Interview by Ben Westhoff
It’s the best of times and the worst of times for Lupe Fiasco. As of next week’s release of his sophomore effort Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, he remains critically beloved. Plus, the day I called him, he'd just received his fourth Grammy nomination for “Daydreamin,’” off his debut, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor. Meanwhile, he’s had a rough couple of months, flubbing the words to A Tribe Called Quest’s song “Electric Relaxation” at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors awards in October, and then threatening legal action against Vibe after they quoted him saying Tribe wasn’t all that. (He complained that Vibe misrepresented the timing of the quotes, and Vibe issued a correction.) On the phone from L.A., he doesn’t backpedal from his recent assertion that he may quit recording after The Cool’s follow-up, but does talk about his love for Chris Brown and, unexpectedly, Ian Astbury.
Congrats on the Grammy nod.
Huh? I got another Grammy nomination? Oh, snap!
Glad to be the bearer of good news.
Nah, my publicist woke me up [with the news] this morning. So, that’s four.
Do you care about awards as much as Kanye West does?
Nah. I was thinking about this one, though, I was kind of pondering the importance of a Grammy nomination. It can really affect sales and things of that nature. We’ll see if I win one. It’s starting to be the little things that matter to me. Like, last night I got invited out to see The Cult, with Ian Astbury, and he shouted me out on stage. I’m a big fan of Ian Astbury. I think The Cult is a little bit before my time, but I’m a big fan of Ian Astbury’s due to a lot of the stuff he’s done with UNKLE. So, yeah, it’s more those little things and occurrences, which are the milestones. Like, “Frank Sinatra went over to Sammy Davis Jr.’s house and they had a barbeque.” It’s starting to be like, “Damn, guess who I was just with yesterday?” I got a chance to perform with UNKLE, which was phenomenal. It was with a live band, we were all in Vegas. Some people might be like, “Who the hell is UNKLE?” But for me it’s like, “Damn.” Those are the stories I’m gonna tell my kids.
So, are you actually going to quit?
I think I’m obligated for like, three more records on my label after The Cool, but you ain’t necessarily gotta do ‘em. [Laughs.] If you really don’t want to, you don’t necessarily got to keep recording. But as far as quitting, that just [refers to] recorded music. The entity of recorded music really sucks, it’s really wack, especially when you’re doing it through a major. It’s like, you don’t make any money unless you sell tons and tons of records. And I’m not selling tons and tons of records. So, financially, it’s like, this ain’t making no sense. I’m making more money off my shows or off sponsorship or whatever. So, you start to feel like it’s 1950 again, like, “Damn, did I just sign away my life? Damn, I feel stupid.” I’ll still tour. It’s funny, because I just had the same conversation with Ian Astbury last night. I was like, “This recorded music shit sucks,” and he was like, “Yeah, it does.” But, we’ll see.
You’ve said you don’t think you have much to say on records, but your fans would argue that you’re saying more than many rappers out there.
It’s not that hard in this climate. [Laughs.] Especially in the realm that I’m kind of in – like, a commercial guy who’s on TRL – as opposed to the people who are not. In the realm that I’m in, it’s not that hard to be saying something. If we go down a few tiers to more underground [artists], there are people who are saying more than I am. But I just don’t think I have that much to say. A lot of the stuff that I want to say musically, it has a limit. You can’t compress and process certain things into 16 bars, or a song. It needs to be in a book, or it needs to be in a dissertation, or a speech, or a movie.
Are you going to go back to school? Write a book?
I might go back to school – I’ll never say never – but I’m writing a book now. I’m battling with Nietzsche. I went back and [read him] because I wanted to see what all the hub-bub was about, and I was like, “I don’t particularly agree with that.” So, now I find myself filling my spare time articulating and de-articulating Nietzsche.
You’re writing a book of philosophical essays about Nietzsche?
[Laughs.] Nah, the Nietzsche is in my spare time. The book I’m writing is about a window-washer.
Yeah, it’s deep, though. Imagine all the stuff I don’t put into my music because I can’t find a word to rhyme with “plethora.” I’m trying to practice how to write for an extended period of time. In writing, you kind of hit a ceiling. I hadn’t wrote on it in like, a year or two. So, hopefully, when I have more time [away] from the recording and the road I’ll jump back into it. It’s really good. They printed a chapterette of it in a magazine in London called Blag.
Briefly run down the concept for your new album.
For this album, it picks up on a [song] from the first album called “The Cool,” which is about a hustler who gets killed and comes back to life and who digs his way out of his own grave, and goes back to his old neighborhood and gets robbed by these two kids, ironically with the same gun he was shot with. I kind of took that story and expanded on it. I just started to tie in all these different stories and characters and plots, to make it kind of the pre-history for “The Cool.” So, it’s about how The Cool starts off as this little boy, he grows up without a father, he’s raised by The Game, falls in love with The Streets, goes on to be this big-time hustler, gets killed, and comes back to life. He ends up at the crossroads with the little kids.
I went back and took the little boy from “He Say She Say,” off the first album, and now he’s The Cool. The three main characters, The Cool, The Streets, and The Game, they’re all walking, talking characters. The Cool is played by Kadeem Hardison, from A Different World. The Streets has dollar signs for eyes, and tattoos of all her slain boyfriends across her chest. She’s like a temptress, almost. When you see her tattoos you see Al Capone and Alexander the Great and King Tut. And then you have The Game, who is an amalgamation of all of those vices in the world. He has dice for eyes, he has bullets for teeth, he has crack pipes for lungs, and he breathes crack smoke, and his suit is made out of blackened dollar bills. It’s a really graphic, really intense kind of character.
[The concept is] only on five records, and some of it is done kind of abstractly. The artwork ties everything in, and if you want, you can go backwards into [my] albums and the mixtapes, and figure out the characters and the story. A lot of my fans are doing that now. It really has kind of a cinematic feel to it.
The song “Go Go Gadget Flow” from your new album is ridiculously catchy. Were you an Inspector Gadget fan?
Oh yeah, big cartoon fan. But, the song really came from the Go Go records in Chicago. In Chicago we say you’re from “The Go,” and so it’s really my anthem for Chicago. Just so Chi-town can have another anthem. Just to recognize that, yes, Lupe Fiasco is weird, yes, he’s eclectic, yes, he appeals to all these people worldwide, but the first song on his album is “Chicago.”
I know after your first album dropped you got pretty caught up in its sales figures. Do you think you’ll be watching the numbers as closely this time?
No. I don’t really care, to be quite honest. Unless it gets to the point that it [sells] a million records, or gold, because we sold 400,000 worldwide of Food & Liquor. But not really. It’s more to promote different entities [tours and merchandise]. I just did it for my fans. But I did make it somewhat commercial, with records like “Superstar.” There is an attempt at big records. Not really radio records, but just big records, that kind of appeal to everybody.
I’m just happy to see the longevity of the situation, to see that records from the first album are still getting nominated for Grammys now. To me, this album is much better than Food & Liquor, so I’m like, “Damn, I wonder what the response is going to be to this album.”
The Cool seems pretty light on big name guest appearances and producers. Did you consider trying to get will.i.am and T-Pain and Akon and all of them?
I had a song called “Blackout,” which is probably going to pop up on one of these store’s bonus tracks, and I was trying to get Chris Brown on it. And they turned us down. [Laughs.] I was like, “Oh, okay.” So, that was probably the only attempt to try to get somebody huge. But, I really like Chris Brown. He’s dope.
This has been a controversial fall for you. Are you sick of hearing the words “Tribe Called Quest” yet?
No. I have no problem with Tribe Called Quest. I never did.
I mean, are you sick of “Fiascogate”?
No, because it’s dying down. People are like, “Whatever.” You still got people that are using it for ammunition, but there’s no war to fight. I’m not at war with anybody. Me and Q-Tip are cool. Everybody’s cool from the situation that could have been disrespected by it, but weren’t. So, what’s the point?
Are you still planning to sue Vibe?
Um, no. I want nothing to do with them, though. They could give me 50 covers, I want nothing to do with them.
So, I knew you didn’t drink or smoke, but I was surprised to hear on that your rider stipulates yellow M&Ms. Only yellow M&Ms.
I don’t eat red #40 food coloring, especially when I learned where it came from, which is like these crushed up insect bodies. I was like, “Ewww.” So, I just have an affinity for yellow M&M’s. I bet everybody has that weird, kooky thing, and that’s mine. They all taste the same. I actually had to stop, because they gave me wicked heartburn.
Your new song “Gotta Eat” is told from the perspective of a cheeseburger, and it’s about the lack of healthy food in many black neighborhoods. Do you avoid trans fats and fast food and all that?
No, not at all. I’ll eat a bowl of grease. Solidified, white, crusted, all with a spoon. [The song] kind of reflects the health situation in the hood. People in the hood eat a lot of garbage. I was setting up this community activism group that works on the south side of Chicago, and one of the bullet points – outside of gang violence and drugs – was health. There’s definitely a lack of attention to the health issues [facing] black communities. You go through there and you’re like, “God damn, you can’t eat shit around here. There’s nothing but McDonalds and Taco Bell.” For a lot of people, if the bullets don’t get them, the diabetes will, so to speak. And my father passed away from diabetes, so that’s a real personal issue to me.
Since your future is kind of in flux, can you think of an entertainer who’s done his career the way you’d like to do it?
I don’t really want to follow in anybody’s footsteps, but I look at people like Ian Astbury, to see his career and see him on a personal level, how comfortable he is, and all the accolades and everything he’s received. So, if you can kind of make it out of the storm, and make it out to the other side, and still be comfortable with who you are and what you do, to me, that’s cool. But that doesn’t necessarily mean $100 million in the bank, everything’s lovely. It might just be, “I got a Prius and a nice little house in the hills, a family, and I’m cool.” But we’ll see.
Do you still live in Chicago full time?
Yeah, but I don’t have a house though. I’m kind of, like, Marc Jacobs-ing it right now, just living out of a suitcase. I’m so busy. I lived downtown when I was, like, 19. But now I’m kind of a drifter. No place to really call home. I’d like to live in Paris. I’d like to see what Paris is talking about.