To more than a few of us internet rap dorks, Lupe Fiasco is exactly what the world needs. I don’t even think there’s anything horribly wrong with commercial rap these days, and I’m still ridiculously amped to see what this guy can do. He’s a great rapper: warm and eloquent and humanistic, with a pleasantly expressive voice and a thing for internal rhymes. He engages with politics without getting too pedantic about it, and he has a fluid and gorgeous way of describing internal conflicts and crises of faith and self-doubt. The idea that he might become a major rap star is a tantalizing possibility, and it’s given a lot of us hope that big-business rap might break out of its slump by expanding its boundaries beyond its current fixation on trap-star bravado, which has produced plenty of great music but which has convinced the labels to throw their weight (so to speak) behind half-formed jokers like Yung Joc and Rick Ross. An early, unfinished version of Lupe’s debut album Food & Liquor leaked to the internet a few months ago; I went a bit overboard when I called it one of the year’s best albums as it was, but it does give us a sketchy picture of a major artist emerging. Since the album leaked, though, things haven’t been going all that well for Lupe.
After the leak, Lupe started making noises about how the album wasn’t finished yet, how he had a whole bunch of sketchy-sounding, ill-advised guest-spots to collect (Jay-Z, Jill Scott, Pharrell, Three-6 Mafia). The album’s release date has been pushed back countless times, and that’s the sort of thing that labels do when they aren’t entirely sure whether they want to put an album out or just cut their losses and bury it forever (see: Hell Hath No Fury). Lupe kept doing shows and popping up wherever possible, but fellow post-backpack Chicago rapper Rhymefest came out and bricked, and that wasn’t a good sign. The prospect that Lupe might get buried like Joe Budden has been a considerable source of ongoing angst for those of us who think he’d be good for rap. But now it looks like we’re actually going to hear this thing sometime before the sun explodes. Atlantic Records leaked a couple of new tracks, testing the waters to see if either one caught fire and became an obvious single. One of the tracks was “I Gotcha,” the obligatory Neptunes collaboration. Lately, a Neptunes collab has become the sort of thing that aging rappers release as their first single when they’re worried about looking out of touch (see: Ludacris). It’s a sort of default move, and it’s not a particularly good one, especially as the Neps’ quality-control fades further with every passing month. “I Gotcha” isn’t terrible, but it’s one of the worst of Lupe’s leaked tracks. Lupe sounds fine on the track; an extended riff about soap is particularly inspired. But the track itself is exactly the sort of tinkly Vegas fluff that’s been ruining the Neptunes’ name for a few years now; it’s thin and plastic and generally boring. But “Daydream,” the other new track, is pretty great. Lupe talks a lot about how much he loves jazz, and the track backs it up. It’s a slow, luxuriant lope, all lush samples and warm strings and music-box chimes that just float in the mix. The chorus comes from Jill Scott, who has an amazing voice but whose music generally puts me to sleep. Here, though, she eases up on the self-satisfied earth-mother melisma and coos a simple, relaxed hook that only turns stormy at the end of the track. Everything sounds easy and unforced and pleasant. Lupe’s first verse is a weird extended metaphor about a robot or something, and I don’t really understand it, but he takes such pleasure in wrappping his voice around this beat that it never grates. Later, he has a dazzling bit on standard-issue rap-videos: “Hold up your chain slow-motion through the flames / Now cue the smoke machines and the simulated rain.” It’s complicated, though; he’s making fun of these visual cliches, but it’s clear from the glee he takes in describing them that he understands the exhilarating power of the images. And he turns his satiric eye on himself, too: “I’d like to thank the streets that drove me crazy / And all the televisions out there that raised me.” If the rest of his collaborations turn out like this one, he’ll be fine.
“I Gotcha” found its way into an episode of Entourage, but someone’s made the exceedingly sane decision to make “Daydream” the single instead. There’s already a video, and it’s a bit ridiculous: Lupe wanders into a toy store at night and dances with a giant robot while Jill Scott gets made up to look like an old jazz singer and croons from a moving LP cover. And now the label has also leaked the album’s insanely goofy cover, which makes Lupe look like the new herald of Galactus or something. It’s hard to imagine anyone buying Food & Liquor on the strength of the cover or the “Daydream” video, but they’re still both encouraging signs. Labels don’t do stuff like this unless they actually intend to release the album sometime soon, and it looks like we’ll finally get to hear Food & Liquor next month. It would all be cause for celebration if it weren’t for the insanely stupid decision Atlantic Records made yesterday. After Nah Right, the best non-XXL rap blog going now, posted a YouTube link to the “Daydream” video, someone from Atlantic apparently wrote Eskay and threatened legal action against him if he didn’t take down the link. Eskay is rightly pissed about this thing. If Atlantic actually wants to turn Lupe into a star, they’re going to need the help of the internet rap community that’s thus far been entirely responsible for his buzz. If they get all weird and reactionary whenever someone posts anything Lupe-related, they’re going to lose their base. It’s the sort of utterly wrongheaded and paranoid move that could help torpedo the career of their biggest star-in-waiting before it even really begins.