Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Imagine this: a fresh-faced young rapper from the west side of Chicago has a show-stealing verse on a Kanye West single. He's made his name from a series of mixtapes and has even received a co-sign from Jay-Z. His verse is an interesting case, peppered with nerdy references to He-Man and Lupin The Third showcasing a tongue-twisting lyrical style. Fast-forward a few years and this rapper has climbed Kilmanjaro, become the face of STANDUP2CANCER, appeared on CNN as a guest of Anthony Bourdain and on Fox News as an opponent of Bill O'Reilly. He's played in competitive gaming league against pro wrestlers and pro gamers alike. He's been named the music director of US Soccer. His early albums are regarded as classics and he's regarded as one of the leaders in the conscious hip-hop movements. A rapper like this should be a mainstream star, right? Selling out stadiums worldwide? Well, no. Because Lupe Fiasco has never sold out.
Okay, so before we go on, I need you to take ten minutes and listen to this song. You can even read and listen at the same time. I wouldn't recommend it though, this is an incredibly deep song that's a very involved listen. In my opinion, this is bar-for-bar the greatest rap song of all time.
If you want more of a breakdown on this masterpiece, Lyricology 101 and Genius have some pretty solid breakdowns on it. This article isn't really about this song, but this song is really the best place to show his skill. Somehow, this flew under the radar in 2015. When it came to the Grammys, it didn't even get a look. Dr. Dre's Compton, J. Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Drake's If You're Reading This, It's Too Late, Nicki Minaj's The Pinkprint and Kendrick Lamar's winner To Pimp A Butterfly were the nods over this album. Now, I know the Grammys aren't well respected as a honest take on music so much as a popularity contest (someone should write an article on that), but they tend to validate and vindicate trends, as in my example of Chance The Rapper's star-making win. As far as a quality standpoint, only two of the eligible albums, To Pimp A Butterfly and Compton, were rated higher on Metacritic than Tetsuo & Youth. Again, reviews aren't the end-all be-all (somehow 2014 Forest Hills Drive got a 67), but it's the closest to empirical evidence we have. And yes, TPAB was incredible, but that argument between it and T&Y didn't even happen.
This isn't the first time this has happened, either. Ludacris' Release Therapy (60 on Metacritic) beats out Lupe Fiasco's Food And Liquor (83 on Metacritic) and The Roots' Game Theory (83 as well). And Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, which was a massive mainstream influence similar to TPAB, beats out The Cool, again preventing the argument. So why the lack of popularity? Could it be Lupe's open Muslim faith in a post-9/11 world? That's a distinct possibility. Could it be his disestablishment views, illustrated in his belief one should "...criticize power even if you agree with it"? Again, a possibility. But I have another idea.
A while ago I tweeted about being a millennial and being relatively proud of my generation and its potential despite its faults. One of the faults happens to be a fake-woke, commercialized conscious thought pattern. It's cool to scream that "we gon' be alright" when Kendrick is at Coachella, but it's much harder to protest police brutality when tear gas is in the air. We'll be outraged Get Out is labeled a comedy, but allow cultural appropriation to run rampant in music and fashion on a personal level. We basically allow ourselves to be the Black (or Asian or Latinx or or Native or other minority group) friend that justifies saying "nigga" when Drake says it. Somehow Obama went from being history to being an "I'm not racist" prop.
Asking the hard questions has been Lupe Fiasco's forte. Speaking of President Obama, when Lupe Fiasco said he was a"terrorist" and criticized his stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he was ignored and passed over. They've been asking Lupe to Dumb It Down since 2007 and ten years later, he's been the tipping point of hip-hop. Even now, he's the one of few rappers on the Thirty Tigers distribution label, an organization that will probably lead the way into the future of music. But that's classic Lupe. Before Drake was playing Fortnite with Ninja or being the ambassador for the Toronto Raptors, there's Lupe Fiasco, beating Daigo Umehara in Street Fighter V and being the music director for the US Men's National Soccer Team. He's been hiding in plain sight for years, cultivating his craft on his terms.