With three Grammy nominations, six trips around the world and at least three years of "Have you heard Lupe Fiasco?" under his belt, Chicago's finest young MC finally brought his Food & Liquor show to the 9:30 Club, and while I heard contradictions that I find somewhat troubling, it was the best rap/hip-hop show I've seen since De La Soul in the summer of '05.
Too often, rappers and rap group ruin the music for me on stage, stringing together minute-and-a-half samples of songs I love and remixing them beyond recognition, while a dozen hype boys join 'em on stage to throw their hands in the ay-er and wave 'em like they just don't cay-er. So I was thrilled to see Lupe come with just DJ Simon and Bishop G accompanying him.
The show started as a sort of Lupe history lesson, with nods to Kanye West's Late Registration, which first introduced Lupe to the larger world last year, and a taste of three songs from his three now-legendary mixtapes. The first, from Fahrenheit 1/15, had a driving thump that sounded like he was letting the neighborhood know he was here. He called that his "gangsta lean." He kept leaning on the second, from Fahrenheit 1/15 Part 2: Revenge of the Nerds. It was Lupe mixing it up, so he said, with a chill, cruising-in-a-Cadillac feel to it. The third he called his "feel good" vibe, rapping over Gorillaz' "Feel Good Inc.," just as he did on Fahrenheit 1/15 Part 3: Rhyming Ape, which was nothing but Lupe rapping over Gorillaz songs -- and nothing short of brilliant. Though he has said that his mixtapes had watered down by that point, with that tape he managed to say, "Hey, look how I can make better cuts with your music."
But that was just the warm up.
After the history lesson, Lupe dove into his 2006 debut LP with "The Instrumental," an ode to being raised by the television and my personal favorite with its driving beat, heavy guitars and haunting synth. The song creeps in with the chorus "And he never lies..." Luckily, Lupe wasn't raised by the TV (nor without a father, as some of his songs may make you believe). His folks exposed him to a great deal of culture, and we're all better off for it.
Throughout the set, Bishop G rapped in support of Lupe and hung out just over his shoulder like a henchman. And one of the troubling contradictions was when Lupe had G pick three ladies from the crowd, presumably for backstage access, despite his oft-sung disapproval of such hip-hop antics. I can only assume it was an act of defiance, mocking such behavior by other rappers, but the punch line never made it through the room and it was disappointing. Especially when he stated the next part of the show was about love, and he soared off with "Sunshine." But I'm not a righteous one. I'm not preaching women's lib, and I soon got lost in the lush beauty of the song's strings.
"He Say She Say" is a wistful argument between a single mom and a deadbeat dad, and if I hadn't known better, it would have fooled me. Lupe cleared the air right afterward. He explained that no, his father wasn't absent during his youth, but indeed many fathers are, and he warned us to take care of our responsibilities or we might wind up a song on his next album.
He pulled a fast one after "I Gotcha," asking for the New Yorkers in the crowd to speak up and quickly pulled the rug out from under their cheers, dissin' New York crowds' too-cool-for-school attitude. "New York crowds don't do anything," he said, ingratiating himself to D.C. before expressing just how please he was with the crowd's response that night. And it was a great crowd. Packed. And everyone sang along with every song. It was quite impressive to see how deeply Lupe has affected so many people. So the overuse of the drop-the-audio-to-let-the-crowd-sing gimmick actually was appropriate, because never before had I heard the 9:30 Club fill up with so many show-goers' voices in unison as I did then.
Lupe introduced the next song as a classic, and though the lead single from Food & Liquor -- the single that cemented the anticipation of the album -- is still warm, it is indeed an instant classic. "Kick Push" is slick fun and simply tells a story of a skater boy living his skater life and meeting his skater girl. Nostalgic and pretty.
But probably the best song from the LP -- lyrically and musically the most compelling song -- is "American Terrorist." I was pleasantly surprised that Lupe kept his politics to his lyrics, mostly, instead of soap boxing between songs. Maybe it was narrow of me to assume the Muslim MC would get preachy, but most artists bend to the left, many of them want us to know about it, and when they come to D.C., that compulsion is so much stronger. Before "American Terrorist," Lupe took the time to boast his recent world travels, particularly his visits to places like Darfur and Palestine ("Notice I didn't say 'Israel.'"). But the scariest place, he said, was customs upon returning to the United States. It was his only political rant, and like most of his banter, it struck me as quite charming. Lupe's really just a likeable guy. The rebellious crowd swallowed it whole and shrieked the chorus with stick-it-to-the-man passion.
Throughout the set, Lupe jumped back and forth from boasts about his Grammy nominations and six revolutions around the world to a faux bashfulness, and I questioned his sincerity at times, but no matter. He throws a good party. And his sliding flow and dexterous speed rapping are just as impressive to see as they are to hear.