Lupe Fiasco doesn't really like music journalists. At least, that's how he comes across over the phone the day after an impromptu listening session for his latest project, Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album. His answers come with agitated pauses and condescending snickers: after two critically acclaimed commercial triumphs, one critically panned commercial smash, a public battle with his record label and countless tiffs with other artists, the Chicago-born Muslim MC is through explaining himself. Instead, he's (still) counting the days until his record contract is fulfilled, and he isn't letting fans (or critics) stifle a message he feels destined to deliver.
According to Lupe, Food & Liquor 2 attempts to tackle the history of America in a few hundred bars. Inspired by the writings of James Baldwin and Howard Zinn, tracks range from exposés of Native American alcoholism to analyses of nuclear weapons programs. And then there's "Bitch Bad," the scathing commentary on the use of the word "bitch" throughout the black community, framed as a narrative about a young boy and girl. The video, which climaxes with mock rappers and video models applying blackface, premiered on MTV and was followed by a round-table discussion of the expletive and its significance. Lupe played Socratic for most of the segment, content to lob questions to the panel of bloggers and industry insiders (and one video model). These days, he's careful never to stake a claim or teach a lesson. Instead, he tells Rolling Stone, he's just trying to "start conversations" – but he refuses to be at the center of them.
Why make a sequel to Food & Liquor now? What was your thought process behind creating a Part Two?
What are you interested in trying to figure out, beyond that? I don't really look into it that deeply. I think people might be overthinking it. It wasn't that much of a decision either way, like, "Oh, we're going to take people back to the first album," or, "Oh, I'm going to take advantage of people relating it to the first album." It wasn't that serious. I guess it's serious enough for people to ask questions about it, but maybe you should answer it for yourself, too. Not to be a jerk about it, but specifically for that one thing, it's not that deep. It's just Food & Liquor 2.
In the "Bitch Bad" video, there's a sequence during the second verse that shows a rapper and a girl dancing. Were you referencing anyone specific there? The girl is styled like Nicki Minaj.
OK. Nicki Minaj isn't the only girl with pink hair. Lady Gaga I think had pink hair at one point. To tell the story, that's what a hip-hop video looks like. The general hip-hop video looks like that. That's the images you see. Go on World Star [Hip-Hop], nine times out of 10 it's going to look like that. It's not taking shots at anybody, it's not meant to be a diss record. I don't want to get off into the distractions. That's a distraction, to be like, "Oh man, are you dissing Nicki Minaj?" That's a distraction from the point of what the video's about. That's what happened with "Around My Way." People got caught up with "Man, Pete Rock don't like it?" as opposed to, "The suicide rate in Pine Ridge is really 50 percent?" So I'd rather not indulge. If you feel that way, make sure you say you feel that way. Or Rolling Stone feels that way. Don't say Lupe said that.
It sounds like in this conversation, and at this point in your career, you're being cautious. Not that you're holding anything back, but in terms of being particular with the messages you put out and how you put them out.
Nah, not really. I think it's more that I'm 30 and I want to do something else. I don't really have time to get caught up in what other people think about other things. That's not me being cautious. If you feel that way, why don't you do it? If you feel that's what the video is about, then why don't you say it? That's not my intention. When you do that 15, 20 times a day, you get fed up. Not with fans, but with the industry. You get fed up with interviewers and magazines, you get fed up with blogs, that whole piece. Like, my man, why are you interviewing me if you already got the answers to the questions in your head? Not speaking of you, just in general. At a certain point you get tired of beating a dead horse. What else do you want me to say? What else can I say? Everything that I've said has already been like . . . the facts have never been debated, it's always why I said it, or how you feel about it, as opposed to exactly what we're actually talking about. I'll talk to my fans before I talk to an interviewer about it, if I'm at a show talking to 10,000 fans, as opposed to filtering it through a magazine. That sort of gets played out.
Right now you're talking to a fan and an interviewer, and I think the discussion you're trying to have with "Bitch Bad" is an important one. There's a point made about Internet culture in the video, during a scene where young girls are watching an uncensored video online. You mentioned World Star Hip-Hop earlier – 10 years ago, a kid may have had to stay up late and watch BET Uncut, but now it's all accessible. Are those messages changing or getting worse because of the mediums?
I don't know, man, to be honest. I wasn't making a statement about promoting certain images through their sites – I was just using that to set the scene. It wasn't a comment on Internet culture or anything like that. It wasn't like, "World Star Hip-Hop is the worst thing ever because they show naked women!" Picasso painted naked women. Was he the worst thing ever? Which would be World Star's response to somebody who would say that. There are naked women walking around Africa who were walking around like that for 10,000 years.
To tell a story you have to have character, you have to have a setting. I wanted it to be as real and realistic as possible. When you go on the Internet, there are clean versions, but you rarely see clean versions because that's the point of the Internet. It's free speech. Say whatever you want. It's not governed by the FCC. Who am I to tell them what they can't do and then get pissed when someone tells me what I can't do?
So your goal wasn't to indict anyone, but to argue that these are possible effects of these images and messages? A kid seeing his mom call herself a "bad bitch" may internalize that and be affected down the line by it?
Nah, I'm not saying that, either. It's in the third verse: "This is a disclaimer, I'm not trying to teach you a lesson." I'm not trying to say this is what's going to happen, or potentially what's going to happen. Because you don't know, the characters are fictional, based on true events. I know personally what has affected me, but that's me personally. I've talked about it before and I'm not going to talk about it again. Everybody has their relationship with how things are going to affect them. It was moreso to just get you to think. Not to teach you a lesson or tell you what to do. I don't think people thought that's what it was. I think people just felt, "Oh, somebody's addressing something in hip-hop and pop culture at large. OK, what do we think about that?" Some people don't care, some people have never heard the song, some people haven't seen the video. Some people adore it and will write a dissertation about it. But at the end of the day I'm not really trying to tell you anything. I'm not trying to get you to do anything.
Let's talk about the rest of the album. There are live instruments on a few tracks that you did with your band. How would you describe the overall sound?
There wasn't really a full musical arc to it. I was more caught up in the concept of the great American rap album, as opposed to sonically how it would go. I just got beats that felt good, that sounded good. There were some tracks specifically – not album-wide – like "Bitch Bad," that sounded like a beat that would be out now. Not 10 years ago, or 15 or 20 years ago. There's other records like "Around My Way," which is a remake of a record that came out 20 years ago. I can't say that there's a consistent theme throughout the album, but it's modern. That's the best way to describe it – it's a modern album with modern sounds, as opposed to it being a classic boom-bap record or a neo-soul record or a trap music record or whatever. It just sounds modern.
Lyrically, you have tracks that are about American history and songs described as straight-up "rappity rap." You've always been openly confident about your lyrical ability. Do you still feel competitive?
Nah, for me it's art. I do this for the sake of myself. It's a selfish process. I don't really have any expectations from anyone for your comments or your reviews or your previews. Not to say that I won't see it, but that's not the point. I'm happy rapping a song like "Form Follows Function" for myself, the same way I can sit and watch a movie by myself or go to an art gallery by myself. Who do you listen to at the end of the day? Who do you look for to give you the thumbs up or the thumbs down about a certain thing? I don't really look to the public atmosphere for that kind of validation. I'm trying to find that validation in myself with my own art and put it on display, and if people like it, they like it. If they don't, they don't. Some stuff I don't even put out. I'll just be home, happy, creating something for myself, and then ball it up and throw it in the trash. It's less about trying to prove something or get on somebody's list or make a fan happy or make a hater mad or convert a non-believer. That's not the case for me anymore. Mixtapes, The Cool, whatever. We're done now. You get it, I get it, we're done. If you want to participate in this album, fine, if you don't, that's just as fine. I'll go on tour, go on vacation and come back next summer.
With previous albums, you've had a history of having trouble with leaks. How do you plan on beating the leak this time around?
You just don't give it to anybody. You can't control it once you turn it into the label, so there's the expectation that it'll leak a week before the album comes out. That's the world we live in. But up until now, no one has a copy. As an artist, you have to strategize to make the final, for-sale product [have] more value, and more than music. When people get the physical album in their hand, it's a piece of art in itself. There's no way that the label should've let this happen. There's no way in hell that they should've let this physical CD, the way it's designed, come out. But it's out. That in itself for me makes that special. So whoever has the download, yeah, you have the music, but everyone has the music. You don't have this. You're missing out. We have to make the physical music a little more valuable instead of just having a download link and a bunch of songs you downloaded from some torrent site. People try to make the music value-less, and I don't think we're going to stop that train, but the one thing that they can't devalue are things that are in the outside world. The digital space is different, but the physical space still carries value. That gives me satisfaction. You downloaded it for free, but you're still missing out on the whole experience.
You've said James Baldwin was an inspiration for this album. What do you think about his legacy today? Why was he your muse this time around?
I think Baldwin is overshadowed. I don't think Baldwin's in the conversation anymore. So that's why I tried to bring him back around, because he was such a powerful figure. He was a homosexual, he was an atheist, he was black, he was a writer, he was a down brother, he lived in Paris and grew up in the slums of Harlem. And he was a preacher. So he had all these things that made him Public Enemy Number One, but he was also loved and adored by the public at the same time. If you were just a card-carrying religious person, you'd shun him because he was gay. If you were a card-carrying white person, you'd shun him because he was black. And through all of that, he was smarter than anybody. He's had more of an impact for me than everybody. He's such a polarizing figure, but being so polarizing, his sense was so common. Very strong and powerful common sense about common-sense things. He challenged the notion that common sense had to be simple.
What is some of the source material you looked to for inspiration on this album?
Howard Zinn's The Bomb. Steven Pimpare's A People's History of Poverty in America, which is based on Zinn's A People's History of the United States. There were a myriad of Baldwin speeches. The sample on the intro to the album is from Take This Hammer, a documentary that follows Baldwin around in the late Fifties. Now I'm reading things that back up what I was saying on the album – books like Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco.
So you'd say recording this album was a learning experience as well as a creative one?
Not necessarily, because a lot of this stuff I already knew. It was more for the sake of the people who are going to say, "That's not true, where'd you get that from? You're making that up," to have some cites – an index or an appendix where I could look at you and say," This book, that book, this guy, that speech reaffirms what I'm saying." There are certain songs where I literally read a book and wrote a song about it. I needed to know the specifics. I had to read The Bomb to write a song about the nuclear weapons program.
We hear a lot about America on this album, but we don't hear about Chicago. On the "Hood Now" outro, you mention Kanye West being front row at fashion shows. With artists like Kanye pushing hip-hop into places it hasn't been, and Chicago still suffering in many ways, how do you feel about the city now and the music that's coming out of it?
No comment. It's easier and safer and smarter for me to say no comment. I addressed America. Chicago is in America. These aren't site-specific. There's some examples that stand out more than others, like Pine Ridge, South Dakota or Camden, New Jersey or Detroit, that stand out physically because they're wastelands, but it's systematic. If you go through the entire country, you'll see a reflection of the same things. The same conformity, the same injustices, the same discrimination – the same happy times, the same good times. You see it all, because it's America. There's not one place that's foreign in America, if that makes any sense. When I talk about no-space-specific, I'm talking about everywhere.
On "Put Em Up," there's a line where you say, "Only Tupac is topping me now." What did you mean by that?
I think everyone sees Tupac as an inspiration. "Tupac Back" – I didn't write that song, Rick Ross and Meek Mill wrote that song. Everybody equates themselves to who they feel is the pioneer of their thing, whether it be folk singers that look back to Bob Dylan or reggae people who look back to Bob Marley. These head figures that had a social and cultural pitch to them – not saying they were saints in any way, but within their genre they did something that transcended their genre. Everybody reveres Tupac. Tupac Shakur is a great man, a great figure, a great person. He's Martin Luther King status. The same admiration I have for Baldwin, I have for Tupac.
Yesterday at the session, you mentioned you had one more album after this and you were out. Are you happy right now?
Commercially, yes. Commercially, I don't care. I don't really have any expectations.
Personal, I choose to not comment on. How I feel personally I don't think is for public consumption anymore. Professionally, I'm aware I have accolades, but the commercial space is one I don't want to be in anymore. I'll still make music, but make music that is art. I think you'll slowly see that with the last record on Atlantic. You'll start seeing specks of it on Great American Rap Album, just the way we curate certain things, like the "Bitch Bad" video and the cover art. And once we really get into the rollout of the album, it'll all start to culminate on the last album, which is called Skulls. You'll see, like, "Oh, wow, he's not kidding." I'm really about to kick back and just do music for the sake of doing music, as opposed to doing music for the sake of doing an interview or shooting a video to it or having some kind of commercial incentive behind doing it.
So exactly what message do you want to get across or emphasize about this album or where you are right now?
If I could control that, I'd write the interview myself. I'd write all my interviews myself if I wanted to have that type of control, but I can't.
I get the feeling that you're not too fond of interviews.
These are my last interviews. We're doing a big documentary for the album, which will hopefully come out, if not the album day, hopefully a few days after – we've just got to finish it. That will be my piece de resistance about who Lupe is and what his music is, and that's it. After that, you'll have to talk to the publicist.