Why Lupe Fiasco Needs to Chill
Some time ago, I began to write a post about Lupe Fiasco in an attempt to make sense of his change in musical style/subject matter (which I don’t think has shifted much, but many seem to) through an analysis of his song, “Bitch Bad”, from his forthcoming album, “Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1”. I never finished that post, however, because I figured, “hey, I’m gonna let Lupe cook, and whoever doesn’t vibe with his music is entitled to their opinion.” That position was rockin’ for a bit, but now I feel an imperative to finish what I started for two reasons: there is a growing amount of vitriol being espoused toward and about Lupe that I think is severely unwarranted, and his responses to said vitriol have been becoming less composed and more reactionary, allowing for those that would see his downfall to have a never-ending bevy of source material from which to draw when they are ready to sling more mud.
The most recent example occurred when an article by Brandon Soderberg critiquing his video for “Bitch Bad” was published in SPIN magazine, resulting in Lupe letting fly a flurry of tweets that culminated in a call to boycott SPIN magazine. Now, I’m not going to waste time with a breakdown of the song, or the video. However, I would like to point out a few places in Brandon Soderberg’s coverage that I take issue with.
The first is his assertion that women do not want to be called ladies. He states, “Its hook goes, ‘Bitch bad, woman good, lady better,’ which sounds sweet and all, but does any female want to be called ‘a lady’?” Soderberg leans on feminist beliefs about patriarchal and misogynistic societies oppressing women through dictums of what womanhood should and shouldn’t be. Often this set of standards is capsulized into what it means to be “a lady”. While I am in no way in favor of oppressive gender-normative standards for women, and while I think that there is still room for fleshing out and filling the holes in Lupe’s proposition put forth in the chorus of his song when looked at through a feminist lens, I don’t think he should be condemned as just another perpetuator of patriarchal thought and standard-creation.
It’s no secret that many women have re-claimed the word “bitch” in much the same way as many Blacks have re-claimed “nigga”. Bitch, when used with a certain intention in a certain context, could be perceived as uplifting and positive for women, perhaps alluding to strength, independence, self-definition, or a host of other empowering descriptors. However, used in an alternate context with negative intent, “bitch” can be derogatory and degrading, and a label to avoid (I shouldn’t have to spell out the parallels with “nigga” in terms of intent and context of use at this point, right?).
So now we have a multidimensional word with many variables effecting how its use is perceived. Now, and just go with me here, assume that the little hood children about whom Lupe speaks in his song are unaware of feminist perspectives, but are all too aware of the decidedly patriarchal and derogatory use of “bitch”. Would “lady” not then be a better option for describing one’s female counterparts in the community? I think so, and more than that, I think that this step must first be taken before any sort of feminist approach can be applied. To quibble about whether or not “lady” is in fact better belittles the message Lupe is attempting to convey, and ultimately everyone loses because there is no thought given to the use of any of these words, their meanings, or the consequences dealt with by those to whom they are applied.
The second issue I have is with Soderberg’s assessment of the video’s depiction of a “rap thug”. He asserts that the thug in the video is made to look like 50 Cent, and while one could make that argument, 50 Cent is far from unique in appearance. Black guy. Beater. Jeans, with glock tucked. Optional fitted/du-rag combo. Sounds like the general “hood nigga” uniform to me (again, I’m not disputing that “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’” 50 looked about as much like a generic hood nigga as one can, so sure, one could say it was him in the video). Ask any Black dude you know, however, and I’m almost certain he has, at some point in life, donned the hood nigga uniform. But wait; there were ads for “sugarwater” in the video. That must be an allusion to Vitamin Water, right? So it’s gotta be 50! No. It doesn’t.
SIDEBAR: At this point I feel it’s necessary to clearly state that I’m giving Lupe the benefit-of-the-doubt because, historically, his music has been much more complex than what one could take away from face value. Therefore, I look to a deeper meaning behind his music. I don’t see how one could only look at the surface when Lupe has only been developing a more complex socio-political consciousness since we were first graced with Food & Liquor.
That being said, the ads for “sugarwater” in the video could be representative of Vitamin Water, but are more-likely representative of the entirety of unhealthy foods that are present and pushed in lower-income and minority communities. Many children growing up in impoverished urban communities (and I’m now speaking from first-hand experience) have been so sheltered from real food that they know nothing but high-sugar drinks, chips and other junk food. They will literally eat flaming hot Cheetos (pronounced “hot flamin’s” if you live in Chicago) for every meal of the day. Even when offered an alternative, they choose the “food” that they’ve been conditioned to like, even though it is the most nutritionally lacking choice possible. Rappers come into the fold, obviously, as the pusher, the endorser, of these products. Children follow their idols. We know this. Through that line of thinking, I hold that Lupe is concerned with the larger social issue, but Soderberg seems bent on fostering a fabricated beef between Ferrari F50 and Fiasco.
Now, I’d been holding back the, “this white dude is whylin’ and has no idea what our culture is about,” thoughts that always crop up when white folks start trying to analyze anything Black (I have trust issues with white folks; I’ll just point to their history of academic, medical, social, physical and mental pathologizing of Blacks as why). But then Soderberg had to put his two cents in about the black face.
He puts forth that Lupe’s parallel between rappers and minstrel performers is ludicrous. Gotta call bullshit on that one. His argument is based on a misconstrued interpretation of Spike Lee’s satirical film, “Bamboozled”. Looking into the history of minstrel shows (which is clearly depicted in the film, so I’m confused as to how one could miss it), it is clear that performers unwillingly debased themselves in order to make a living. I can point to more than a few rappers who’ve done the same; in order to get on in the rap game, one must put out what record companies deem the most marketable product. This is often in contradiction with the artist’s own scruples and what they know to be right, but, one still has to get that check. Same shit, different decade.
At this point (and I appreciate it if you’re still with me), you may be wondering why I’ve taken 1,200 words to rebut what most probably hold to be idiotic stances (I’ve been talking about a guy who said Jay-Z, “sensitively deconstructed,” “bitch” on his song, “99 Problems”. Crock of shit? Big time.). I want to drive home just how silly Soderberg’s entire critique is in order to further drive home how ridiculous Lupe’s reaction to it was.
Lupe took to Twitter, once again, to defend himself and his art, railing against SPIN and the machine it functions as a part of. He even went so far as to create a hash tag, #BoycottSpinMagazine, for his fans to rally around in support. I support self-defense, but I also support maintaining composure. There are obvious frustrations Lupe is dealing with. Most Black people must confront the issues he’s been at war with daily. But I feel like Lupe is reaching critical mass; we’ve already seen him break down on MTV after the realization of how little has changed since his ascent, and I fear that the weight of all the issues that contribute to maintenance of the status quo, coupled with his increasing isolation from others due to stardom, is killing his spirit. He even admitted, bravely, in an interview with the Guardian, that he was, “super-depressed, lightly suicidal, at moments medium suicidal – and if not suicidal, willing to just walk away from it all completely,” when working on his third studio album, Lasers.
I worry that Lupe is swiftly painting himself into the “angry Black man” corner. There’s nothing wrong with being an angry Black man, but when it gets to the point where people discredit you because of outbursts like those on Twitter, you risk losing the platform that allows you to be effective in the espousing of your beliefs. Lupe’s responses to criticisms like Soderberg’s are bringing him dangerously close to being stuck in that corner, and if he isn’t able to reach some level of chill, I fear he may flare out before he is able to complete his mission.