A Fall-Fledged Fiasco

Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records

He’s an A.S. Programming dream come true: modest on the bass, doesn’t flail his limbs too much, generally avoids obscene gestures — all the while scoring UCSD’s FallFest some controversy-free street cred (at least with the wide-eyed freshman crowd) on a sleepy, huggable, beanbag flow, one that would never dream of degrading a ho or scoring a drive-by. He’s a lost-collegiate-soul magnet with his head screwed on tight, pants pulled up proper and spectacles to boot.

The only danger: Dude might not heed the “no skateboarding” signs.

Just three years back, at one of Kanye West’s most overwhelming career peaks, Lupe Fiasco was finding his way from his Chicago ’hood into hip-hop’s most prestigious campus one nonchalant verse at a time, and gathered a fair crowd with copious online mixtapes even before he got the inevitable news — Jay-Z’s next-big-thing detector had swung his way, and was screeching like a canary in heat.

No helpless raw talent can avoid the great Hova wing for long, and usually doesn’t come to regret the benefits; once safely tucked under, Fiasco stepped onstage for a bangin’ breakout cameo alongside the notorious Mr. West in 2005’s Curtis Mayfield-ripping “Touch the Sky” — young, breezy and with “Peach fuzz buzz but beard on the verge.” He used the instant fame as a slingshot for his own shticky and dangerously talked-about (by indie ’zines and MTV alike) first single “Kick, Push,” an unparalleled feat in neighborhood boom-box jazz, apparently sponsored not only by the gods of good-boy hip-hop themselves but the top names in the skate shop as well.

Rap hadn’t been this cuddly since we first heard whisper of N.E.R.D’s sweet nothings. In the debut single, Pharrell-lookalike Fiasco took the action down to the park with the boys, leading us through a wildly relatable storyline — regular dude escapes life bummers on his trusty board, really digs the coast of it, even meets a down chick that can more than keep up with all the kicking and pushing. “Landed on his hip and busted his lip / For a week he had to talk with a lisp, like thisss,” Fiasco spits in cross-armed emphasis on the homely video, between strategic shots of kicks and axels. A little commercial, no doubt, but who wouldn’t swap an ounce or two of soul for those shiny new Vans in the window?

The street-corner sunshine of Fiasco’s first full length, Food & Liquor, was devoured by critics, almost teary-eyed at the discovery that geeks could now understand and talk about hip-hop in their native lingo and not sound like total assholes. Highly digestible diary raps concerning his upset in being part of the genre machine (“I used to hate hip-hop… yup, because the women degraded/ But Too $hort made me laugh, like a hypocrite I played it”) go down easy with hunky golden-oldie samples and monotone, half-spoken hooks that linger for days.

Like any self-respecting intellectual would do, Fiasco kicked Kanye curbside and instead looked to his inner poet and Muslim faith for a more full-figured, darker approach to jump-rope rhymes on The Cool, his subtly death-themed sophomore effort. The December 2007 release largely pushed soul clips aside for rolling synths and uncomfortably paced garbage-can beats, ditching Food & Liquor’s recreational arts-and-crafts persona for apocalyptic bio-punk scenarios and the ever-popular hard-out-here-on-the-streets saga. “Even Scuba Steve would find it hard to breathe/ Around these leagues/ My snorkel is a tuba, Lu the ruler around these seas,” he broods on “Dumb It Down,” on which fat black friend Gemstones and bald white friend Graham Burris warn him that the new, improved Lupe is “goin’ over niggas heads” and recommend he rather “pour champagne on a bitch” to round the average hoodrat back into his fan club. Which this dude, of course, just ain’t havin’.

Fiasco’s new independent streak and role shift toward tortured voice-of-the-ghetto have also lent a new ferocity to his live show, highly evolved from the former self-conscious, open-mic affair in which his backup often overshadowed the star. But let’s hope Lu doesn’t completely abandon the goofy wiggle of his days as Kanye Jr. — after all, the last thing we UCSD worms need is another excuse to wax dark and tortured.