Lupe Fiasco is many things—too many to get into here—but first and foremost, the 1st & 15th co-founder is one of the most inspired and skilled writers of the 21st century.
Dubbed the “King of Lyrical Trickiness” by RapGenius (now Genius) in 2011, Lupe is known for his vast vocabulary, imaginative concepts, socially conscious messaging, and an almost tangible level of technicality. The combination of intellect and technique is so synonymous with Lupe that when XXL interviewed Soulja Boy at the turn of the ‘10s about his increasingly complex lyrics, he replied with a comment that inspired Lupe to make “SLR (Super Lupe Rap).”
“I don’t want to be super-Lupe-Fiasco-lyrical [to the point where people] don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about”—Soulja Boy
Lupe took Soulja’s opinion in jest, as it was something he’d heard his whole career. “Dumb It Down,” a single from his 2007 sophomore album, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, was Lupe’s response to those who urged him to change his way of writing.
According to Lupe, upon hearing the demo for the record, his A&R at Atlantic Records told him to “dumb it down.” Inspired, Lupe recorded new choruses but chose to keep his lucid, lyrical verses as they were. To appreciate why they were worth preserving, let’s breakdown the opening verse:
Some takeaways from Lupe’s “Dumb It Down” verse above:
- The verse is 20 bars long and contains 174 words, or 8.7 words per bar
- 109 of those 174 words are unique, or 62.6%
- 108 of those 174 words contain rhymes, which is 62.1% or 5.4 words per bar
- With 134 significant rhymes, Lupe averages 6.7 rhymes per bar
It remains unclear who Lupe is channeling for this verse, but what is “clear as a ghost or a biter of the throats in the mirror” is his imagery and the proficiency with which he marries near unparalleled lyricism to a penchant for technicality.
One of the techniques Lupe leans on here is slant rhyming: when words include rhyming vowels but different consonants. As slant rhymes share a dominant vowel sound, we often don’t notice the difference between them and true, or “perfect,” rhymes. For example, he emphasizes the oʊ vowel sound in the line “Is menstrual, the whole grill is roadkill, so trill.”
Lupe’s sound emphasization skill set is taken to the extreme on several occasions, but none more so than on lines 10 and 11 where he rhymes “windshield” with “menstrual.” This bending of words is common practice amongst skilled MCs, as it lessens the limitations of language and allows artists to explore more avenues in their art. By bending his words, Lupe can avoid obvious rhymes and/or let his narrative flow like… a stream in the summertime.
Lupe’s way with words is literally what sets him apart from the bulk of his contemporaries. As reported by journalist Matt Daniels, “newer artists wield a smaller vocabulary comparatively, but this is not because hip hop has ‘dumbed down.’ The genre has evolved; it has moved away from complex lyricism toward elements traditionally associated with pop music: repetitive song structure and singing.”
As he has his entire career, Lupe is bucking the trend, with his unique word count increasing over time, which Hip Hop By The Numbers illustrated in the tweet below.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a unique word count is the best way to approximate an artist’s vocabulary. This practice includes counting “how many different words an artist uses, [with] each word only counted once” (no matter how many times the artist uses any one word). For reference, any album that’s twenty-five percent unique is impressive, as grammar words (such as the, I’m, and, a, I, my, and so on) water down every word count. The three verses of “Dumb It Down” are fifty-five percent unique.
Scholars and nerds, aren’t you glad Lupe didn’t dumb it down?