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No longer. Lupe Fiasco, whose real name is Wasalu Muhammad Jaco (pronounced JAY-co), bestrides the glitter city circuit-Chicago to Los Angeles to New York-with the incandescence of a searchlight beam. Where once he gazed with yearning at the downtown skyline, he now burns as one of its bright lights, joining Kanye West and Common in making Chicago the country’s hottest crucible of fresh hip-hop. From creating mixtapes (homemade CDs sold on the streets) in his father’s basement as a 14-year-old freshman at Thornton Township High School, he has, by 25, snared three Grammy nominations, been named GQ magazine’s breakout man of the year, landed on the cover of Billboard, and delivered an electrifying performance on Late Show with David Letterman. He has worked with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Jill Scott, among others, and is teaming with West and another rapper, Pharrell, to form a hip-hop “super group” called Child Rebel Soldier. He was scheduled among the headliners at Lollapalooza, August’s music fest in Grant Park.
To understand Fiasco’s particular singularity, however, you need to look past the accolades and penetrate the surface story of his escape from hard surroundings, urban realities that are almost bona fides for rappers, whose careers rise and fall on street cred. Fiasco doesn’t exploit that anyway. He disdains thug rap-the “I’m going to rip your tongue out and punch you in the throat and kick your momma in the ass and sleep with your sister” (as he puts it) kind of language that has drawn sharp criticism from high-profile people like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby.
You need to watch him perform and hear his music, a curious amalgam that at times bangs as hard as the ghetto, but also soars with violins and snaps with syncopated rhymes. Above all, you need to come along for the ride in his supercharged Range Rover and listen to this sort of verbal voodoo symphony that leaves you wondering whether you’ve accidentally stumbled on a mad scientist; a class nerd with a motor mouth; a calculating showman; the coolest, hippest hip-hop deejay you’ve ever met; a flat-out genius-or all of the above.
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Lupe is late, and after he waves me into the Range Rover it’s easy to see why. He is wearing a mustard hoodie, baggy prewashed Sean John jeans, and a pinkie ring featuring a tiny insect alighted on a platinum honeycomb. He is lean-skinny, actually-but you would make a serious mistake to get in his face. He’s a fourth-degree black belt and has probably handled as much weaponry as a ninja-his father, Gregory Jaco, having once owned a well-stocked army surplus store. His muscles are long and ropy; his face is sharp and heart-shaped, with high cheekbones and a well-trimmed patina of whiskers.
The vehicle, other than its window tints, is not the bumpin’, pimped-out eye-dazzler you might expect. Rather, it looks like the kind of yuppie wagon you’d see outside Fox & Obel, waiting for the driver to return with a bag of gourmet lox and Stilton cheese. Inside is where you first sense the day-planner high wire on which Fiasco walks. The center compartment spills CDs, a leather bag, notepads inked with hieroglyphic chicken scratches, pocket computers, and cell phones that alternately jingle and chime, and that Fiasco juggles as if he were a fifties-era lounge act.
“Definitely lay those passes down,” he purrs into one phone while I wait to introduce myself. “I think it’ll sound dope for it to end like that. But let me know.” I start to ask a question, but he holds up a finger as he pushes the play button on a CD he is producing for The Next Big Chicago Rapper, Gemini. He returns to the cell, smiling. “That’s fresh,” he tells the caller. “Congratulations.”
At last he turns to me, extending a hand and a gentle shake. “Now, how you doin’, sir? Welcome to Lupe Fiasco, business executive style.”
As it turns out, he is “four projects deep” (actually five): working on his follow-up album to the smash Food & Liquor, a project called The Cool; putting the finishing touches on Gemini’s album; producing another Chicago artist, Sarah Green; and overseeing his own record label, 1st & 15th (named after paycheck days). The fifth project, which for months he’s kept under wraps, is the group he’s putting together with Kanye West and Pharrell.
He owns a home now in the south suburbs, but he wants to drive me around his old neighborhood on the West Side, where he spent his early years living in a room where “you had to lay on the floor or you might get shot in your sleep.” But he also wants to talk about his years in the south suburbs, where he moved to live with his father several years after his parents’ divorce.
Both places are important to him, he says, because “the dynamics of [them] are very different, but I’ve always been connected to both. My West Side upbringing was my introduction to the ghetto, gangs, drugs, prostitution, all that stuff. But there was also a level of culture there, of intellectualism.” In Harvey, where he attended high school at Thornton Township, the environment was different. “Not perfect, mind you,” he says. “There was a crack house next door instead of one being upstairs. One [place] had bullets whizzing through the wall and the other didn’t.”
As he guides the Range Rover deeper into the Madison Street corridor, the bleak landscape of liquor stores and shuttered buildings seems to put him at ease. For him, the low-slung stretch is his haunt, his hoody-hood, the place that has shaped him, his music, and the onstage persona that seems to jolt his audiences like a taser shot.
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Photograph: Saverio Truglia