If fans thought Lupe Fiasco reached his lyrical apex on his seminal 2006 debut album Food & Liquor, they were thoroughly mistaken — as they learned with the release of his follow-up set, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, just a year later.
Fiasco — who nabbed four Grammy nominations on his previous album, including a win for best urban/alternative performance for “Daydreaming” — set the table for his most potent, multi-layered project yet. In a no-holds-barred fashion, the Chicago MC unabashedly rapped about the perils of fame on the dark but pop-leaning single “Superstar,” gun violence on “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” and health consciousness on “Gotta Eat.”
Anointed by Jay-Z as the “genius writer,” Fiasco shed his skin as an underground MC when “Superstar” zipped its way into the top 10 of the Hot 100 in 2007. And while The Cool debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard 200, the album’s creative peaks were similarly undeniable, as the Grammys once again awarded Lupe for his efforts. At the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, Fiasco scored four nominations, including best rap album and best rap song for “Superstar.”
“We learned a lot of lessons from Food & Liquor as to what to do more of, what to do less of, what to put my foot in or out of,” Fiasco reflects to Billboard during a 40-minute long Zoom call. “We weren’t trying to beat Food & Liquor. The one thing that I was for sure trying to do that had nothing to do with Food & Liquor was trying to dodge the sophomore jinx. That was a real thing. So whatever I make, it has to somehow dodge the sophomore jinx. Once we got passed that, we were good.”
As part of our Black Music Month series, Billboard celebrated the 15-year anniversary of The Cool with Fiasco, discussing its origin, success, and longevity.
What I thought was super-interesting was that “He Say She Say” from Food & Liquor was a building block for The Cool. Talk about the song’s importance in how we ended up with The Cool.
There’s some interconnectivity with more than a few songs. “The Cool,” that song is on Food & Liquor and it was kinda like, “Let’s extend that narrative.” There’s a lot of narrative for The Cool, outside of just the album, goes back to this song “The Pills” that I did on MTV’s compilation. It was like, “Okay, I’m gonna talk about the streets as if it was a person.” It would be a random third verse on a song. You could follow The Cool outside of the album and arrange certain songs to speak to character development or a prequel. Songs like “He Say She Say” kinda fit — it may be a little bit of a force, but it’s there to be had.
The result of “He Say She Say” — unfortunately for a lot of the homies who the song is based on — some people don’t grow up to go through a “He Say She Say” situation. That’s used as motivation to get up out of it. Some of the kids, they turn into “The Cool.” Not having a dad or family structure around and being introduced to the streets in a certain way or not having that type of guidance to stop them from making that first wrong move. They can turn into that. It’s unfortunate and real serious when we perform “He Say She Say.” It’s one of those joints I have to apologize to people in the crowd who went through this that shouldn’t have to.
The first record you recorded off The Cool was “Superstar,” which had pop sensibilities, even for a dark record. Looking back on your career, how do you feel you were able to handle fame at the peak of your career?
The video for “Superstar” got the characters for “The Cool” in it. Even if the narrative for the album isn’t expressed explicitly in a song, the characters are still a part of a song like “Superstar.” All that stuff is still there. The characters just don’t exist in the hustling game, they exist in the music business itself. The game itself is the music business and all the evils that come from that. Even something with “Superstar,” which still feels like this big pop record — which it was — it’s still tied into the dark side of what the album was trying to express and the forces in this world.
Outside of that, just as a song on its own, the perils of the music business — you learn by the time The Cool came out, that was my third record deal. I had been through all of the shenanigans, and more shenanigans to come, but it’s still that self-motivation record for me. I may not write about my personal life a lot in my music, but I’ll write things in my music to remind myself. On “Superstar,” I’m like, “Hey, if you are what you say you are” — just remember here’s all the kind of struggles, trials and tribulations and don’t rest on your laurels.
It’s always been a challenge being in the music business. Whether that’s a challenge to stay credible or selling records or staying relevant, that all comes at a certain cost and a lot of the times that’s not good. I literally got a herniated disc in my back from performing. It’s painful. Prince, rest in peace, who had all types of issues with his knees and taking pain killers to go on the road. Sometimes we might be able to dodge a bullet in the streets, but we might catch an L on stage with some type of injury, and still have to find a way to thug through and perform… It’s part of what we do. and I always say rap is a sport, so you gotta train like that.
Going back to the song, it’s still relevant. I literally just performed it with Coldplay in Chicago with 60,000 people and Chris Martin singing the hook. We had the whole crowd singing it. I did a walk-through in the club the day before yesterday and they played “Superstar” in the club after all the drill s–t, and that same exact crowd is singing along to the chorus to the song that’s 15 years old. It’s still valid.
Over the years, how has your relationship with Chicago changed since The Cool?
It ain’t even since The Cool – I’m in Chicago right now. The reason I flew in was to do The Cool. I performed it at this festival in the heart of the city. The first official song on The Cool is “Go Go Gadget Flow.” I’m from the best city in the Midwest, best city in the whole wide world. I just performed as a special guest at the Coldplay concert in Chicago. This city loves me and I love the city back.
I’ll frame it like this: About 37 years ago — I was three years old — my dad, who did martial arts, had a bunch of his friends invited up to City Hall to meet the mayor, and my dad took me up. It’s this photo of these Black martial artists, me and another little homie there with the mayor holding up my dad’s t-shirt. 37 years later to two days ago, there’s another picture of me, my sister, and my mom with the current mayor of Chicago. The relationship to the city runs deep. From the highest office in the land, all the way to the ghettos. They show me much love, and it’s reciprocated.
Another highlight on the album is “Paris, Tokyo.” What was it about those cities that really helped shape your view of the world outside of Chicago, and have you developed affinities for new cities?
It’s still the same cities that’s in there, right? As much as I love the city, Chicago still feels rather small. If you got a big imagination — I was just talking to the homies about this — the city is a great place to start from, but you don’t need to necessarily spend your middle time or end here. If you from here, you always gonna be here. The goal is not to go to other places and take them over, but to really just experience the rest of the world. Chicago is not the representation of the full reality of this world. Other cities hold special things you need to engage with that you’re not going to find in Chicago.
I always push people to go travel and get passports. Even if it’s just a boring place in a small town outside of Chicago, go experience what it feels like and what it means to be somewhere else with a different culture. I look at it as a joy to travel the majority of the world. My bass players have been to more places than I have. One of my little homies, when he was a teenager, he wen to more places than me. I ain’t never been to Thailand. It’s a joy to have the access and opportunity to move around and bring songs like “Paris, Tokyo” to life, and know that the song is inspiring other people to do the same.
You’re a huge advocate for people to do better with their health. I say that because I think of “Gotta Eat.” You’re personifying this hamburger and looking back now versus today — what do you think about people taking a health-first approach in this day and age?
Drinking eight glasses of water and eating a chocolate cake. It’s super current because it’s the 15th anniversary of The Cool, so we been just going around performing the album in its entirety. Before we did the joint in Chicago, we was in Fort Worth, Texas and I performed “Gotta Eat.” These are songs I haven’t performed in years or at all because they never fit into a 45-minute show. Now, I perform “Gotta Eat” on some tour stops and I’m being reintroduced to what the song meant in a new era. I performed it and I always think how I’ma end this or how I’ma bring the song in? When the song was over in Fort Worth, I was like, “Yo, that song was dedicated to the vegans out there.” I hesitate to say it’s prophetic or anything like that, because veganism or vegetarianism is not necessary in my point of view, but there’s health consciousness, which has been around forever.
Some of our best leaders, like Dick Gregory, were about pushing health. They came off weird in some times and eras, but nutrition — you think of the Black Panther free breakfast program, which was about understanding there’s certain nutritional structures we need to abide by. Just our history in this country being forced to eat the scraps. Even if you look at our indigenous brothers and sisters, they gave them a diet of lard, flour and whiskey. Then you look forward to today and wonder why they have the highest rates for diabetes and alcoholism and it’s kinda connected to the diet they were forced to intake.
You look at Black folks and we were somewhat in the same kinda position. Given scraps, bulls–t and work food, to go out and work until you die. It’s important to kinda speak to it. It ain’t on me, I really give it to Dead Prez. Each record with their RBG album [2004’s RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta] was targeted very specifically on certain issues in the community at large. Even to this day, stic.man is about making music that you can work out to, so you can get healthy listening.
“Gotta Eat” is a little more cryptic than that, and is a concept record about fast food, but it creates a platform to have a conversation about the importance of health. It speaks to dudes who wouldn’t even think about it in that capacity. You might have a dude from the hood who’s playing the album because it’s dope, and he gets to a record like “Gotta Eat” and it’s like, “Let me think about what I’m eating. Maybe there is an alternative.”
I think about The LOX opening up a juice shop.
We facing it. Rest in peace, Big Pun. You see people from our OGs and legends facing health issues later in life. Rest in peace, Black Rob. What lessons can be learned or what message were they sending out? It took a Big Pun what he did on “Yeeeah Baby” and he was like, “I just lost 100 pounds, I’m tryna live.” I think it’s something that’s been there from the most gangster to the most conscious of us, that you hear it every now and again. I don’t necessarily agree with everything the vegan movement is about — I think they’re kinda harsh sometimes — but I respect that it’s an avenue to take in our culture to eat better.
“Dumb It Down” was originally called “Space Travel.” Before even diving into that record, in an age where lyricism is dumbed-down, who does Lupe listen to when he wants to dumb it down?
It comes across as a play, B. I feel that everyone has their goals with their words and what audience they’re trying to connect with. I know some super-lyrical rappers, and when it’s time for them to sell albums and make records, it’s catering to the most bottom things ever. And I know some super rappers you’d think would be wack rappers, and they’ll be in a cypher murdering s–t. I think with rap, you can’t help it.
It’s part of the DNA of being a rapper when that wittiness and intellect is going to come through, but it needs to be controlled or regulated if you tryna sell some records. I think there’s some rappers can get super lyrical and sell records.
You mention lyrics being dumbed-down, but I think we’re in a supersaturated lyrical age. I just think at the time The Cool came out, you had an imbalance… There was big dope songs with a big chorus over a dope-ass beat, but it wasn’t really speaking to nothing. It might have been less the artists’ fault, but more the label or radio’s fault. Like, “We got a formula we want you to follow. Just come with the simplest rhyming scheme and sell a bunch of records.” Instead of A&Rs going to look for the super-lyrical rappers at the open mic, they’re at the strip club looking for the rapper to get the crowd to move or dancers to dance.
I came up in Chicago, and we listening to 8Ball & MJG, UGK, Geto Boys — and all of them are lyricists, but they just not from New York. People only attached lyricism to New York when I was coming up. So there’s a certain kind of bias that gets projected onto non-lyrical [artists]. I’ve had my issues with New York trying to defend the position.
You’re talking to a dude from New York. I’m not that biased.
Yes you are.
André 3000 isn’t from New York, you’re not from New York and you get busy. Jeezy is from Atlanta.
You remember Pimp C said, “What time zone is Atlanta in? Eastern Standard Time.” You’re still on the East Coast.
I don’t think lyricism is being super-duper lyrical miracle. I think it’s having something to say. I don’t think DMX was lyrical, but I think he had s–t to say.
Do you consider bars to be punchlines, concepts?
I think there’s levels to it.
“Kick, Push” ain’t got no bars to it, but it’s a concept so it feels like this lyrical thing. Some people would say it’s not lyrical and others say it’s super complex talking about eight different things. Like nah B, it’s just talking about skateboarding.
To “Dumb It Down,” it was literally my A&R. He was like, “That song was super complex, you should dumb it down.” The hook was originally called “Space Travel,” and it was like, “I’m finna go crazy in space.” I got some radio records and now I’m gonna do what I do on my mixtapes, which is go off. I played the record for him and he asked me to dumb it down. That’s the chorus now.
I read there was a record called “Blackout” that you originally wanted to do with Chris Brown on it. Looking back, is there an artist you wanted to have a hook or verse on the album?
It’s an album that’s aged well in certain parts. Certain records are a classic forever, and there’s others that I don’t want to perform. Other records like “Superstar” were written in the vein of Chris Martin from Coldplay and 15 years later he performs it. You never know where these things are gonna live. It might line up being a Grammys performance and that’s where it comes to fruition.
It might not happen on the record itself, but it could be a special guest appearance or someone else covering it. I ain’t got no regrets, especially with what just happened with Chris Martin was the icing on the cake. It happened in the biggest way it could have, at the crib of Soldier Field with Chris Martin singing your chorus.
Do you feel like you accomplished everything you needed to with The Cool?
Yeah, I dodged the sophomore jinx. That was the whole goal. It’s probably gonna wind up being my first platinum album. I’ve never had a platinum album and I’ve sold millions of singles. There was no rush, but it’s looking like The Cool is a few thousand albums from going platinum 15 years later. That’s the next milestone and the one commercial thing that can really put the stamp on it and I’ll have the plaque to prove it.
Hopefully, we can do a few more shows and things like this where new generations get introduced to the record and we can push a few more albums to get over that platinum mark, and then that would be like, “Yeah, we done.” We got the Grammy nods, critical acclaim, people’s life-changing stories, impact it had for a certain generation of hip-hop, and now let’s see if we can get the platinum plaque. The Cool can go retire.
Your new album, Drill Music In Zion, comes out Friday. Talk about the chemistry you and Soundtrakk had in your early days and the growth, mainly because he produced the upcoming project.
Soundtrakk did “Kick, Push” and “Superstar.” I always say we’re like Batman and Commissioner Gordon. He’s been pivotal to me. Whenever we get together, it’s always something special. People just may think you need to do music to impress other people, but Soundtrakk is one of those dudes that will make a record that I’ll love that nobody else likes, and he’s one of the only people that can do that. Then, we can also turn around and sell millions of records and make classics.
He almost passed away from COVID-19. His mom passed away and it hit me hard. It was a moment I felt like I almost lost a homie. I just doubled back down saying we need to grind. I got albums with Soundtrakk. Whole albums with us just rocking. He’ll send me 100 beats out the blue and I’ll start slowly rhyming on records. I thought we needed to start finishing these joints and putting them out, so I did Drill Music In Zion in three days. He got his production team and he’s the maestro. It’s just nasty the level he’s at as a producer. He can do everything.
The next couple of projects you going to get from me in a serious way, he’s going to have a heavy hand in. He’s going to be in there running the full staff on the music side. The plan is learning that lesson from almost losing him. It’s like, “Let’s put out as much music while we can.”