Lupe Fiasco: Thought Process
The man Jay-Z called a “genius” says he’s trying to go over your head. Read this new interview closely and you might understand why.
Wasalu Muhammed Jaco has dealt with his share of pain since his heavily bootlegged debut album Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor made listeners simultaneously think and bob their heads back in 2006. Within the past year, the 25-year-old Chicago native has had to cope with the death of his father, as well as watching his business partner and mentor Charles “Chilly” Patton being imprisoned on drug charges from his old hustling days. Given the hardships, it’s hardly surprising that his sophomore release, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, sees the MC embracing his darker side; embodying multiple characters and concepts that deal with death, destruction, rape and disease. Yet like Food & Liquor, the new album is still filled with the type of clever word play and fluid rhyme construction that most MCs could only dream of. In a recent conversation with XXLMAG.com, Lupe discussed quitting the industry, arguing with German philosophers and why he’s trying to go over your head.
You were obviously in a very dark place personally while you were recording this album.
Oh yeah. A lot of loss. I lost my father, I lost my business partner to prison, and I lost some friends. It was a very dark period. It still is in some aspects, but you know, I’m kind of coming out of it. But especially during the time that the album was being cooked, in my head it was a very dark kind of period.
How was it different doing this album without Chilly around?
I still talk to him, and hopefully he’ll be out this time next year, or maybe even earlier, but I lost my creative feeling. I lost the guy who checks me and can say, “That record sucks” or, “This record’s hot”. I lost that kind of direction, so I had to assume it myself. There was no way to even let him hear the music. The first time he heard “Superstar” was in his cell watching his little TV and he called me and was like “That record is crazy”. Normally I would get that feedback right off bat, so to lose that, I had to really boost my own confidence and really, really boost my cockiness just for the sake of actually completing it. I’m really the kind of guy that lacks a certain confidence and I’m always going, “I don’t think this is really that good.” I had to make up for him not being there, but it turned out pretty good.
How important is it for your name to be included in the “Best MC” conversation?
On some level, you need it to kind of get the sense of accomplishment, that pat on the back to make you feel like you’re doing good. You definitely need that sometimes. It’s not like I need it internally, it’s not like I need to hear those comments to keep going on or that I’m addicted to it, but you want to know that people are appreciating the music. If it wasn’t being appreciated, then I would want to stop doing it. I don’t need to be the greatest MC, I don’t even want to be the greatest MC. I don’t think it’s reachable. There are too many variables. The people who are called the greatest MCs is not based on any one particular critique; because of his flow, because of his charisma, his attitude; it’s not like a 360 thing where you say he’s the greatest MC because of one thing. Everyone has flaws; they may be a dope rapper but there subject matter is straight garbage or too violent or too commercial. I don’t think the title of best MC can be achieved. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
Do you feel like you’ve at least received your “pat on the back?”
Oh yeah. Definitely. I’m still getting Grammy nominations from the first album, which is crazy to me. I’m getting a lot of kudos from a lot of different areas; not just the hip-hop scene, but from the music industry in general. When you get those kinds of things, it definitely does feel good. You know what you’re doing is being appreciated, but trust me, it wears off just as fast. Like Jay-Z saying “Lupe’s a genius.” You know, Jay-Z has been telling me that I’m a genius for years now, so just to see it in Blender Magazine, it doesn’t affect me, as he’s told me already. But everybody else is like, ”Oh my god, Lupe, look what Jay-Z said about you!”
Jay-Z also said in that interview that you go over a lot of peoples’ heads. Do you agree?
I think that’s my nature to go over people’s head. I’ve sat and discussed things with people and they‘re like, “What the hell is wrong with this dude?” [Laughs]. Like I really sit down and I break down Nietzsche, that’s my favorite past time right now. I’m trying to wean myself off the internet, so right now during my spare time I sit down and really break down Nietzsche, try to prove Nietzsche wrong and people are like, “Huh? Why you not out collecting cars or something like that?” So sometimes it’s deliberate and sometimes it’s accidental. I’m like, Damn, I actually thought people would get this. It isn’t even a thing about it being complex or simple. Like people take “Kick, Push” to be something else. I had this one lady tell me that she thought “Kick, Push” was about childbirth; because the baby kicks and pushes and I was like, “Are you absolutely serious” [laughs]. It can definitely lead to things you’re saying being taken out of context.
You mentioned that you’re trying wean yourself off of the internet. Why?
My computer eats up so much of my time. I’d just be sitting on it for hours on end and I’d be thinking, Damn, I could be doing something else. I feel like the computer is kind of hindering me, like I’m literally looking at my computer now. It’s just sitting over there like “Watch me” [laughs]. I just need to get unconnected for a while. I got to disconnect, unplug and tune out just for a while. I need to get in tune what’s going on inside of me a little bit more, tune into the Internet inside of me.
In retrospect, how do you feel about the sales of Food & Liquor?
Well, we sold 400,000 worldwide, which is pretty respectable. Personally, I only expected to sell around 700,000, and if the album wouldn’t have leaked, we’d have sold 700,000 or probably even gone platinum. We actually went back and checked the numbers on the downloads, and it was astronomical. A million illegal downloads. It was like, Damn those are some heavy numbers. I mean, everybody had a copy of the illegal album. When I would be performing, and I’d ask people what they want me to perform, they would be telling me titles that were off the bootleg. Honestly though, I’m happy with it. The amount of success I’ve achieved, it’s like I sold a million records. I’ve had world tours and everything. The stuff I don’t have, I choose not to have. Like, I don’t want a Phantom. I could buy a Phantom if I wanted to, but I don’t want a Phantom. I don’t want a Maybach or 10,000 gold chains. Me not having those things is not because of a lack of success, but because I genuinely don’t want the stuff. I prefer my simple digital 50 dollar gold watch and my broken laptop. That’s me. I’ve been through gold chains, fast cars and that kind of lifestyle, but it wore off and I don’t want any of that anymore.
I guess some people get confused by who you really are. At the end of the day, what is Lupe Fiasco’s true image? What would you like to portray?
I don’t know. I guess I just want to be perceived as a cool guy. If I can become that mysterious guy to the left who dropped like three phenomenal albums and then went away into obscurity, then I’m good [laughs].
So you’re definitely only doing one more album after this?
Yeah, I’m kind of 85% sure. I love music, I love performing, I love my fans, but I don’t like recorded music. I don’t like record labels and I don’t like the industry. It’s such an unfair deal; it wears and tears on you. It’s not that I’m scared of work, but that work starts to eat away at you and you need to start to make the decision about how you’re going to proceed. At a certain point, you’re going to have to kind of concede to the darker side of doing business to really succeed or you’re going to have to make that song you really don’t feel that you should be making to achieve a certain level of success. It’s like growing up and really looking at the purpose of life and meaning of life and realizing that this is really minuscule in comparison to everything else. Recorded music is the worst, the absolute worst next to probably slavery. In a lot of respects, it can amount to just that.
What about just doing mixtapes, or releasing music independently so that you don’t have to deal with the corporate side of things?
Well, hopefully. If I can do it independently, then I would do it forever. But at the same time, I know it’s going to be tough because even that is a work in itself. That’s like a hustle and like I said before, it’s not that I’m afraid of the hustle, but it’s just that it wears on you. I’ve been doing this for eight years, from underground all the way to professional—this is my third record deal. So I’m just feeling like, Am I meant to do this forever? Maybe I need to take a break and go do something else and then possibly come back to it after, or just close the chapter altogether on music. So I’m 85% sure that I will do only three albums but there’s still that 15% of pondering. I would still always perform as long as a venue or promoter would have me.
Were you thinking about a lot about business while recording this album?
100 percent. Actually, kind of dodging some of the politics, kind of staying away from certain producers because of political and financial reasons. Then wanting to make bigger records to have more of a commercial outreach. Even The Cool itself, making it visual, was a business decision. I think when people finally see the album artwork and see how everything is going to roll out and you see the characters—like the actual “Cool,” the actual zombie “Hustler” in real life—it will push it that extra mile so people get it and it’s less cryptic. Because, you know, it is a very cryptic album. It’s built up from songs that are on other albums and mixtapes and then there are little concepts sprinkled throughout. So it has that kind of comic book feel where you have to go through the back cataloge to go forward. Only if you want to, though. It’s not an actual necessity to actually get the music and love the album specifically for what it is without digging into the back story. I just put those elements into it to give it more depth. Some people may not like the music but they may like the characters because the characters are very vivid, very cinematic and really thought-out and well done.
What are you anticipating this time in terms of Album Sales?
I don’t know. I guess [pauses]. I don’t know [laughs].
So you don’t have any target as far as what you would like to achieve?
No. Not really. You know, I would love to sell a ton of records. But if it happens, it happens and if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. I feel I’ve achieved so much just off menial sales, so just imagine what can happen if I sell a ton of records.