March 2011

Hip-Hop’s Reluctant Hero

Lupe Fiasco takes rap to the next level by stripping it down to the basics   by Lorraine Ali

Andrew Zaeh

Skate parks, giant robots, the Gaza Strip. Not exactly requisite hip-hop fare, but that’s kind of the point if you’re Lupe Fiasco. “I remember when I first started making records, I thought, All these other artists are headed to the right, so let’s veer left and see what happens,” says the rapper, who tackles everything from adolescent crushes to corporate greed on his new CD, Lasers.

“I don’t go to clubs every night, so I can’t give you an honest club record, a ‘throw the drinks back, have sex with a thousand girls’ record. I have pieces of that, but I’m more the nerdy guy, the skateboard guy, the telling-abstract-stories guy,” says Fiasco, aka Wasalu Muhammad Jaco. And that’s exactly why the 29-year-old has become the face of experimental hip-hop.

A skinny, bespectacled kid from Chicago’s Westside housing projects, Fiasco caught the eye of rap royalty through his remixes of the likes of Kanye West. A devout Muslim, he challenged the excesses of the rap world in a 2006 debut single, “Kick, Push,” an ode to skateboarding. That album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, was rewarded with three Grammy nominations and followed by a second CD, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool. Thanks to a melodic yet minimalist sound, he has amassed an audience of ballers and NPR fans alike. “Now I’m famous,” jokes Fiasco. “Well, somewhat famous. I’m a B-list celebrity, which means I can still go to the grocery store by myself. The B stands for ‘by myself.’ ”

Fiasco isn’t exactly by himself. Last year, some 30,000 of his fans petitioned Atlantic Records, which had reportedly been locked in a battle of creative control with the artist, demanding it release his long-awaited Lasers. As Fiasco puts it, the “mass niche” he has stirred up is far more devoted than your average hip-hop followers. “They appreciate that we asked the question nobody was asking: Do you think being different is dope? And somebody—well, lots of people—answered yes.”

Once entrenched in the rap hierarchy, Fiasco—who now splits his time between Chicago, New York and L.A.—soon realized he wasn’t as different as he once imagined. “The guys I thought were straight-up gangsters turned out to be like me: They read comic books; they’re Japanese-animation fans; they have immense amounts of knowledge on meaningless things that only other people with an immense knowledge on meaningless things could connect to.”

In pure Lupe Fiasco style, nothing about Lasers is obvious, starting with the title. According to the artist, it either stands for “Love Always Shines Everytime Remember 2 Smile” or it’s a reworking of the word losers where the O is replaced with an anarchy A symbol. And in keeping with the wordplay, Fiasco raps brilliantly about everything from the contradictions of fame to corporate greed to ghetto culture.

“My last two albums were more metaphoric,” says Fiasco, who worked on the disc with indie gods Modest Mouse and It producers the Neptunes. “This album is to the point—it has teeth. It’s gloves off, punching people in the face, knocking them out.” The idea, he says, is to hold on to that inner skate kid who doesn’t care what others think. It’s a tricky balance for an artist who fills arenas but knows how to ride the edge.

“Picasso said he worked his whole life to paint like he was five years old,” says Fiasco. “His early work is very simple but a masterpiece of shading and color. I’m not saying I’m a master artist. But it takes a whole other level of bravery to do something simple, especially in a world this complex.”

Now Hear This

SONG: “I Follow Rivers (The Magician Remix)”
ARTIST: Lykke Li

Hearing Magician himself drop this euphoric remix of Sweden’s alt-pop darling at a Club Called Rhonda in Silver Lake recently left no doubt in my mind that this was an anthem in the offing. Impossible to resist, an unrelenting hands-in-the-air piano line drives this track from Wounded Rhymes, commanding the sweaty legions on the dance floor—powerful stuff. —Jason Bentley, music director, KCRW

ALBUM: Fauré: Complete Nocturnes
ARTIST: Stefan Irmer

The nocturne—the piano song of the night—was turned into keyboard magic by Chopin, but underappreciated French composer Gabriel Fauré went even further. The earliest of his 13 nocturnes, from the late 1800s, have an erogenous boulevard charm, and German pianist Irmer’s spotless performances of them are recorded in luminous CD sound—so don’t download! —Mark Swed, music critic, Los Angeles Times

SONG: “Chim Chim Cher-ee”
ARTIST: Esperanza Spalding

On Disney Jazz Volume 1: Everybody Wants to Be a Cat, melodic bassist-singer Spalding—with an assist from pianist-accordionist Gil Goldstein—turns the Mary Poppins classic into a dreamy jazz waltz, with soaring vocals that seems to float from a Parisian bistro in the romantic 1950s. —Tom Nolan, music author and critic

SONG: “My Heart Skips a Beat”

An Australian singer-songwriter, Lenka pens catchy songs that seem playful on the surface but have a lyrical bite. This single from her upcoming album, Two, filled with hand claps and breezy grooves, just makes you feel good. Expect to have it stuck in your head for a very long time! —Peter Cohen, director of Australian Music Office, Los Angeles