Oct. 1 in the Sun-Times offices. (Brian Jackson/Sun-Times)
Lupe Fiasco was in town last week -- for some promotional events around the release of his latest album, "Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Part 1" -- and he stopped on a street corner to snap a photo with his phone. A mother recognized him and approached him, he says, telling him she encouraged her son to listen to Fiasco's hip-hop because of its positive messages.
Then she added that a teenage boy shot and killed the previous weekend was her son's best friend, and the boy died in her son's arms.
"That was this morning. I wasn't asking for that ... I didn't go out reaching out for that. I didn't go on Twitter and say, 'Tell me your saddest story that happened to you this weekend.' I was in the road taking pictures," Fiasco says. "So it's that visceral."
Splitting his time between Los Angeles and his native Chicago, Fiasco -- born Wasalu Muhammed Jaco 30 years ago on the West Side -- has been watching the news of Chicago's escalating street violence with alarm. Shaking his head during our conversation, he refers to "these heartbreaking times for the city" -- a situation that previously choked up Fiasco on video -- and adds, "I'm distraught and destroyed by it."
"It's terrible, terrible to see the city still operating like everything is normal," he says. "There's no outcry as a whole. That kind of frightens me."
Since his 2006 debut, the first "Food & Liquor" album, Fiasco has been acclaimed for his social consciousness and criticized for occasional gaffes, such as previously labeling President Obama a terrorist to, on one song from the new album ("Strange Fruition"), explaining why, for purely religious reasons, he won't salute the U.S. flag.
Recently, comments Fiasco made last month during a Baltimore radio interview involved him in a brief war of words with South Side rapper Chief Keef, who threatened to "smack him" via Twitter.
This new "Food & Liquor II" (which bowed at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart) installment has plenty to say. It does not directly address his hometown crisis, however, mainly because most of the tracks are about three years old (read on). In June, Fiasco debuted as a contributing columnist in the Sun-Times' Splash section; he's written three columns thus far, only one of which mentions "Chicago's perpetually skyrocketing murder rate," and that's in passing.
Face to face, though, Fiasco admits there's simply not much that can be said.
"You can't tell them [expletive]!" he says, speaking about black Chicago youth. "You can't tell them nothing, and that's the chilling part of it. At this stage in the game, there's nothing anyone can say, certainly nothing Rahm Emanuel can say. He could take this moment as a point to give up and send in the National Guard, or he could take it as an opportunity to say, 'We ain't got nothing to talk about, so let's go rebuild this community right around it without them even knowing, the same way it was destroyed around them without them even knowing.' Let's go build 10 basketball courts without saying anything, throw a bunch of basketballs in there and just leave."
He thinks for a moment, stares out the window. "You know what I'd like to do? I'd like to go get a bunch of buses, go out into the neighborhood. 'Hey, man, where we going?' 'We're just going to go to Great America [theme park] today.' Nothing about it, no pitch, no agenda. Just one day and go have some fun. Sometimes it's all they need, bro. It's not about telling them how to live, because then you have to unpack 60-70 years. They don't know why they live there. I never knew why I lived in the 'hood. But they're there, and they got stress."
Here's more from our interview, in which Fiasco claims hip-hop is a direct affect on behavior, discusses "the raw and utter heartlessness of the youth these days" and unpacks the woes of the welfare system (Warning: Contains strong language!):
The Atlantic rift
When I spoke with Fiasco last year, he was promoting his third album, "Lasers." He wasn't promoting it very well, though. Fresh from a bitter dispute with his label, Atlantic Records, over creative control and the release of the record (which became public as fans in Chicago and New York threatened to picket the label's offices), Fiasco was utterly dismissive of the tracks. "It's their record. My words, their music," he said, adding later, "I am a hostage."
Even with an Atlantic rep in the room during this interview, Fiasco is frank about his frustration with the commercially driven creative processes under the label's yoke, mentioning that his angst had him "contemplating jumping out the [hotel] window" and making a Prince-esque comparison to slavery.
"I said I hated that record," he admits. "People said, 'You hate your own album?' ... Yes, I hate the process I went through to make this album. I love the music. I learned a very valuable lesson to explain how I felt. Slaves used to make sugar, and they hated sugar. One of the first things they did when they could revolt is burn down all the sugar fields. But people say, 'Sugar's delicious! It's sweet! It's amazing!' And the slave would say, 'Well, if you knew what I had to go thru to make it ...'"
Both parts of "Food & Liquor II" ("Part 2" is due next spring) are drawing mostly from the pile of tracks made -- and approved -- during the "Lasers" sessions three years ago.
Fiasco has threatened to retire on several occasions, including during a 2008 performance in Chicago and as recently as Sept. 5 when he tweeted, "This album will probably be my last." He's still contractually obligated to deliver one more album to Atlantic, and he later clarified that tweet by saying that what he intends to retire from is "making music for commercial purposes."
"It'll still be music, but it won't be the three-and-a-half-minute song," he says, trying to explain what a post-major-label Fiasco would sound like: "I don't want to spoil it, and I'm still researching it. I'm not reinventing the wheel. If you're a Lupe Fiasco participator, you see what's happening now in the packaging for 'Food & Liquor II' -- that all-black packaging. There's nothing in there, but it's still a booklet. A printer somewhere had to make seven pages of black page and put it together with nothing in it. It's a pure artistic expression. I'm going to complete the thought in the artwork for 'Part 2.'
"After that, I might say, OK, and take two years off. Say, 'See you in 2015 with the new thing.'"