Guest Article by Alex Fraknoi – Lupe Fiasco: ‘The Art of Balance and Perspective’
Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, also known as Lupe Fiasco, is a rapper/poet who was born in 1982 on the West side ofChicago. Lupe was raised in an environment where he had to master the art of balance. He was born in the crevice between the ghetto and the suburbs, his house on the border between them. The inside of his house was filled with modern art, books, music and culture, whereas the outside was right next door to a crack house, clustered with drug dealing and gang violence. Lupe’s father was a Black Panther karate teacher; as Lupe plainly puts it, “one day, we’re listening to N.W.A, the next day we’re listening to Ravi Shankar, the next day, he’s teaching us how to shoot an AK-47, the next day, we’re at karate class.” When he began to listen to music, Lupe’s favorite artists were jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, and gangsta rap poet “Nasty Nas.”
Lupe was surrounded by duality his whole childhood, and he learned how to take the best of both worlds. His first album is called, Food & Liquor, and it plays on this concept of balance and contradiction. Food and Liquor stores, which were on the corner of every block in the Westside of Chicago, sell food, what gives nutrition and healthiness to the people, and liquor, which corrupts and poisons the population. It was his experiences as a child that led Lupe to have such a knack for equilibrium, where he narrows in on everything only to take an aerial view. Drawing on his life encounters, Lupe Fiasco in his songs takes on the perspectives of everyone in the scene he depicts to create a 360-degree view of the situation.
In the early years of his career, Lupe started off as a “gangsta rapper,” rhyming with a focus on aggressive lyrics describing the environment of the ghetto. After growing and traveling, he realized that this style of rapping wasn’t telling everyone’s story, and decided to widen the range of his lyrical binoculars. He named his first professional mixtape series, Fahrenheit 1/15: Revenge of the Nerds, and took on the persona of the ‘nerdy and proud’ rapper that he has tried to maintain until today. He still documented street life in his music, but he approached it from a worldly viewpoint, evaluating the scene with calculated details from multiple perspectives. In his song, “Handcuffs,” he first tells the story of the man in the back of the cop car (the criminal), and then tells the story of the man driving the car (the policeman), and shows how similar their goals really are. In the final verse, Lupe compares the two explicitly, stating, “Nigga, you ain’t no better than me, just a hustler with a badge. Confiscate the dope money, put it with your retirement boat money.” Later he rhymes, “We both undercover, thinking that the good we do gon’ out weigh the sinning that we do to collect it, saying ‘it’s for the community.’” Not only do the hustler and the policeman both have aspirations of wealth, but they also use excuses to make it seem as though their mission is moral. He closes the verse with his brilliant conclusion, saying that the cop, “Feels he don’t get paid enough, to kick in doors, to raid and cuff. So he use what niggas get on the street to supplement the wages cut. So he gotta keep just enough niggas out there hustling to keep his paper up…Maybe he should be in the handcuffs.” The policeman uses the hustlers to give him a bonus by keeping them on the streets and every so often arresting them and taking their money. Lupe uses such vivid imagery and detailed comparison that, by the end of the verse, it is easy to believe that the cop and the hustler could switch places.
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