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THE WORDSMITH AT WORK: Fiasco, with his backup rapper and high-school friend Bishop G, performing in New York in March
The heat in the old gym building on Northwestern’s campus clamps down on the packed crowd like a giant oven lid. The chant of “Lupe!” thunders up as Fiasco bounces just offstage in the torrid arena. Earlier, he had moved through his typical preshow ritual: a hair trim, putting on a sparkling pair of specially designed “kicks,” fresh out of the box. A chain dangles two gold cartouches that spell out his name in Egyptian script.
Though he often plays campuses, the crowd at Northwestern is perhaps a bit whiter than usual, though no less enthusiastic. Fiasco’s crossover appeal, a term he disdains, has been one of the hallmarks of his early success.
The show comes at a crossroads moment for rap. Nas, one of Lupe’s early influences and a stalwart of the genre, has declared with his new record title that “Hip-hop Is Dead"-a provocation that has stirred real debate over the health of the musical form. At the same time, the controversy over the “nappy-headed ‘ho” remark of radio jock Don Imus somehow boomeranged to become a referendum on rap music’s use of the n-word and penchant for demeaning references to women.
Fiasco shuns such terms in his life and his music, mostly because he finds little that’s fresh or exciting about yet another “thug with a gun talking about how well he can aim and shoot his gun and how fast he can reload it and shoot you again.” His innovations, he says, come through exploring urban themes in ways that examine the stories and lives behind the violence rather than exploiting violence for its own sake. Not that his music lacks grit. His breakout album, Food & Liquor, includes a bouncy, almost whimsical tune about skateboarding kids, but it also offers a provocative track called “American Terrorist,” ostensibly about George W. Bush, and talks about “dirty ghetto kids” and pimps and pushers and “a mom who’s a crackhead,” all wrapped around obscenities and frequent use of the n-word.
It is this marriage of his self-proclaimed nerdiness to a raw street sensibility that seems to reach both sides: the fans of hard-edged rap and those who favor intellectual themes and uplift. In this respect, he has been able to do what many other “clean” rappers have not: rap about lighter subjects without sacrificing his credibility. His gift has put the lie to the conventional wisdom that for a male rapper to land a major record deal he has to strap up with guns and flash cash and mad grillz (bling for your teeth) and strut his self-importance.
“I think we don’t get the exposure of artists like Lupe nearly enough,” says Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip Hop Generation and a former editor of the magazine The Source. A critic of thug stereotypes (he thinks they have been glorified by record labels to sell records), Kitwana praises Fiasco’s thoughtful approach to hip-hop. “By comparison to 50 Cent and others, Lupe is a breath of fresh air in his commitment to being focused on contributing to hip-hop as an art form.”
At the Northwestern concert, prompted by the beat, the music, the lights, the heat, and Fiasco himself-chopping, shoulder-juking, gliding across the stage-the crowd waves in unison and sings along to “I Got Cha":
You want the flava Ma, hey I gotcha!
You want the realness, well I gotcha!
I know you sick of them players big car and watch ya!
Either they pimps or they macks or they mobsters!
And so the show goes. Instead of chanting about bitches and ‘hos, Fiasco’s crowd shouts back stories of misfits and nerds and skateboard kids, the story of a life, his life.
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Photograph: Jessica Hatter