Lupe Fiasco v. Others # 1

. Mar 14, 2008

We all know the lyrical prowess of Lupe Fiasco and undoubtedly his versatility. In one instance, he can spit as effortlessly as, say, a Twista or Bone Thugs (e.g., “Go Go Gadget Flow” and “Switch (Science Project)”); in another, he can smoothly recreate himself as a rockstar (e.g., “Hello/Goodbye”). This versatility even extends to an inimitable ability to create love songs as if a modern-day LL Cool J with a creativity that harkens back to the golden ear of hip hop (early ‘90s) and an incredible story-telling ability that is often lacking in hip hop. This is obvious in such songs as “Sunshine” and “Paris, Tokyo.”

True Lupe fans, nevertheless, are students of his music, so much so that their attention to Lu doesn’t stop necessarily at his official albums – Food & Liquor and The Cool. Before his popularity skyrocketed as a result of such hits as “Kick, Push,” “Daydreamin’,” and “Superstar,” including an appearance on Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky,” Lu propelled himself in the underground scene by dropping his highly-underrated Fahrenheit 1/15 mixtape triad – Part I: The Truth is Among Us; Part II: Revenge of the Nerds; and Part III: A Rhyming Age. (Of course, his official tracklisting extends even before these drops, with such songs as “Coulda Been” and appearances on songs by Tha’ Rayne, but for now, the attention of this posting will focus on those mixtapes.) As a disclaimer, in no way am I suggesting that I’m the expert interpreter of Lupe’s music, and perhaps there is no such person as a Lupe expert. But, as fans, we all have a right to make our own interpretations, and therein lies the beauty of his music: this knack for under-the-table metaphors and well-thought-out concepts with hidden meanings that force us to rewind the tape several times to fully grasp what was mentioned even within a 3-second gap. And, even then, did you really catch it? Swagger in-hand, Lupe knows all too well his own abilities: “And my flow sick / Let it marinate / Try to break it down / Might take awhile.”

So my hope in this posting is not necessarily to interpret the precise meaning of his concepts, but rather to compare his words to that other emcees on the same subject. The subject I have chosen for this post is lyrical ability and, more so, the ability to brag about yourself or your lyrical skills. In many instances, this is the essence of a MC battle – who can more cleverly brag about his or her abilities than the opponent. And in most rap songs, that is a common theme: how great you are on the mic and how no one compares to you. For most, it is simple; you directly explain “how hot” you are or how much of a beast you are on the mic or how you’re the man (or woman). But for Lu, his is a different formula, comprising of subtle hints at his ability, hints that, when combined, create a fierce realization that he is the best at what he does, but without all the unnecessary and repetitive words. Through his words, Lupe allows the listeners to decide how incredibly powerful his music is, and it is precisely these subtle hints and almost esoteric concepts that persuade us of his abilities. In Hov’s words, this is true “lyrical exercise.”

Let’s start with the following MCs:

1. Mims – “I’m hot ‘cause I’m fly / You ain’t ‘cause you’re not.” (from “This is Why I’m Hot) This line may sound silly, but I’m pretty sure you were bumping to it for a hot minute, and in fact, we can’t necessarily fault (or can we?) Mims for aligning himself with the mainstream and following the traditional formula.

2. Shawty Lo – “I’m the man and you know that / I got cash, I’m talking throwback.” (from “Dey Know”) Is this song really ahead of Lupe’s “Superstar” on the Billboard Charts?

3. Rick Ross – “They call me the boss / I be calling the shots.” (from, you guessed it, “The Boss”)

4. Jadakiss – “Should wear a condom in the booth because I be fu**in the track.” (from D Block’s “Ten Hut”) This is actually a pretty clever way of saying how great he is on the mic, but still a totally different style from Lupe’s.

5. Jay-Z – “Your flow is brain on drugs / Mines is rap on steroids.” (from “Breathe Easy”). Once again, another witty description of lyrical ability but not as ingenious as Lupe would have it to be.

What sets Lu apart, though, is that while he has those same witty jabs, he is also capable of developing an entire 16 (and even an entire song) on his abilities. Take, for example, his lyrics on “Failure.” The first verse takes us into Lu’s development, his progression as an MC (“now my verbal’s able”), until he compares (very indirectly) his ability to change/coins from heaven:

“Pennies from heaven is the same as a semi from a sect / And I reign supreme / Turn your umbrellas upside down / Did you even catch the change in theme?”

With unprecedented wordplay, Lupe describes just how powerful his lyrics can be: even though simply change from heaven, the lyrics are as powerful as a gun’s bullets, allowing him to “rain supreme,” all the while exhorting his fans to catch this heavenly rain by turning their umbrellas upside down in the hopes that you would “catch the change.” Those bars alone from Lupe should cause anyone to become fans.

If you’re not satisfied there, or if you don’t know the mixtapes all too well, perhaps we can look at the last verse from “Dumb It Down,” one of my favorites from Lupe’s recent songs. In that particular verse, he compares his ability to that of water, inundating the music industry with unbridled force:

“Who exudes confidence and excess depth / Even Scuba Steve would find it hard to breathe around these leagues . . . Lu the ruler around these seas / Westside Poseidon, West Side beside ‘em / Chest high and rising / Almost touching the knees of stewardess and the pilot / Lucky they make you fly with personal floating devices.”

As Lu explains, the “depth” of his ability is as immense as a bottomless sea, submersing the industry with his uncontestable metaphors and wordplay (notice his passion for metaphors dealing with water), and capable of reaching even to the skies where the stewardess and pilot are, who are lucky enough to have floating devices when this flooding occurs. This is hip hop, the stuff that is lacking in the industry and the reason why so many consider Lu to be a breath of fresh air.