For the less informed, Lupe could’ve been the one, the savior of rap. He was Drake before Drake, subbing emotional R&B for a more traditional openness, emotional and otherwise.
We could’ve had it all, Lupe.
When Lupe first came in, he had to show off that he was different within the context of the same. He was rapping with a similar genre of swagger to other rappers, a similar beat selection, but he was subverting them with talent and style. He was universal even as he was unique: a smart, earnest kid, with all the complexities any of us had, mingled with the specificities of his situation.
We were excited, and understandably so. And, after he’d proven himself as good as any standard rapper, Lupe announced that he was moving on, moving forward, to better, bolder, and stranger things.
And that is where we lost him.
You’d think an unrestricted Lupe would be better.
You’d be wrong.
See, when he was imitating other rappers, Lupe was holding himself to industry standards. And, with that structure, he had every chance to show off, in direct comparison, how good he was. When Lupe felt the need to show himself as a rapper on Fahrenheit 1/15, he had the structure to show off his talent more clearly. When he had to shuffle styles and show depth it created Food & Liquor. That album held to some standards, (including the impeccable Jay-Z feature, the balanced tracklist) while showing striking intelligence presented on exciting and accessible tracks.
But left to his own devices, his genius collapsed on itself.
And then came The Cool.
Let’s be clear: The Cool is not a bad album. It’s even good. But it wasn’t great, and it what’s worse, it began Lupe’s downward spiral.
For the uninformed: The Cool was a complex, metaphorical story told over the album about The Cool, The Streets, and The Game. They were concepts and characters both.
That’s the sort of wildly ambitious project that would galvanize listeners. It was, in theory. This young talent – young but proven – was finally going to deliver on the promise shown in his early work. The album, even, was inspired by a song from Food & Liquor.
If that doesn’t raise an eyebrow, it should.
The problem is that talent, even wildly impressive young talent, like Lupe, could do with a touch more structure.
For some context, think of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, Maad City. That was another storyline album by an insanely talented and relatively newer rapper for a comparison point of the risks involved. While Kendrick took a more structured and clear approach to his work than Lupe and it was still considered a modest dip from his more traditional work. Think of how confusing it was to have character/concepts that spoke in metaphor.
That was the second problem. Lupe thought of that, too.
Lupe has been at his best when he took intelligence as a given; both his and ours. His early work is smart, certainly – but it’s also fun and accessible. It was show-offy sometimes but it was startlingly good and why shouldn’t he show off? He was Lupe, back when that meant something. He used intelligence as a tool to do what he did along with empathy and realness.
But, somewhere, Lupe forgot. He started to think his intelligence was unique, and, worse, his only showing point. A song on The Cool makes this point for me. It’s called “Gotta Eat” and it’s nothing but fast-food puns.
I liked it at fourteen, which should be a warning sign. “Gotta Eat” is a smart song in the dumbest way, using “bread” “small fries” and “bite me” in the clearest “did you catch that?” type ways. It was a parlor trick, presented by someone with low expectations. It’s an exercise, dry and patronizing.
It was nothing but an exercise in being smart. And, crucially, it was not that smart.
Somewhere along the way, Lupe thought he faltered.
He was right. He had, after all. The Cool was fine, even good, but it didn’t live up to his standards or expectations. So he doubled over. He came up with Lasers determined to recapture the mainstream audience he never quite had, forgetting, crucially, a promise he’d made years before.
He dumbed it down.
He thought he wasn’t popular because we weren’t smart enough, like it was our fault and he released a limp album. He over-corrected and acted out. He adopted the persona of an intellectual rebel because his music couldn’t match, and the distraction didn’t compensate for the lack of, you know, good music.
He seems to have settled some. He dropped Food & Liquor II, an active attempt to return to the form of Food & Liquor (I mean, duh) but it lingers with the problems of Lupe’s psyche. He couldn’t resist affixing a suffix, putting yet another too-heavy touch of intellect on the product.
Where Food & Liquor was smart by happenstance, Food & Liquor II shows off the burden of a weaker attempt. Lupe called the sequel Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album
Some of it sounds like old Lupe, if you squint, but some of it still makes me cringe, like Bitch Bad, which reads like a college Freshman’s attempt at explaining his take on feminism to a girl at a party who’s name he forgot.
So what’s the moral?
First, for all artists: trust yourself and your audience in equal order.
Second, listen to old Lupe. It exists on the internet, and it’s amazing. May I recommend “Pen & The Needles” to start with?
It’s smart, but fun. It sinks in the background, effortless, a good song that becomes better the moment you’re ambitious enough to follow the lyrics yourself.
Man, those were the days.
Never confuse intelligence as an end into itself. It’s a tool to build, to shape and guide. But if the point of being smart is being smart, that’s reductive and spiteful, self-aggrandizing and empty.