Friday, August 27, 2010

Rise and Fall

Ever since I’ve been following hip-hop—let’s say the middle of high school here—it’s been a genre desperately searching for its future, the next great M.C. Kanye West was it once. Common too, I think. Drake is just about to transition from rapper of the future to rapper of the ambiguous present (the present is never quite as good as you think it would be when it was the future). J. Cole, I guess, is the new rapper of the future. There is one rapper of the future that’s met the most interesting fate: Lupe Fiasco.

Lupe Fiasco never quite became bad, but he did go from exciting to kind of bland awfully quickly. Maybe it was because Drake and Kid Cudi recognized the cultural niche Lupe was going for and helped fill the space; at any rate, you’d think a Muslim comic book geek would be able to ride an interesting backstory and wonderful verbal talent of days and days. Now the guy is reduced to begging his fans on Twitter to request his songs or force his label to release his third album. And you’d think if Lupe were the rapper of the future, comments like these on current events like the Manhattan mosque would get more attention:
Everyone has the right to worship where they please, but you do have to question the wisdom of it when you look at the reaction that it caused. I'm Muslim, so I understand the importance of practicing the faith. But that is something that is sensitive to Americans. I don't trust polls, but there was such an overwhelming sentiment that maybe it's not the best of idea. I think the people who are building it should take that under consideration. Would they be setting themselves up for vandals? Because now it's become a target. But on the other side, I think it's a great opportunity because Islam is in the forefront. This mosque situation is a good chance to spread what Islam is really about. People can give commentary on how much of a peaceful religion it is. I look at the situation as a win-win. Just by you talking to me about the controversy, I get to spread the fact that Islam is a wonderful religion. The majority of Muslims are not even in the Middle East. The majority of Muslims are in South East Asia. The point of Islam is to promote peace. But there are a lot of emotions in New York. I've visited Ground Zero so I understand that it's a sensitive subject.
Nuanced! (I disagree, but certainly nuanced!) Surprising, considering this is the same guy who released “American Terrorist.” Lupe has always struck me as the guy or gal in college who can’t stop banging on about all the terrible things that have happened in the past, which is annoying because that guy or gal…is almost always right. (Well, right about the outrage; typically wrong about how to address the whole situation).

It’s a bit of a shame that this is the case—that Lupe can’t really get any attention at this point in time, even on a sensitive subject. The plan was, that his third album was to be his last. As far as I can tell, this was always the plan—which is an interesting comment on self-perception. As far as artists go, there are so many who have worn out their welcome by writing one too many novels (Fitzgerald), one too many movies (Allen), or one too many albums (Nas). And while you can’t exactly begrudge an artist’s best work for being accompanied by too many mediocre descendants, it does diminish the artist in our memory. So if Lupe’s self-assessment was that he was always only good for three albums (assuming, of course, he wasn’t planning to unretire before he retired the whole time), that’s quite the comment on his abilities.

Probably an accurate one, as it turns out. Lupe has wonderful tools but precious few materials to use them on, and I suspect after two albums and a mixtape, he’s run out of subjects: there’s the conscious rap and the story rap. You’ve heard the rap on the conscious rap—think leftist politics of the Howard Zinn persuasion—but the storytelling songs were always, I thought, the best of his abilities: he had a gift for, well, telling a good story in vivid language; you know, that Creative Writing 101 shit.

His second album probably exposed the poverty of his building materials: billed as a concept album with (according to wikipedia) three characters called, sigh, “The Cool,” “The Streets,” and “The Game,” which apparently are supposed to be archetypal characters representing…uh, did you see their names? It turns out to be tiresome, and then there’s that poor decision to rap from the perspective of a hamburger (“Gotta Eat”). That’s a bad decision, advice-wise, don’t you think? (Almost as bad as Nas’s decision to rap from the perspective of Chief Wiggum [well, that’s what the voice sounds like] in “Who Killed It?”)

It wouldn’t be far beyond comprehensible for Lupe to turn his career around and come up with new ideas, but new events are making his old decisions seem smart.

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