The moment the transaction was completed, she knew her decision was foolish. We were six or seven, old enough to attend school, but too young to conduct ourselves like adults when Pokemon was involved. She lived two houses down, the oldest of two, and would eventually grow to be easy-on-the-eyes. If I knew what she'd become then, I wouldn’t have let Pokemon trading cards come between my forthcoming, raging hormones and the girl next door. Regardless though, her police officer father would’ve likely intercepted any advances. She was the princess, a status that was drilled home when her father appeared at my front door requesting a trade-back. It’s not every day you get a Machamp for a Squirtle, that’s like trading Vlade Divac and getting Kobe Bryant.
A few years later, I made another trade and while this time the feds didn’t interrupt, the value was the same: DJ Unk’s debut album, Beat'n Down Yo Block, for Lupe Fiasco’s debut album, Food & Liquor. In retrospect it was be best trade since...a Jigglypuff for a Mew-Two.
At the time, Atlanta was leaning and rocking, Fabo was seeing spaceships in Bankhead, and D4L was still down for life. My taste was greatly influenced by my surroundings, hence why, “Beat'n Down Yo Block” was in heavy rotation. When my child-hood friend Anthony offered me Food & Liquor to replace the Unk CD that he borrowed and broke, I hesitated a bit. I knew the name, Lupe was the guy with the skateboard. His song would play when Greg Street was rocking, in-between Chamillionaire and Ciara. It wasn’t "Walk It Out," but I dug his flow. He was also featured on a song with Kanye and Late Registration was one of my few favorites that didn’t have Southern roots. He hyped it up, practically said this guy was hip-hop’s savior. Anthony was born in New York and despite living in Atlanta since the age of two, he contained that Brooklyn swagger, and know-it-all attitude when concerning “hip-hop.” I promised to give it one listen.
One listen turned into two, two into ten, ten turned into spreading the gospel amongst my close friends. It was the first time I ever heard anything I would proclaim genius. Lupe had the vocabulary of a professor, the mind of a poet, the swagger of a nerd, and the eyes of a rapper. If I had to review Food & Liquor it would’ve simply read: a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect. This was before I went through my Outkast phase, "Hey Ya" was the only song I knew from them. This was before my Nas phase, honestly, I only gave Nas a chance after hearing how It Was Written played a huge part in Lupe’s artistry. He was my first lyricist, my introduction into wordplay wizards, metaphor mastery, and impactful imagery.
Colorful and complex, deciphering his lyrics were like the twisting and the turning of a rubik’s cube. His extended metaphors were like footsteps in the sand, if you followed them closely, they would lead you to the most astounding sand castle. I was still fairly young, teenage, too young to understand the more esoteric references, but the stories kept me engrossed. “He Say, She Say” is a terse look into the heart of fatherless homes, “Kick, Push II” gave a backstory to the click of skateboard misfits, there’s resurrection, robots, and Roc-A-Fella’s retired royalty all on one album. Production was rich, in-house masterminds that wove hip-hop and cinema, with magic sprinkled from Kanye and The Neptunes. The piano keys, the violins, and the hooks (Jill Scott, Gemstones, Sarah Green, and Matthew Santos) it was an album that stood alone sonically. It stood alone completely, unforgettable from the very first listen.
When it was time for The Cool, Atlanta was going through its second disco, with Soulja Boy cranking dat under the strobe lights. I felt stuck in a dance fever purgatory. Lupe wasn’t the skateboard guy anymore, some would even call him a "Superstar." The first single off The Cool, and Lupe’s first song to land in the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100. His hit didn’t sound like conforming, "Superstar" was the radio bending to the will of Wasalu and Santos. It was only 15 months separating F&L and The Cool, Lupe wasn’t wasting anytime.
I always loved the fact that after his sister’s spoken word and the Chilly tribute, the album kicks off with “Go Go Gadget Flow.” Twisting was like a signature of Chicago, a specific style that traces back to that cities legacy, and Lu pays homage by spitting an energetic, machine gun rapid flow. I knew at that time in that short time, he was even more potent than before. His pen was dipped in the paint of Van Gogh, sketching three-dimensional stories over lavish instrumentation. “Paris, Tokyo” is like the boom-bap, luxurious sequel to "Sunshine," "Hip-Hop Saved My Life" is "Kick-Push" on steroids, replacing the skateboard with a microphone, and "Dumb it Down" is lyricism from a higher power. The social commentary is stepped up, "Little Weapons" and "Streets on Fire" are knowledge kicking provokers of thought meeting incredible storytelling.
The Cool is sprinkled with a concept, centered on a character introduced during Food & Liquor, Michael Young History. The song, “The Cool” is based on his resurrection, rejected from both heaven and hell. The Cool album is the prequel, showing the metaphorical relationships with the Streets and the Game that lead to his downfall. Lupe is at his most imaginative when describing this love triangle, he writes the narrative like a graphic novel, the songs “The Coolest," "Gotta Eat," "The Die" and "Put You on Game” are all lyrical highlights. "The Die" literally feels like being in a hip-hop, Quentin Tarantino movie. The back and forth between him and Gemstones is immaculate. The song “Fighters” is Lupe at his most sentimental and he ends the song announcing his next album, similar to how he foretold on F&L that The Cool was next up: "Now we just got one more to go, L - U - P – END.”
He announced LupEnd a few weeks before The Cool came out, in an interview with Billboard.
“'LupEND' -- that's going to be my last album's title. When you play a videogame, you can only put in three letters for your name and when the game's over, those three letters and 'END' pop up. My next record might be my last one."
In 2008, he announced that LupEnd would be a triple disc album, representing "everywhere,” "nowhere” and "down here” (END). Concluding the story of Michael Young History and his career. I romanticize that this would be Lupe’s “Fade To Black” moment. It sounded perfect, a triple disc meant he delivered the five albums he promised in his contract to Atlantic. His career would be without stain or blemish, a flawless victory. In a fictional world, these events would’ve transpired, Lupe would be Andre 3000, the sought after legend that walked away while on top. Sadly, Atlantic Records had other plans.
Lupe didn’t drop another album until 2011. In between those four years, we got songs like "Go To Sleep" and "I’m Beaming", super-groups like CRS and All City Chess Club, we even got a mixtape, Enemy of the State: A Love Story. It dropped on Thanksgiving, I remember stuffing my face and tripping balls because Lupe rapped over "Fireman" and called it "Yoga Flame." There was a very public feud between Lupe and Atlantic Records, they were withholding the release of his next album, Lasers. There was even a petition that gathered over 5,000 signatures for the album's release. On October 15, 2010, fans marched around Atlantic Records' Midtown Manhattan offices and even got CEO Lyor Cohen to come out and confirm the album was coming. Even with the rumors of Lasers being a, “mainstream” sounding Fiasco, I believed in the artist that gateway’d my introduction into a higher level of lyricism. I vaguely remembered the singles, but I wouldn’t judge until having the entire body of work.
I think children have the capacity to understand that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Breaking that news to them doesn’t ruin Christmas, their eyes are just opened to the truth. So I ask you, does a child have the capacity to understand the death of Kris Kringle? What if Santa goes down the wrong chimney and a double barrel shotgun leaves two big holes where the cookies and milk should be? That could be rather traumatic. That’s how I would define my experience with Lasers, witnessing the death of Santa Claus.
The fact that Lasers is Lupe’s best-selling album is a troll from God. I spent the entire album cringing, looking for a silver lining, looking for a familiar friend, but all I got was regurgitated pop-beats and an uninspired Fiasco. There's no chemistry. The features felt copied and paste onto the album, maybe it was Lupe that was pasted into this foreign sound. He was basically rapping over the aborted version of whatever was dominating the charts. This isn’t the album that had those hundred or so fans marching around a record label’s building. This wasn’t the “END” that we were promised. He looked like Lupe, sounded like Lupe, but Lasers wasn’t a Lupe album. If Lasers was the album I received from Anthony all those years ago, it would’ve never made it passed the one listen. My disappointment was huge, that was the last time I listened to a new Lupe album. If Atlantic Records was going to make him into a faux version of himself, I refused to be in the audience.
When, “Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1” was announced, I wanted it far from me. Food & Liquor needed to be in museums, not made into a sequel. If the present Lupe couldn’t captivate, I started going back to his mixtape days. It wasn’t until "Haile Selassie" that I let my guard down again. Nikki Jean's name is what lured me, it was Soundtrakk’s production credit that guided my hand to press play. It was the usual suspects, but hearing Lupe sound reinvigorated that made me return again and again. Good, conscious lyrics, a mellow beat, a lovely hook, something familiar but new. His next release, "Mazinger," caught my attention, it was a brilliant robot concept. I was slowly getting back into the idea that Lupe could be back making the kind of music that stopped my teenage world.
"Deliver" is the song that did it. The second single from his forthcoming Tetsuo and Youth. It has everything you could want from a classic Lupe record: the genius but simple concept, the much-needed message, the extended metaphor, the infectious hook, it was like spotting a horse with a horn after hearing all the unicorns were slaughtered. Did I mention that Lupe utilized Ty $ign without the song being ratchet? The visual only increased my admiration. He’s back I thought, the same way Michael returned, must be a Chicago thing.
For the first time, since Lasers, I’m excited for a Lupe album. His final album on Atlantic Records, in a way, this feels like it could be the lupEND. The end of an era, the battle with his label is coming to a close, he’s going to be a free agent. I don’t know how much noteworthy material dropped between Lasers and now, but I’m excited about the future of his artistry. I’m not going to delve too deep into his rants, debates, and beefs on social media. I only care about the music. If it’s good I’ll praise, if it’s bad I’ll loath, but for the moment, Lupe has my ear again.
[By Yoh, aka Free Chill, aka @Yoh31]