fact, those same fans panned the creative direction of the album, which leaned more toward pop sensibilities and more awkward socio-political commentary that revealed Lupe as more of a tinfoil hat-tipping conspiracy buff than the well-read, social scientist the fans — and Lupe himself — had built him up to be in their minds. While Lupe still makes sharp, streetwise observations from time to time, and still has an obvious gift for wordplay, all the fancy metaphors in the world don’t mean anything if you won’t make music that fans want to hear, and that actually says something they can relate to.

On Carter 3, Lil Wayne metaphorically resurrects an embodiment of hip-hop through the extended analogy of a doctor working to correct other rappers’ lyrical deficiencies, depicted as life-threatening organ failures. He seeks to surgically correct their shortcomings, but loses one after another as he lists remedies to their maladies, including: Lack of originality, bad vocabulary, no respect, and missing swagger. Interestingly, he lays out the song with forethought and structure, while maintaining his freewheeling approach to lyricism and creates a joint that Talib Kweli once called “one of the greatest rap songs ever.”

He does this without denigrating fans or other rappers (aside from his fictional patients) or adopting a standoffish, “real” hip-hop stance and positioning himself as the opposition to any sort of “dumbing down” of rap music. He acknowledges the need for originality, vocabulary, and swagger, but displays them in spades. But more importantly, he writes a good rap song. It’s a story that has a definitive plot, but also the allegory actually hangs together, unlike Lupe’s weird, faux-intellectual posturing on “Dumb It Down.”

The truly disappointing thing about Lupe’s tendency to wallow in inflated self-importance is that when he just raps there’s almost no one in the game in can hang with him. He proved that with 2009’s Enemy Of The State: A Love Story EP. Over 11 popular instrumentals from other rappers, he simply goes in, foregoing gimmicks and concepts and just reminds the listener that he can slay a 16 bar verse better than just about anybody.

If Lupe’s catalog consisted of more Enemy Of The States and fewer Lasers — or a more cohesive version of The Cool that actually lives up to its promise — we wouldn’t be having this debate. He’d be in a different discussion entirely: The one about unimpeachable all-time greats. Unfortunately, he’s better at telling us than showing us that he is worthy of the title. Perhaps he should have spent a little time on Dr. Carter’s table.–Aaron Williams

Lupe Fiasco Is Underrated

Years ago, Bill Simmons coined the phrase “Mount Rapmore.” The concept was simple enough: “Which four faces would be carved into stone as the best of rap?” It’s sort of an odd question coming from Simmons (who only ever seemed to know four rappers), but it’s also clearly a fun thing to let spin through your brain. Great for discussing over tacos and beers. Perfect road trip fodder.

Obviously, it’s also impossible to settle. To hit Mount Rapmore you have to be top four in style, flow, rhyme scheme, syntactic mastery, and overarching purpose — all of which are endlessly debatable. Who’s on your list? Rakim seems like a lock, but is anyone else? Whether Pac or Biggie gets a spot is probably influenced by your geographic location. Is Kendrick too young to get carved in?

Now let’s pivot the convo a little. Imagine a row of twenty faces behind Mt. Rapmore. Let’s call it “The Rapmore Longlist.” For this designation, you don’t need to be the top four in all categories, but you need to be the best at one. That’s where Lupe Fiasco belongs — on that second mountain, chiseled alongside other HOF-level legends, all of whom were the very best at some particular skill.

So, what earns Lupe this spot beside the greats, just one row back from the four G.O.A.T.s?

His voice. More specifically, the way his voice dances with the beat. How it dodges and flits around the bass notes, how it plays with dead space. How it bobs and weaves both in keeping with the tempo and in spite of it. Here’s my claim: Lupe Fiasco is the most harmonically dexterous rhymer to have ever played the game. And that’s a hell of a skill to have in the toolbox.

Hold up — I know “harmonically dexterous” sounds like some hipster bullsh*t, but it’s the term I want. Because even though I’m technically just talking about the way the rapper’s flow interfaces with the beat, it’s more than that. It’s also about composing verses that lend themselves to this delivery. It’s about moving words and shifting tones to create a cohesive whole. It’s an art all its own.

To illustrate what I’m getting at, let’s take a chunk of one of Lupe’s most famous verses, from “Superstar”:

And the light bulbs around my mirror don’t flicker,
Everybody gets a nice autographed picture.
One for you and one for your sister —
Who had to work tonight but is an avid listener.
And every song is a favorite song, and mics don’t feedback,
All the reviewers say “you need to go and see that.”
And everybody claps, cause everybody is pleased
Then they all take the stage and start performing for me
Like ha ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha ha

If you look at those bars on the page, they aren’t particularly thrilling. The rhyme scheme is almost… rudimentary. It goes like this:

Flicker, picture, sister, listener — A, A, A, A
Don’t feedback, Go and see that — B-C, B-C
Pleased, for me — D, D

Not much there, right? In fact, none of the phrases are true rhymes — ending on the exact same syllabic note. Now listen to the same section, as done by Lupe (it’s queued up for you):

Would anyone debate that the words rhyme? They seem almost glued together. This is, obviously, the very idea of “flow.” It’s also something akin to a Picasso sketch, where a single line being removed would throw the whole picture out of whack. You can’t spare a single syllable here. Everything is essential.

Sure, almost every rapper twists words, some better than others — this interview with Anderson Cooper and Eminem discussing word-bending is a classic — but does anyone make it sound as… pretty as Lupe? He imbues the words with harmony and hope. There’s a certain brightness to the delivery. He’s the Ali of the rap game: Syllables floating like butterflies.

And here’s the thing: Lupe does something like that — some twist where his voice raises pitch, softens, or soars — on every song. His bars are piled high with surprises in a rap landscape that is rarely brave enough to surprise us. He’s also achingly genuine — which is why a song like “Old School Love” resonates so deeply, when in anyone else’s hands it would have been pure saccharine.

Even the songs everyone hates brim with Lupe’s harmonic dexterity. Lasers is a widely reviled album (though I found so much to love there), and the single “Show Goes On” seems to be the moment where everyone said, “Lupe buckled to his label and sold out.” But that much-maligned track still had spots where this skill that I’m describing came to bear (I’ve laid out the rhyme scheme in parentheticals):

One in the air for the people that ain’t here (A)
Two in the air for the father that’s there (A)
Three in the air for the kids in the ghetto (Open)
Four for the kids who don’t wanna be there (A — though a repeating word isn’t technically a rhyme)

None for the n—-s trying to hold them back
Five in the air for the teacher not scared (A)
To tell those kids, that’s living in the ghetto, that the n—-s holdin’ back, that the world is theirs! (A)

And yet, in Lupe’s hands it becomes this ball of fire:

He’s hermetically sealed to the beat, like Eminem. He feels his words, like Pac. He semi-sings the lyrics, something you can hear he inspired in today’s modern Chicago superstar, Chance. His voice reaches that Q-Tip octave. But the way that Lupe’s vocal notes interact with the Modest Mouse sample is all his own.

That’s his wheelhouse and he’s the best on the planet at it. A lock on the Mt. Rapmore longlist.

Does that mean Lupe is underrated? Yes and no. Lupe’s career was marred, we all know that. There are big smudges all across the pages of his graceful ciphers. As Aaron laid out, some of that is the rapper’s own fault. Some of it is the fault of the label. Now, in 2017, the musical moment seems to have passed Lupe by. He talks about retiring and… who knows? For me, DROGAS Light never felt deeply urgent. The same vocal flexibility that I’m stanning for made Lupe sound like a chameleon on his own album. It was too easy for him to disappear into someone else’s style.

The trouble with an uneven body of work is that it might cause the guy who did a whole song from the POV of a cheeseburger to be forgotten too soon. Lord, I hope this isn’t the case. Because I’ve been listening to rap for three decades and I’ve never heard someone use their voice the way Lupe does.

Want one more example? Try his most famous feature, the third verse in Kanye’s “Touch the Sky.”

Yes, yes, yes, guess who’s on third?
Lupe steal like Lupin the 3rd.
Here like ear ’til I’m beer on the curb.
Peachfuzz buzz but beard on the verge.

First of all, you gotta Rap Genius those bars. Lupin III is a deep cut anime reference and the “beer on the curb” bit is a gem. But it’s the voice — how it snakes around the lines — that is the real magic here. It’s a delivery that’s absolutely unique. It’s also just fun to listen to. There’s a syncopation that is deeply pleasant. That’s part of what this all conspires toward: Lupe’s ability to be emotionally resonant while sounding light.

(The fact that Lupe is a dude who embraces weirdness, likes to skateboard, and f*cks with anime are all pretty big ancillary benefits in my book, but they’re beside the point.)

Maybe whether Lupe is underrated or overrated depends on how long your memory is and how easily you forgive his flops. Aaron nailed the rapper’s missteps, but I’m not particularly bothered by them. As long as songs where his voice gets to shine — tracks like “I Gotcha” from Food & Liquor — have a spot on my playlist, I’ll know that Lupe has a lasting home in rap’s upper echelon.–Steve Brammuci