"I just don't think I have that much to say," Lupe Fiasco says over the phone, explaining why he plans to quit recording music soon. "A lot of the stuff that I want to say musically, it has a limit. You can't compress and process certain things into 16 bars or a song."
This will surely come as news to fans of the mainstream- and underground-straddling MC, who has been hailed as a visionary and an antidote to the crack rap that dominates the airwaves. It's also news to anyone who has heard his new CD, Lupe Fiasco's The Cool. The concept album features characters called The Cool, The Streets, and The Game, and delves into issues including death, resurrection, and eating habits in the black community.
A 25-year-old critical darling who broke out after appearing on fellow Chicagoan Kanye West's 2005 album Late Registration, Fiasco scored three Grammy nominations with his debut, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor. The album's memorable centerpiece, "Kick, Push," extolled his love for skateboarding, and rap magazines cited him as hip-hop's next big thing.
But Fiasco now says that making records is unsatisfying, both financially and creatively, though he still plans to tour. "The entity of recorded music really sucks," he says. "It's really wack, especially when you're doing it through a major."
Fiasco is more interested in pouring his efforts into other projects, which range from clothing lines to comic books to more traditional literary endeavors. He's been writing essays "battling" with Friedrich Nietzsche in his spare time, he says, and he's in the midst of writing a novel about a window washer. "It's deep, though," he says. "Imagine all the stuff I don't put into my music because I can't find a word to rhyme with 'plethora.' I'm trying to practice how to write for an extended period of time."
If it seems as though Fiasco — born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco — is self-consciously weird, well, he is. After all, he once had a stipulation in his concert rider calling for only yellow M&Ms, and The Cool has a song told from the perspective of a cheeseburger.
But he also comes across as a sincere, principled guy. He doesn't smoke or drink, and says that the health issues he discusses on his album came about because his father died of diabetes.
The song "Gotta Eat" "kind of reflects the health situation in the 'hood," he says. "People in the 'hood eat a lot of garbage. I was setting up this community-activism group that works on the south side of Chicago, and one of the bullet points — outside of gang violence and drugs — was health. There's definitely a lack of attention to the health issues [facing] black communities. You go through there, and you're like, 'Goddamn, you can't eat shit around here. There's nothing but McDonald's and Taco Bell.'"
Fiasco seems somewhat relieved that the talk surrounding him is once again focused on his music. His buzz was decidedly negative last fall after he flubbed the lyrics to A Tribe Called Quest's "Electric Relaxation" at VH1's Hip Hop Honors Awards, inspiring a situation that became known as "Fiascogate."
Things got worse when Vibe published quotes in which Fiasco said that Tribe wasn't really much of a musical influence. He then threatened to sue the magazine — claiming the timing of the quotes was misrepresented. Vibe issued a correction, and Fiasco no longer plans to sue, but adds, "They could give me fifty covers — I want nothing to do with them."
The issue has since died down, and critics and fans are licking their chops for The Cool, a sometimes overambitious work. The hour-plus album could be easily trimmed by six or seven songs. The disc also suffers from fairly monotonous production and would have benefited from fewer tracks by Fiasco's beat-making associate Soundtrakk (who produces about three-fourths of the songs) and a bit of Kanye's magic. The big singles, such as "Go Go Gadget Flow" and "Superstar," are a blast, but many of the other cuts feel like padding.
That being said, a slight misstep by an obviously talented MC is nothing to get worked up about, and The Cool will nonetheless satisfy Fiasco's fans. In fact, you hope he'll renege on his promise to quit recording after he completes the album's follow-up. Despite his own assertions to the contrary, you get the feeling Fiasco has plenty more to say.