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They arrive in a starburst and explode in lingual glitter-confetti, gunbursts of ideas and abstractions, assertions and analogies, thrusts, theorems, notions, and double-entendres: words, words, words in torrents so strong they almost assault. Philosophy, religion, racism, and chaos theory; thugs, drugs; Rupert Murdoch and Nas, N.W.A. and Noam Chomsky-the onslaught leaves you mind-dazzled and exhausted, cowering under the verbal beatdown.
The question, whatever it was, has flashed and faded like summer lightning, but as Lupe Fiasco guides his supercharged Range Rover into the glass-shard sweep of the West Side, toward the two-flat he once called home, it hardly matters. To him, questions are like matchsticks, and if you’re smart, you let the flames spread to whatever forests his mind wants to burn.
At the moment, it chooses the corner of Madison and Albany, the “hoody-hood” as he likes to call it, where his journey from a young, skinny, bespectacled street kid to an eclectic, innovative hip-hop artist began. “It’s a weird place to incubate intellectual thought, but also one of the best places,” he says, “because a lot of intellectual thought is practical, and you have to be practical here.”
He scans the ruined landscape and points to the brick apartment where he lived with his parents and, off and on, his nine siblings and half siblings. “My grandmother lived over there,” he says, pointing to another apartment building. “This was kind of our stomping ground.” As usual, his thoughts ricochet between nostalgia and anthropological analysis, sentiment and sociology, leading to an off-the-cuff riff that, like himself, is fervid, scattered, didactic, and street slick.
“The circumstances people come from are very bare bones,” he says, as baleful tableaus roll by, a prostitute on the corner checking her fingernails. “It used to be that intellect was dependent on social status and the ability to pay, people like Isaac Newton and all these great people. Now, the education is kind of broad and you start to see little geniuses crop up from the most crazy situations, like here, so that it’s possible to have this little guy like me who was reading encyclopedias in the ‘hood, listening to Tchaikovsky and really listening, not just doing it because it’s there, but because I like it, and just attacking these tomes my father had and watching WTTW religiously and gathering an affinity for things like that, and still listening to Too $hort banging in the background and Ice Cube and N.W.A., and coming home and finding needles and pimps and prostitutes and gang violence going crazy. It was in-your-face violence: you heard the gunshots every night; you seen the blood on the sidewalks and the crack rocks on the ground and the gang fights and the police was coming down the block every day and the hustlers was out there in the cars with the shiny rims, and kids getting killed for Michael Jordans and jackets.
“I’m from this,” he says, without pause. “I’m from the ‘hood. All my friends are gangbangers and ex-convicts and drug dealers, so it’s like, the people I attract are a motley crew of individuals, these rough-and-rumble thuggish-looking gun-totin’ guys over here.” But folded into his social stew are other eclectic ingredients: artists, poets, classical musicians, and intellectuals, so that there are the thuggish-looking guys over here, “and then there’s this weird toymaker over there and there’s this Japanese fashion dude over here and then there’s this violinist and this photographer. It’s a broad curiousness, a different face for each set.”
Suddenly, he stops. In the distance, black, ominous, vaguely menacing through a dirty hot haze, the Sears Tower looms like the zenith of some unreachable citadel. “We used to just look at that,” he says. “We used to count the lights that led there, so many lights that they just blurred into each other, and we knew it was there, the Emerald City, but we also knew that we were here, so far away."
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Photograph: Saverio Truglia