Lupe Fiasco thinks his fifth studio album, Tetsuo & Youth (Jan. 20), represents the end of an era. In addition to being his last album for Atlantic Records, concluding one of the most contentious artist-label relationships in recent history, the album augurs other changes. In a candid interview conducted before his Australian tour, the 32-year-old Chicago rapper (real name: Wasalu Muhammad Jaco) discussed his new album, his “irrelevancy” and recent Twitter wars with Azealia Banks.
Is Tetsuo & Youth a good entry point to your music for new fans?
Not really. It’s an interesting album because it’s a transition. I’m much more mature in my representation in public, in the sense of I’m not as relevant as I was before. It’s kind of that natural irrelevancy that occurs with all artists. I think I had my peak and now I am coming down in relevancy. It’s not a sad thing for me.
I don’t want to be relevant today. I don’t want to be the go-to guy for the club song or to speak on all the dumb shit that’s going around. I’m happy being that somewhat sophisticated, overly deep weird guy making powerful music — but just two or three degrees away from the center of attention. There is a new generation speaking to a new generation, so you have a Kendrick Lamar and a J. Cole and the other people who are the new Lupes. I don’t have the same lingo. I don’t sip lean or smoke weed. I can’t compete with a Wiz Khalifa for the attention of a 12-year old.
The album cover is a painting of yours.
I paint a lot — probably too much. I paint more than I write raps. It’s the same creative thing for me. I started painting two years ago, and I gave myself 10 years to really get good. I’ll sit and paint for 11 hours and get lost in it, the technique of it, trying to execute it clean, colors and palettes, etc. Van Gogh said he wasn’t happy unless he was painting, and I’m starting to realize that’s becoming true for me. If I’m not in a creative mode and I’m dealing with the outside world, I’m not really happy.
Is that why you recently announced you were going to quit Twitter when the album drops?
[Laughs] You’re witnessing the last kicks of a dying horse.
But you recently got into Twitter spats with Kid Cudi and Azealia Banks. The latter criticized you for -defending Iggy Azalea. Why do you engage people?
You realize, “Oh, this is a game. Let’s play this controversy-sells game. Let me just engage this fan and have people watch this conversation,” which is what happened. My tweet was literally, “Iggy Azalea has her place in hip-hop,” which is so open-ended. Half the people are coming at her throat, the other half are supporting, and I’m more in the middle — it’s like, I don’t even care.
You’ve often argued that rap promotes violence. What’s your take on Bobby Shmurda being charged in December with conspiracy to commit murder?
What does it say about America that simultaneously you have the junior Ryder Cup team of America, the golf team, on TV doing the Shmoney Dance, and then you have Eric Garner on the other side? And when you listen to the lyrics [of “Hot Boy”] it’s like, “I shot n—as.” It’s not an act if you look at the accusations [against Shmurda]. People were dancing to and celebrating a certain reality.
In previous interviews you said that Tetsuo & Youth would be fun, not political – “ratchet” was a term you’d used. Based on “Madonna” and “Deliver” that doesn’t seem to be the case. What changed?
I honestly don’t think people know what political means. This is not a shot to you or anyone else, even myself. We just paint that on to things that speak to society, but that’s not political. Political is, ‘I want a revolution.’ ‘I want to change the government structure.’ And I don’t think those records necessarily do that. I think people like to slap that on anything that is outside of the realm of shaking their ass in the club. There are no mentions of Democrats or Republicans. I don’t look at [the songs] as political. I look at them as social portraits as opposed to political diatribes.
Can you explain the meaning behind “Deliver?”
A song like “Deliver” is the autobiography of a myth in the hood. You don’t really recognize it until you are there. The hood doesn’t really have the basic amenities that things that aren’t the hood has. The pizza man might have two or three thoughts before he comes to your neighborhood. The pizza man might pull up, see your building and then keep driving. It’s almost like a myth. Does that really happen? Does the pizza man really not come to the hood? In some cases it’s true. In some places it’s probably more of a story. One of the interesting things when we put the record out was that people were posting news stories about pizza men getting killed. There are some very serious reasons as to why. But it also speaks to the nature of those places like the places I grew up in, West Side of Chicago, South Side of Chicago. It’s things like that, that are those odd aspects of the hood that don’t really get a lot of attention like all drug dealers. But they have effects too.
This is a Lupe Fiasco song after all, of course the pizza man must represent something other than just a pizza man.
[Laughs] It’s interesting you would say that. As an artist, me doing music, or any artist, you do it for so long, you start to become — I won’t call myself a master but you become very proficient in being able to structure things in subtle but powerful ways. Take a song like “Deliver” and the pizza man. It’s kind of also saying ‘peace of man’ like ‘peace of man don’t come here no more.’ Once you look at it from that perspective, it changes the dynamic of the song. We kind of did something like that on “He Said, She Said,” which was about the single mother and single parent talking to this father and they used the exact same verse but kind of switched the pronouns around, but it was the exact same thing but it came from two different sources. It’s almost like the inverse of four, five albums later, you learn that switching out one word changes the dynamic of the entire song, and pizza becomes a metaphor for something else and the words become double entendre and even triple entendre. From an artistic level of learning how to work with words and understanding words, “Deliver” is like the most prominent example because that’s the record that’s out now, but when you get into the rest of the body of the album, it’s even deeper. It’s taken to extremes on certain songs where it kind of takes 10, 15, 20 listens to really pick up on what the song is saying. That’s why you get songs like “Deliver” first. “Deliver” is, like, the simplest song on the album. It’s somewhat of a straight narrative. There are songs on the album that have five narratives at the same time.
Are you officially gone from Atlantic?
It’s the last one. We haven’t made a decision [on the next move] because it’s like, let’s just focus on this album. It’s a really amazing album. Let’s just focus on putting this out and having fun, shooting the videos. Let people enjoy this record and then let’s think about what’s next, next.
Back to music, do you have a stance on streaming services like Spotify?
I think Spotify has had a hand in destroying the value of music. I think its something that is something that was understood as coming from record labels. I remember sitting down with Lyor Cohen a long time ago and he was like, Music is going to become like a utility like water, so how much do we value water? We value it when we can’t get it because then we’ll fucking die. On a day-to-day basis, we don’t even drink water, like I don’t even want my water, I’m going to drink soda or whatever. I think from that point of view, it’s made it so abundant, it’s allowed it to be accessed at such a low price, at such a low level, that it has completely destroyed the value of music. I think we’re never going to get back from that because it’s such a good business model and at the end of the day, money wins all wars.
It’s a good business model for Spotify. I don’t think its good for artists.
It is a great business model. Like damn the consequences but it’s a great business model. The car was a great business model even though it kind of destroyed the atmosphere, right? It’s just how are we going to react to it. You have people like Taylor Swift saying its like a science experiment she doesn’t want to be a part, and it’s like, they tell her you are going to lose $6 million this year if you don’t do this. You are supposed to be on the artist side. If you wanted to be on the artist’s side then you should have did deals directly with the artists, and not the labels. As much as you want to say, ‘Well, there are people who control the music…’ No, we get that. But that doesn’t stop you from striking a deal directly with the artists on a sponsorship level or doing something else to make it a little more worth their while to want to participate as opposed to just going and buying licenses in bulk from these publishing companies and record labels who really don’t give a shit. The value of music is going down. ITunes is gonna cut the value of music in a year or two from $10.99 to something else crazy because the value of music is just being pushed down so much. What is it doing to music? I don’t think it’s had too much of an effect on the quality of music, but the actual price of music, it’s pushing it down. I think you see artists have to become savvy on how they will capitalize off their music or how they are going to approach things when they do music. It’s going to have to be more than just a song because according to Spotify a song is worth $.0001 cents.
Back in 2006, right before Food and Liquor came out, I was interviewing you backstage at a concert when you ran into Rakim. He was like, ‘Yo Lupe, you really doing your thing.’ You seemed so humbled. When was the last time music made you feel that way?
Oh man, I don’t know. Last night I was sitting at this little coffee shop in LA eating a cookie, and having a conversation about my place in music. The place is closing and this guy and girl walk up. We are sitting in the back. They walk to the back. They go, ‘Hey, how are you doing Lupe? I don’t know how to say this, we were sitting over there for the longest trying to figure out how to say hello, but I wanted to thank you.’ Prior to this I was thinking, ‘I ain’t got no place in hip-hop, my career is over,’ that whole diatribe I gave you earlier. She goes, ‘I teach your music in my class. I teach at a community college in the Bay. You don’t know how many papers I’ve read about your music.’ The other guy teaches high school, and says, ‘I incorporate music in my class, so of course I play you and put on a lot of kids to your music.’ So in 2006 I was speaking to high school kids, and in 2015 I’m speaking to high school kids through the people who heard me in 2006. They are passing up the chain, back through time. It was an interesting moment. One moment I was talking about the end of days for your career and then two teachers — one high school, one college — walk up to you and say, ‘We are grading essays about your music and teaching you in our class.’ That was just kind of like, Oh maybe I do have a little more fight, a little more gas in the engine.