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Lupe Fiasco, Word Star

Sit back and listen in on a Range Rover ride to the West Side with breakout rapper and Renaissance nerd Lupe Fiasco. You’ll get an earful on history, sociology, anthropology, and the artist’s muses, from Tchaikovsky to Noam Chomsky to Ice Cube

Photograph: Saverio Truglia

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." 

 
Photograph: Saverio Truglia

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.

 

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.

 
THE WORDSMITH AT WORK: Fiasco, with his backup rapper and high-school friend Bishop G, performing in New York in March   Photograph: Jessica Hatter

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.

 
FIASCO IN THE MAKING: (from left) Lupe as a child, left, with his cousin; Fiasco (left foreground) with his parents, grandfather, and two of his siblings   Photography: Courtesy of the Jaco family

He was a great spirited child,” says his mother, Shirley Jaco, a gourmet chef. “Smart, a bit complex; he kind of was a loner; he didn’t hang with a lot of people. But I had all these books-on medicine, anatomy, philosophy, religion. And he would just pick them up and read. He would be thumbing through a National Geographic or listening to music. He loved Tchaikovsky.”

In a neighborhood caught in the crossfire of the eighties crack-cocaine wars, the son of Shirley and Gregory Jaco became known as the neighborhood nerd. “He always had the glasses,” she says, “always had a book bag over his shoulder and some type of a writing tablet. He loved to skateboard, too. You could hear those little raggedy wheels . . . ka-kunk-ka-kunk-ka-kunk, all night long.”

Introduced to Islam by his father, he may have looked like a bookworm, but gangbangers learned not to mess with “Lu.” For one thing, his father (now deceased) was a Green Beret “and held about eight black belts in karate,” says Fiasco. “He was one of those political black power Malcolm X guys.” Fiasco recalls that one of the first things his father did when the family moved was to open a martial arts school-with Fiasco as the prize pupil.

Having also run an army surplus store, the father boasted an imposing gun collection. “He had like a floor-mounted 20-millimeter machine gun. I remember playing with actual dummy bazookas,” Fiasco says. “I have pictures of me holding live M-16s, fully loaded, laying down on my neighbor’s lawn, and they’re like, ‘That’s so cute; look at him!’ We’d go out to some camping ground somewhere and leave rounds there. So I know guns.” (Today, two of his older brothers are cops.)

“That’s probably why no one really messed with him, either,” says Shirley Jaco, with a laugh. “Lupe may have had the nerd persona, but when he would go out to play he was in the ’hood. That’s where he lived, and he learned to deal with that.”

He did so partly through bluff. “I always had a scowl,” he recalls. “I remember when I graduated high school. On the last day, these girls, beautiful girls, came up to me and said: ‘You know what, Wasalu? We really liked you, but we thought you were mean.’ They were like, ‘It seemed like you were going to bite our heads off.’ [When asked about current girlfriends, Fiasco gives an I’m-not-telling-you smile.] So there was the nerdy side, but there was also the full black-belt-beat-you-to-death side.”

One of the peculiarities of Fiasco’s story is his initial reaction to the art form that would come to define him. He disliked it. He respected the strong political message of groups like N.W.A., as well as the music behind the lyrics. But he rejected the seemingly senseless glamorization of violence and the vulgar references to women.

Initially, he took up jazz and blues, classical music, and African-flavored sounds. He left himself open to rock ‘n’ roll. “Music was around since I was a baby,” he recalls. “My father used to play sitars and African drums and he had this record collection that was just vast. I got my first djembe [a small African drum] when I was like four and we’d go out to 67th Street beach and have this huge jam session. Everything would come: African drummers, sax players, flutes-whatever added to the stew, it was there.”

By degrees, however, hip-hop crept into his consciousness. Fiasco’s parents divorced when he was five, and by sixth grade, he was living in Harvey with his father, having gone there to escape the violence of the West Side. He had begun listening to rap groups like Fu-Schnickens, a trio known for its witty way with words. For Fiasco, nothing else seemed to combine the beat, the autobiographical opportunity, the wordplay, and his earlier musical influences in quite the same way. A budding friendship with a fellow Thornton Township student-a street-hardened fringe gang member named Bishop G-cemented his path. “When we first met, I was running with a bad crowd,” admits Bishop, whose real name is Dusean Dunbar. “[Fiasco] was like the nerd. He had these big glasses and he was always reading or something. For whatever reason, though, we kind of clicked up. I guess I liked the way he read out loud in class. I could read real well, too.”

 
NERD MAKES GOOD: (left) Fiasco and his mother at the Grammy Awards in February; (right) backstage with Jay-Z following a show in New York  Photography: (Image 1) Arnold Turner/Wireimage.com; (Image 2) Jessica Hatter

What fascinated Fiasco (who was still using his given name, Wasalu Jaco) was Bishop’s poetry-rhymes and stanzas of power and beauty-coming from someone so rough. At around the same time, Fiasco came under the guidance of an unlikely mentor, the school’s bespectacled chemistry teacher. Calvin Stark spotted Fiasco’s potential right away, but he also saw that the young man was uncomfortable about revealing his intelligence. “The students then had this strange thing, and it still exists today, that it’s uncool to be thought of as being smart,” Stark says. “Wasalu was the type of reserved individual who would rarely put up his hand. So I would say, OK, I’m going to call on him. I’ll get him, because I don’t think he’s paying attention. Every time I would call on him he would respond with the correct answer. I said to myself, There’s something up with this kid. He’s smart. Very smart.”

In fact, Fiasco was a member of the school’s scholastic bowl team. “I told him, ‘You know you’re an egghead, right?’” recalls Stark.

Fiasco knew. And he knew that his mentor desperately wanted him to go to college-perhaps even an Ivy League school. “I’m not going to lie; I was really disappointed when he decided not to go on to college,” Stark says. But the teacher also knew his star pupil felt no passion for academia. “He had to set his own course and that’s what we did.”

Stark transferred Fiasco to honors chemistry, but two weeks later, the student returned to the regular class. “It wasn’t that he couldn’t do the work,” says Stark, “but he told me he just didn’t feel comfortable” being part of the “smart” class.

By then, Fiasco had begun to turn his intense curiosity to writing, filling notebooks with long stream-of-consciousness shoot-’em-ups about guns and the ’hood, as well as recapitulations of the Japanese cartoons he had come to fancy. “Every time I would see him, he’d be jumping up and down with headphones and a tablet,” Shirley Jaco says. The words spilled out like a slot machine jackpot; he had not yet learned to harness the outbursts.

“He was writing about all this stuff about guns,” recalls Bishop, who performs to this day as Fiasco’s backup rapper. “Don’t get me wrong; it was dope, it was real dope. But I had to tell him you can’t connect all your words together like that. There’re too many words! I had to teach him how to rhyme and use stanzas.”

When his mother read his first efforts, the typical fare of the emerging thug rapper, she was furious. As someone who had traveled the world and considered herself a Renaissance woman, she says, “I had tried to teach [my children] some dignity and pride about who they are, about the neighborhood, about black-on-black crime.” When she saw Fiasco’s efforts, “I would say, ‘Boy, what are you writing?’ He’d say, ‘Momma, that’s rap!’ I said: ‘Rap? Boy, I’ll give you a rap.’”

Bishop stepped in, assuring Fiasco that they didn’t need to follow the pack; that there was nothing wrong with their rhymes’ sounding smart. “The more we read and kept reading and listening to other people,” recalls Bishop, “the more we wanted to do something different.”

Meanwhile, Fiasco’s mother introduced her son to books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. She told him about groups like The Watts Prophets, one of the first acts to use spoken word with music in the nascent genre that would become rap. “He matured,” Fiasco’s mother says. “He started listening to the lyrics, to what they were saying, because he started to change his whole style.”

Fiasco’s father took Fiasco and Bishop to secondhand shops in search of used musical equipment and pointed them toward the basement that they could use as a studio. “He said, ‘If you’re going to be serious about this, you got to put your best foot forward,’” Bishop recalls. “Oh, my Gawd, that basement was filthy! But we cleaned it out and made us a little place.”

The two teens created mixtapes, and soon word got around Thornton Township about the budding rappers. But their first public appearance was a disaster, recalls Bishop. “They were hatin’ on us,” he says. “They threw us off the stage because we didn’t sound like everyone else.” At least in Chicago, everyone else favored the “twister” style: machine-gun bursts of rhymes syncopated with slow hip-hop beats. “We wanted people to understand the words,” Bishop says. “We wanted to tell stories.”

 
Fiasco with his Thornton Township mentor, chemistry teacher Calvin Stark, in 2006   Photograph: Courtesy of Thornton Township High School

At Northwestern, Fiasco launches into “Kick, Push,” and the crowd roars. Fiasco mimes riding a skateboard across the stage, arms out, one leg kicking; the students, red-faced and sweat-drenched, shouting the hook: Kick push, kick push, kick push, kick push . . . coast! Anyone else and the pantomime would be silly, almost geeky. When Fiasco does it, the crowd explodes.

The skateboard culture seems an unlikely group to attract an aspiring rapper. “It was another one of those weird things I was into,” he says. “I was into sneakers and the fashion, and I was like, wow, these are some cool people.” His favorite hangout was Uprise Skateshop on Milwaukee Avenue, a nationally known grinder mecca. “I would see these kids come up with their skate shoes all eaten up, dirty; you could just tell that they came from a situation that wasn’t right. But they were cool. The song is about this one guy and what skateboarding meant to him.”

The song has been one of his biggest hits-another case, he says, of “revenge of the nerds,” one of his favorite themes. “Nerds, those with or without glasses, are the coolest people on this planet. The stuff that they do and the things that they talk about and the outlook they have on life.”

Fiasco aggressively promotes his point of view, and he’s fond of citing Cornel West, the African American scholar and Princeton professor. “[He] said-and this is the theory that runs my existence as a rapper-he said, if you want to effect change in society, you have to make it cool to be uncool; you gotta make it hip to be square,” Fiasco explains.

“Because it is the things that have been made hip that destroy us and that we will be blamed for.”

 

We are back in the Range Rover. The sky, moments before a lemony wash, has faded into a gray purple. The Sears Tower begins to glitter with pinprick lights. The discussion of harsh influences has ignited Fiasco’s passion, and the words, thoughts, and theorems flame up like a flash fire. He agrees that calling women ‘hos and bitches is degrading, but equally troubling, he believes, are the white record-label executives who encourage it-especially when doing so helps sales.

“Look at 50 Cent,” Fiasco says. “He has this video that promotes and sells a product-the most absolute, violent, destructive thing around. So who controls the distribution of that? Fifty Cent doesn’t. I love him to death. But he doesn’t control none of that.”

The words pick up speed, Lupe on the loose. “No rapper, no kid in the ’hood, no drug dealer, no Scarface wannabe, no pimp, no prostitute, no ‘ho, no bitch, no nigga controls any part of mass media. It’s Viacom and their baby companies. It’s Rupert Murdoch. So if the moral compass was that strong and everything was as fucked up as everyone says it is, do you blame the artist? Hypocrisy is not something that is licensed, owned, and exclusive to hip-hop. It’s in movies. It’s everywhere.”

In almost the same breath, Fiasco demands responsibility from his fellow rappers. Mass media pushes certain images, but the artist “has to make a decision whether he’s going to perpetuate it. When you put pen to paper, what are you going to talk about? Because you can talk about the things that are around you, the reality of the violence, but do so in a way that takes the glamour out of it. You address, you relate to it, you maintain your authenticity or street cred or whatever, but you put it in such a light where it shows the ills of it, the ugly face, of the streets, of the drugs, of the life.”

 
Photograph: Saverio Truglia

By the summer after his senior year in high school, Wasalu Jaco had formed his own group, Da Pack, and had assumed his stage name of Lupe Fiasco. (He derived “Lupe” from the “lu” at the end of his real first name. “Fiasco” came from a song he liked called “Firm Fiasco,” by a group called The Firm.) Calvin Stark admits he wasn’t crazy about the pseudonym. “The Lupe part, I said, ‘OK.’ The Fiasco part, I said, ‘Do you really understand what fiasco means?’” Stark laughs. “[Fiasco] said, ‘I do, I do.’ But it was no use. I couldn’t talk him out of it.”

Newly dubbed, Lupe Fiasco began taking trips downtown to meet record-label representatives and eventually caught the eye of the Def Jam records producer Jay-Z. Bishop G had stopped rapping with Fiasco for a time, and he saw the growth in his friend when they got together later. “Damn!” he recalls telling Fiasco. “We all still good, but you sound like you adding some new shit. You been cheating?”

Fiasco was signed to Epic Records with Da Pack and later inked a solo deal with Arista Records. When Arista’s head, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, left in 2004, Fiasco was snapped up by Atlantic, his current label. Buzz began to build. He released a mixtape that included the song “Touch the Sky,” with Kanye West. In 2006 came Food & Liquor and stardom. This past January, he signed a footwear and apparel agreement with Reebok, and Food & Liquor was nominated for Grammy awards in three categories: as best rap album, best solo rap performance, and best rap song for “Kick, Push.” (Fiasco lost in all three categories.)

Since then, Fiasco has felt the dark stain of hip-hop culture-having his name connected to someone with serious legal troubles. In March of this year, a Cook County jury convicted Fiasco’s onetime partner, the hip-hop mogul Charles Patton, age 38, on drug charges. According to court documents, Patton had stored six kilos of heroin-worth about $1 million on the street-in a suburban storage locker. Fiasco was never implicated in the case, and prosecutors did not make any direct link between Patton’s drug dealing and the financial support he lent to 1st & 15th, Fiasco’s record label. (In May, Patton was sentenced to 44 years in prison.)

In talking to me, Fiasco would discuss Patton only in veiled terms, saying things such as “My partner’s legal situation,” or “My partner’s arrest.” Fiasco testified on Patton’s behalf during the trial, and, in a letter to the court, expressed support for his former partner, saying, “I love Charles . . . I am deeply saddened by his circumstances and will stand by him and his family no matter what occurs.”

He has also had to grieve the death of his father in February of complications from diabetes and heart failure. “My father was The Man,” Fiasco says. “He was a big influence in so many areas. That’s what keeps me from limiting myself, because he was such a Renaissance man. I’ve always wanted to be like my pops.”

And despite his thriving career, Fiasco has struggled to emerge from the long shadow cast by Chicago’s most famous rapper, Kanye West, though the two remain close and are teaming on the Child Rebel Soldier project. The irony, Fiasco says, is that his 1st & 15th label and his connections helped make West what he is. “He had his notoriety as a producer, but people didn’t know him yet as a rapper. His payback to us was: ‘Lupe, I’m blown up. Let me help you.’ He does a lot of stuff for me out there.”

Fiasco’s success has sometimes made it hard for him to stay true to his message. For a time, he succumbed to the bling stereotype, a façade that still calls to him at times. “I was actually sucked in quite willingly,” he recalls of the period shortly before the release of Food & Liquor. “And it’s because I thought at first that that’s what you needed to succeed. If I want to get my albums in the stores then I have to be like that, too. I had two chains, a diamond bracelet worth, like, $20,000. I had a $10,000 watch; I drove around in a BMW with 20-inch rims. I was there. I had it. I wanted it.”

He saw the rocks behind the siren’s song while sitting at home one day. “I was hungry, but I didn’t have any cash on me. And I was thinking, Here I am at home in this crazy little decked-out apartment, bejeweled and hungry. And it dawned on me: This is stupid. I’m getting out of here. The façade started to peel away.”

He says it helped to read Noam Chomsky, the M.I.T. linguist and political critic, particularly his writings on the mass media’s complicity in glamorizing the kinds of violence that have become the staple of rap videos. “A few things that he touched on reaffirmed completely what I was thinking,” Fiasco says.

Even so, he occasionally feels the pull of material trappings. “Even now, I still fall for the façade,” he says. “I just recognize it more quickly.”

 

The tour of Fiasco’s ’hood is over. Fiasco swings the Range Rover to a sidewalk just off Ohio Street near Franklin. I had stopped asking questions long ago, realizing his stream-of-consciousness riffs led to their own exotic places. I feel brain weary, overwhelmed, the way a premed major might after a particularly demanding advanced chemistry class. But when I glance back, I see that Fiasco, looking as fresh as when he picked me up, is already working one of his cell phones, eyes flashing behind nerd glasses, music bumping, his mind, his day still revving, supercharged, intense as a starburst.

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