CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco is known for his very unique lyrics. He glided into the spotlight in 2006 with his hit single about a hip-hop skateboarder.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KICK, PUSH")
LUPE FIASCO: (Singing) Push, kick, push, coast. So come and skate with me, just a rebel looking for a place to be, so let's kick and push and coast.
HEADLEE: He doesn't drink or do drugs, but Lupe Fiasco has still managed to raise some eyebrows with the lyrics from his fourth studio album, "Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Part I," and joining us now is Lupe Fiasco. I'm so glad to have you on the program.
FIASCO: Yeah. Good to be here.
HEADLEE: So your album just dropped earlier this week. I don't know. Do you read your own reviews?
FIASCO: I'm reading one right now.
HEADLEE: And what do you think about the response? Are you happy with it?
FIASCO: Yeah. You know, as a artist, you still - you're still - how can I put it - the vulnerable artist, you know, so any time you see anything that's, you know, harsh or, you know, critical in any capacity, you definitely feel (unintelligible) about it. But everything that I've heard thus far and, you know, from just the average person on the street and less about kind of like the journalists, but even the journalists like it. You know, fans like it. It's getting a really good response, so I'm happy.
HEADLEE: Well, I know a lot of your fans felt like your last album, "Lasers," was a departure from what they were used to hearing from you. Is this album more of a return to your original style?
FIASCO: No. I think "Lasers" was - I think "Lasers" was my style too. You know, I think it's just - everybody has different faces, you know, and different, you know, kind of avenues that they travel down. You know, you don't have to take the same street to get home every day kind of a thing. You know, you might want to parachute in from the roof.
But even with that said, "Food and Liquor II" is definitely more of a revival and it's even less of a revival, but it's just more of the focus was put on just the depth of the content, you know, and the depth of the kind of - the word play and the depth of, you know, just kind of the art, you know, of rap as opposed to - let me make a radio record. Let me make something that's appealing to a mass base or something like that, you know?
HEADLEE: Well, and you said that you wanted to get back to the music just for the sake of music. What does that mean? What does that mean you've given up or stayed away from?
FIASCO: That's even kind of a - even me saying that is still a little bit naive because I have a understanding of music as art and music as a commodity and, you know, even this album, attempting to kind of stray away from some of the commercial kind of aspects or the commercial demands of being a hip-hop artist, being a musician in general, you still get caught up in kind of those golden rules of the industry. You know, so the song, you know, needs to be three minutes and 45 seconds. You know, it needs to have a certain structure. You know, it still has to fit in a certain kind of box, so I can't get as exotic as I would like to be. It's no different, I think, of a painter, you know, that you need a - you want to create like a little five by 10 or do you need a football field? You know...
HEADLEE: That would be a big painting.
FIASCO: Yeah. It would be nice.
HEADLEE: One consistent theme - you've made no secret that you want to be socially conscious in your music. Let me read you - since you read your own reviews, maybe you've already read this, but the Washington Post said your album is, quote, "high stakes, especially in a time when most socially conscious rap seems carefully engineered to withstand the glare of the spotlight." How do you respond to that? Do you think that your music is high stakes?
FIASCO: I don't think so, and that's becoming one of the ironies of this album. I attempted to kind of tell the American story, you know, from my point of view and tried to eliminate as much bias as I could, which is impossible. But some of the songs on the album are taken directly from American history, you know, so it comes directly from a reading of Howard Zinn or it comes directly from a reading of CNN, you know, NPR.
And so it's not me - and just embellish. I made it rhyme, you know, and I put it to some music, but it's the same story that you're going to tell in a news break 10 minutes from now, you know, so it's like how high stakes is it, really, because it's all - you know, it's all public information. It's all public knowledge. You know, I'm not saying anything that's, you know, overtly controversial, you know, because...
FIASCO: ...I just got it from a blog, you know.
HEADLEE: Well, let me play for you a little bit that's overtly controversial, some might say. Take a listen to this here.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FIASCO: (Singing) Now, I can't pledge allegiance to your flag because I can't find no reconciliation with your past. When there was nothing equal for my people in your math, you forced us in the ghetto and then you took our dads. The belly of the beast, these streets...
HEADLEE: So you say you can't pledge allegiance to the flag. Is that poetic license there, Lupe, or is that true?
FIASCO: No. That's reality. When I was a little kid, actually, my whole family - my mother and my father instructed us not to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. And I know a bunch of families and a bunch of kids like that. With my mother and my father, it was more they wanted us to understand fully, fully, you know - not just haphazardly and for the sake of making my teacher happy, they wanted us to understand fully what we were doing, you know, at that young age, and what that means, and what America is. What is your place within that? You know, so it's not, I don't think it's being an anti-American, anti-patriotic kind of thing. I think as Americans we have a duty to understand our history, to understand the history of this country fully and completely.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOD & LIQUOR II")
FIASCO: (Rapping) Now as I wander through the city going mad. I see the fruits of planting evidence instead of grass. A swindled generation with no patience, full of swag. Man, they so impatient with the stations that they have. As long as they look good when they be doin' bad. And the separation from the truth is getting vast, fast. Be a slave at first or free at - last. Double edged choices make...
HEADLEE: Let me just to reintroduce you here. My guest is rapper, entrepreneur and activist, Lupe Fiasco - obvious activist. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
But let's explore that a little bit more because you've also said you don't vote in government elections. And the reason I bring this up is because some people take issue with that. They feel because you're a role model that young people especially, who listen to your music might imitate you. They might decide that it's not a good thing to vote.
FIASCO: I think you've given me a little bit too much power. You know, I think the media and the powers that be give me a little bit too much sway over my fan base. I also want them to, you know, not illegally download my album.
FIASCO: You know, but some, they take more liberties than that.
HEADLEE: Good luck with that.
FIASCO: So, but with that said, on a serious note, there's sections of my fan base that didn't vote and won't vote before I was even on the scene, you know, before I was even rapping, before I was even a public figure. They didn't have any knowledge of me and they were already set in their ways politically. With that said too, there's people in my fan base who are always going to vote no matter what I say, you know, and no matter what anybody tells else says, you know, no matter who says it, you know. There's people that I think Mitt Romney can come to their house and sit down and eat dinner with them, you know, and babysit the kids and they still won't vote for him. You know, he can go...
HEADLEE: But you're from Chicago, you wouldn't even vote for your own native Chicagoan?
HEADLEE: Almost native Chicagoan, Barack Obama?
FIASCO: Let's not be too local. Let's not localize it too much...
FIASCO: ...because I think we'll miss you, you know, Chicago's problems aren't Pine Ridge's problems, you know, and Detroit's problems aren't Oakland's problems. You know, there is a certain level of specificity - if that's even a word.
HEADLEE: It is.
FIASCO: That Barack at his level he can't, no matter how much he wants to or how much we want him to, he's not going to come take out our garbage, so to speak. He can't be the garbage man and the president. He can't be the mayor and the aldermen. You know, he can't fill all those roles. So I always push for local, local you know, activity in on the kind of political scene. So I was even out stumping and fundraising for my fellow MC Rhymefest who is running for alderman for one of the wards in the South Side of Chicago. And I was there holding up banners and come on and vote for my brother and, you know, financing the campaign and connecting him with different people across the country. Because I felt that he was a person who could - those, you know, 20,000 people within that one little kind of district, he could be directly affective to that murder rate in that community in Inglewood. And he could be directly affective, you know, to the school in Inglewood, and he could be directly affective to that.
So I always preach that you have to be active, you know, as a citizen matter no matter what. And some people just kind of use voting as an excuse not to do anything.
HEADLEE: You know, you sound really optimistic when I'm talking to you now. We're speaking with Lupe Fiasco, a rapper from Chicago. But I watched the interview with you on MTV. You got very emotional. You were watching old footage from your neighborhood in Chicago, and to me you seemed helpless in the face of what's going on in some of these urban communities. It seemed to me like you were saying there's almost nothing at this point that can be done to turn the tide. Is that how you feel?
FIASCO: I'm somewhat utopian, yeah. But I'm also somewhat dystopian. And I also believe that you have fluxes. You know, you have your cycles, where there is some days where I do feel hopeless and there are certain days where I feel like I can change the world by myself and, you know, in between time it's let's do it together. But there are certain instances that when you come from a world like that and you come from a place and an existence like that where you haven't seen change in 35 years, you know, you've seen the same cycle, you've seen the same, the guy who was the teenage kid who was kind of bad and dropped out of school is now the 50-year-old wino standing on the corner, you know, and he's been in that community for years and he's never left. And you go back to your community and not only is the - and it's funny because the only way that those situations don't exist now in the west side of Chicago is because those communities literally the buildings have been knocked down, so now there's these expansive vacant lots. But it's still despair.
And, you know, I don't apologize you for those tears that I shed on MTV and I don't apologize for the sentiment of it being hopeless because sometimes I do feel hopeless. And when I look out and scream out through my music and I scream out, you know, through these interviews and scream out to people to kind of get their attention back on the things that are meaningful. You know, there's people dying on the streets of Chicago, young, young people, young men and women who are losing their lives. You know, and to me it's that serious and it's that visceral because I'm there. You know, I'm not speaking this from some distant planet. I'm not speaking this from the seat of some Learjet. And I'm not speaking this from my summer home in the Hamptons. I'm speaking this as I drive down the city streets of the west side of Chicago.
HEADLEE: But that sounds like you would fall on the side of those who think rap music - when it is violent - reflects what's going on around it, rather than actually causes some of that violence.
FIASCO: I think it's a two-way - it's a double-edged sword, to be honest. And I think it's life imitating art and art imitating life. The lines, the lines are becoming so blurred and they're becoming so interwoven that there isn't a difference. And now it doesn't even matter, to be honest. I don't - I think that we're - that argument doesn't even, you know, have any real weight anymore. Because no matter, you know, what you do these things still happen. You know, people say oh, it's not the music, people have been doing this since before the music. Well, that's a tragedy. You know, and then people say, well, it is the music and if it wasn't for the music then this wouldn't be happening. Well, then guess what? That's a tragedy too, you know.
It's still, you know, I think it's we kind of have to kind of started being very, very honest with ourselves about the state of our society and kind of, you know, take a trip back, you know, to the guts and those nasty bits, and the stinky, funky, you know, guttural funk that Parliament kind of speaks about, that Cornel West loves to be speak on so much, the funk of life, you know, and see what really runs this place and see the people that are being trampled under the progression of this society that we kind of leave behind. We're more concerned with people standing in line for iPhones that we are people standing in line down at the mission.
HEADLEE: We're speaking with rapper Lupe Fiasco. His new album is "Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1." Let's take a listen to another single from the album. And this would be a good time to warn some listeners that there might be some sensitive language here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "B BAD")
FIASCO: (Rapping) I say, I say, I say, I say, I say, I say (bleep) bad. Woman good. Lady better. Hey misunderstood. Hey, hey, hey. I'm killin' these (bleep). Disclaimer: This rhymer, Lupe's not usin' (bleep) as a lesson but as a psychological weapon, to set...
HEADLEE: So this has caused a huge debate and I wonder if you're surprised by the debate. There are them - many who say, acknowledge that it sounds like you're trying to empower women in this particular case, but that you've kind of missed the mark. What do you think?
FIASCO: I was trying to do that at all, you know, I wasn't trying to become the spokesman for women at all. I can never understand a woman's role or a woman's position or even try and comprehend a woman's power, you know. I did the song to actually start a debate, you know, to start a conversation. And this is funny. People get caught up in "B Bad" as if it is about it's tragic for women and they completely forget the little boy in the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "B BAD")
FIASCO: Now imagine there's a shorty, maybe five maybe four. Ridin' 'round with his mama listening to the radio. and this song comes on and not far off from being born. Doesn't know the difference between right and wrong. Now I ain't trying to make it too complex, but let's just say shorty has an undeveloped context about the perception of women these days. His mama sings along and this what she say: (unintelligible), I'm a bad (bleep), and I'm bad (bleep)...
He's been programmed and, you know, kind of been fed this one kind of image of a woman, just - and it's all superficial, you know, and that's a tragedy. I did it to start a conversation. I said that explicitly, even before the song dropped. I did it for it to be a conversation and that's what happened, you know?
HEADLEE: You know, I got to tell you, a couple of weeks ago you mentioned you might retire from rap after you finish part two this album. But the way that you're speaking about your music, I find it hard to believe you. Do you really intend to retire?
FIASCO: I'm going to, I'm definitely retiring from more of the commercial aspect. I'm going to move more into an art space, you know, and...
HEADLEE: We're going to get a concept album from Lupe Fiasco?
FIASCO: Yeah. You'll get a concept album fully conceptual and weird, you know...
FIASCO: Do - should I listen to it backwards. And, you know, it's one of those, it's one of those pictures because it's like, you know, after you've done this for so long - and this is my 13th year in industry going on...
FIASCO: ...you know, you want to step out the box something that's completely esoteric and completely free and completely, you know, and even if the fans don't get it.
FIASCO: You know, it's just kind of like...
HEADLEE: At least you enjoy it. Yeah.
FIASCO: I'll have fun, you know?
HEADLEE: Well, we will look forward to that album. But in the meantime, we're going to enjoy "Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1" from Lupe Fiasco, rapper, entrepreneur and activist. That album is in stores now. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.
Thank you so much.
FIASCO: Thank you. Pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW DARE YOU LYRICS")
FIASCO: (Singing) You shine like the lights of Las Vegas. You feel way beyond outrageous. Your confidence and appeal, it's so sexual. How dare you? How dare you? How dare you? How dare you come do me like that?
HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. Remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. And you can also was on Facebook and Twitter. The handle is @TellMeMoreNPR. I'm Celeste Headlee, you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on tomorrow.