It was all good for Lupe Fiasco just two albums ago. By 2008, the Chicago MC, co-signed by Jay-Z and brought on the Glow In The Dark Tour by Kanye West, had released two critically acclaimed albums, Food & Liquor and The Cool, and built on a reputation as a nimble lyricist with a political bent forged by a series of excellent mixtapes by demonstrating that he could write more traditionally radio-friendly singles (“Kick, Push,” “Superstar”) without forsaking his essence.
But those albums were only moderate commercial successes, leading Atlantic Records and Fiasco to squabble endlessly over what would eventually become 2011’s Lasers. The struggle seemed to sap Fiasco’s talents (Lasers is a mess of awkward collaborations and half-hearted you-can-do-it anthems that seemed like an ungainly swing at pop, despite Fiasco passing on what would become label mate B.o.B’s “Nothin’ on You”; Fiasco’s last widely praised project was a 22-minute mixtape, Enemy of the State, released in November 2009) and embolden him politically (Fiasco, an avowed non-voter, called President Obama “the biggest terrorist” in 2011, has allied himself with Occupy Wall Street to the point of rapping “New gang alert, hashtag Occupy,” and became one of the first rappers ever to look like an idiot in a dispute with Bill O’Reilly).
But Atlantic got what it wanted in Lasers, an album Fiasco confessed to hating: a hit. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard, spawned two top-40 singles (“The Show Goes On” and “Out of My Head”), and re-established Fiasco as a source of lucre for the label while giving him a forum for his Alex Jones-caliber conspiracy theorizing—”All Black Everything” imagines a counter-factual world in which the African slave trade did not exist but rap still somehow evolved in the same way, while “Words I Never Said” allowed Lupe to indulge his 9/11 truther fantasies (“9/11, Building 7, did they really pull it?”) and self-mythologize (“I’m a part of the problem, my problem is I’m peaceful”) over leaden Alex da Kid production. With “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free),” released Monday night, Fiasco proved that he and Atlantic understand the template for his future commercial success—rap on pop tracks and continue to vomit incoherent political screeds—but have completely lost the plot when it comes to critical respect.
“Around My Way” is another sunny polemic (“First off, I say peace to Pine Ridge/ Ashamed at all the damage that the white man wine did,” Lupe begins, becoming one of the first rappers to draw directly from Nick Kristof for lyrics; he explained the subject matter by saying “a lot of stuff on that record is stuff that I just recently learned about America”) that devolves into word-association worthy of Andrew Breitbart and laments “But freedom ain’t free, ‘specially round my way.” It would be merely suitable for both the general public to ignore or Lupe’s sizable flock of acolytes to mine for gems if not for its sample of the source material for Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s crucial “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” which spurred a Twitter rant from Rock and could spark a much-needed discussion over the politics of sampling in rap.
“T.R.O.Y.” is considered an all-time rap classic because it is almost a hermetically sealed bit of perfection: Rock looped a glorious sax run from Tom Scott and the California Dreamers’ “Today” and threw just the right drums underneath, and CL spun his own tale and that of Troy “Trouble T-Roy” Dixon, a close friend of both the producer and rapper. It’s universally respected, but rarely covered or reworked, both because of the sacred subject matter and because the potential blowback outweighs the potential benefit; the original pairing collaborated with Mr. Cheeks in 2003 on the sacrilegious “Reminisce ’03”, uses virtually the same instrumental, adds a new CL Smooth verse, and allowed both artists to pay respect to the fallen Freaky Tah. While both Rock and Smooth signed off on it then, Rock would gripe about that decision in later years after a falling out with his MCing partner of nearly two decades.
Rock’s reaction on Twitter (“Dat shit is wack, and the producer should be ashamed of his fuckin self. Smh.”) to Lupe’s version, produced by Simonsayz, affiliated with Lupe’s 1st and 15th stable, and the producer of his “Put You on Game,” and B-Side, every bit as Google-proof as one might expect a rap producer named B-Side to be, shows that rap, despite being the genre that pioneered and was elevated by sampling (and sampling’s existence as a lawless practice prior to the era of sample clearance), is still beholden to unwritten rules about respect for the past, for better or worse. Lupe’s first and most grievous mistake was not talking to Rock about the song—Fiasco couldn’t have gotten him on the phone? He didn’t hesitate in the studio process and say “Yo, is Pete Rock cool with this?” But he pointed out in an interview that he’s rapped over the “T.R.O.Y.” horns before (DJ Greg Street’s “Dope Boyz” also committed the sin of allowing Wale in close proximity to them), revealing that he’s failed to grasp or appreciate the difference between putting a song on a mixtape, essentially marking it as not for resale, and using it as a lead single. The average rap listener hears a song with a familiar beat on a mixtape and approves it by bobbing along, both because that’s well-established as homage (cf. Joell Ortiz’s take on “T.R.O.Y.” on a mixtape about covering classic beats); that same listener hears Drake appropriate dead prez’s “Hip Hop” (“One thing ’bout music, when it hits, you feel no pain” was followed by “White folks say it controls your brain, I know better than that, that’s game” on “Hip Hop,” and by “And I swear I got that shit that make these bitches go insane” on Drake’s “Over”) and shakes that same head sadly. That concept of perpetual ownership holds rap back in some ways—notions that were calcified decades ago, in general, do not do the vanguard many favors—but it’s buttressed by some sound logic: Why remake a classic if you’re not going to at least equal its quality?
Lupe complicates the tension between reverence for past classics and pressure to progress by keeping the trend of political speech in even mainstream rap alive: even if listeners think Fiasco’s worldview would be far more valid if he ever visited Snopes, it’s impossible to consider his work non-political; he’s been given a pass for being “conscious” (if not coherent) for most of his career. He might have been able to pull off “Around My Way” by quickly squashing any beef with Rock, except for the fact that he’s lost the benefit of the doubt from listeners both by macheteing away on that outer fringe politically, and lacks the common sense to deal with the prevailing winds of a culture when it is absolutely mandatory. That’s what led to Fiasco’s, er, fiasco at the 2007 VH1 Hip-Hop Honors show, when he flubbed lyrics to A Tribe Called Quest’s legendary “Electric Relaxation” and “Scenario” as part of a tribute, then revealed that he wasn’t familiar with Midnight Marauders and blamed Q-Tip for insisting on involving him in the performance, which got him roundly criticized by rappers and fans alike; that’s what led to Fiasco’s hissy fit over the leaking of “I’m Beamin'” at 2dopeboyz, one that soured much of the blogosphere on him; that’s what led to Fiasco’s Twitter sparring with the blogger who runs DDotOmen (better known as the guy who leaked recordings from Watch the Throne‘s planetarium listening spectacle). Lupe idiotically saying “It’s just music” about music that has rightly earned him a devoted band of diehard fans for both its caliber and its ideology evinces little awareness of what the fan experience is like, and would have been bad enough had he not later tweeted an edit that modified that idea to “music that will change the world by the time im done with it.”
Claiming to be a world-changing artist is a risky move if the artist in question is as accomplished as Kanye, or Jay-Z, or Bono, and even those folks tend to be treated with more skepticism in evaluating those claims. Lupe Fiasco is a rapper whose last two hit singles were a reworking of Modest Mouse’s gloomy “Float On” as a party jam and an abysmal collaboration with Trey Songz on a concept song about women as earworm. “Around My Way” is from Fiasco’s long-awaited return to the Food & Liquor arc, one he once explained as being about the good (food) and bad (liquor) in life. Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Part 1, scheduled to drop this summer, casts itself from the title alone as either one of the greatest rap albums ever or the first half of a monumental failure, but Fiasco’s arrogance and ignorance have set himself up to be denied the laurels that would come with the former and compound the vitriol that would follow the latter.
And if Lupe giving “T.R.O.Y.” a wordy, truism-laden hook is in keeping with the artistic decisions made while producing that album, there is no chance it will live up to its name, and plenty that Fiasco will truly personify his.