IF YOU'RE LISTENING to Lupe Fiasco, keep up. He's not a flashy speed rapper, but he's got a long stride. He doesn't slow down for his listener. As a lover of poetry and dense verse, Fiasco's style is one of my favorite kinds. It can take 10 listens to catch the Morrissey reference in "Mural," but when I do, in the cold waiting for the bus, it's like a high-five. Was that for me?
I've never been sure who listens to Fiasco. Who wants all these Japanese comic book references? What about these odd beats and multilayered raps about gender norms? Fiasco is famously outspoken—for some, uncomfortably so—about his philosophy, spirituality, and politics. But that's hardly surprising since rolling in with fellow Chicago rapper Kanye West on "Touch the Sky" earned him breakout notoriety.
We're coming up now on a hard decade of Fiasco in the spotlight. And—I won't lie—there were some middling tracks in there. Fiasco blamed his record label for dumbing down his projects to make them more accessible, but with last year's Tetsuo & Youth he seems to have finally broken free. He claims he'll release three full albums this year (Drogas, Skulls, and Roy, respectively) and then quit rap entirely—but we HAVE heard that one from him before. World without LUPend. (That's what he keeps calling it, "LUPend.") Here are some songs to familiarize you with his great moments.
"Kick, Push" (Food & Liquor, 2006) is the song that started it and the song that everyone references again and again. I'm that person too, apparently. It's necessary. "Kick, Push" was Fiasco's first hit and an unusual one—a mid-'00s song about skateboarding and having a girlfriend who skates, too. "Kick, Push" set Fiasco's pace as a steady, multi-metaphor rapper. Some people say it's about drugs. Some people say it's about keeping your head up and away from trouble. "Kick, Push" was all that and so, so danceable.
"The Cool" (Food & Liquor, 2006). I fucking love "The Cool" because it introduced the story of Fiasco's next project, 2007's critically acclaimed concept album The Cool. "The Cool" would be a great song even if it weren't about a murdered drug hustler waking up in his coffin and clawing his way back to his old neighborhood. "Hustler for death/No heaven for a gangsta" is a line any freelancer can identify with.
"The Coolest" (The Cool, 2007). Opening with somber piano music and a heartfelt prayer ("Lord, please have sympathy"), this track tells the prequel story of Fiasco's character, the Cool, as well as his rise to power selling drugs, his romantic relationship with an alluring, violent woman known as the Streets, and his relationship with his sinister father figure, the Game. Concept albums are difficult to pull off. Either the listener misses the story completely or you hit them over the head with it and they're bored. Not all tracks on The Cool are about the Cool/Streets/Game triad but we hear enough to underline all the meaning.
"Superstar" (The Cool, 2007) is a sweetheart song that hit actual radio in 2007. A lot of Fiasco's songs and collaborations get radio play. That may be why people who haven't listened to his entire records don't really understand why I like him so much. Fiasco and his team can make a totally serviceable pop ballad and they do so often. With Matthew Santos (a longtime Fiasco collaborator) laying down the hook, "Superstar" both encourages the listener into the spotlight and warns about that spotlight's price.
"Mural" (Tetsuo & Youth, 2015) is the first non-instrumental song on Tetsuo & Youth, although there are fans that would have you listen to the album backward. (During an interview, Fiasco held his album upside down and encouraged his fans to enjoy it. From this sprang the rumor of its palindrome-like qualities.) It could be Fiasco's final word, showcasing his incredible talent, rhyming for nearly nine minutes over an ecstatic French jazz sample. It's interesting to note a whole crew of artists sampling the '70s French jazz-fusion band Cortex. Young Jeezy even used this very hook.
"Deliver" (Tetsuo & Youth, 2015). "So sad 'cause the pizza man don't fuck with us no more." Has this ever happened to you? Your neighborhood is too dangerous to get pizza delivery. When I lived in Detroit, I used to have problems getting delivery due to the city's roving packs of wild dogs. What is going on with our cities that I can't get a damn pizza? Fiasco manages to address all of this and also why I want to eat nothing but pizza.