Beyond Bentleys and Chains

Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco is a curious kind of hip-hop star, writes Andrew Murfett.

HOW did you start 2010? To say that the first month of this year was eventful for Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco would be a colossal understatement.

Having leaked his excellent mixtape Enemy of the State: a Love Story at the end of last year, his first in four years, in January the 28-year-old Sunni Muslim joined a group of personalities (including actress Jessica Biel) to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness of the world’s lack of drinking water. He climbed all 5895 metres, he declares proudly.

”It actually changed my life,” he says. ”It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At a certain point, the altitude medicine doesn’t work. It becomes more about your body. And then a spiritual and mental thing.”

Lupe (Loop-ay) – real name Wasalu Muhammad Jaco – is difficult to pin down but, when finally on the phone, he proves articulate and candid. He speaks passionately about the fact 1 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water.

”They literally drink their water from pools on the side of the road they share with animals and use as toilets,” he says.

”You get to a certain point in your career and you wonder if you’re being arrogant or you are on the right path. This showed me I am on the right path with what I talk about. And now I have more to talk about.”

The rapper returns to tour Australia this week at a strange time in his career. Having started making music at the age of 16, he earned his first record deal, with Epic (Sony in Australia) at 19, before moving to Arista (BMG) and, finally, his home today, Atlantic (Warner).

Historically, there has been a conflict between the music he wants to create and the music his label wants him to make.

”It’s less about me being a celebrity, because I guess I’m not really a celebrity,” he says. ”The most difficult part of the music business is the label. What I want to do and what they want me to do – creatively – is in conflict. It doesn’t keep me up at night. I look at it as a challenge. It’s not meant to be easy.”

His first album for Warner, 2006’s Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor was a mini-revelation. With mainstream hip-hop flagging, the debut managed to be something the genre lacked – bold and fresh.

Critics touted Lupe as being on par with Kanye, Jay-Z, Talib or the Roots. Many astute hip-hop observers called it a modern classic. By now, then, he should be a star. In 2007, with the crossover smash single Superstar, he even had a genuine hit single on pop radio. Yet, for a number of reasons, many of his own doing, he is not.

”There’s a misunderstanding with my fanbase,” he says. ”People [at Warner] feel they know my fans more than I do. They want me to step out of my comfort zone and step into theirs. I don’t have necessarily the celebrity success they want me to have but it’s more social success and being able to speak at a college about world affairs. That’s a success, to me.

”I don’t want to be Jay-Z and be worth $400 million and perform on every awards show. It’s getting in touch with somebody who needs to improve their self-esteem. As opposed to driving a Bentley and putting some chains on.”

At the same time, he is balancing film scripts, a documentary he produced for the History Channel and a clothing line.

His third album for Warner, Lasers, was submitted last month. The label has yet to announce a release date. ”It’s an album we both feel comfortable putting out,” he says. ”I’m somebody saying the things that maybe 98 per cent of the music industry is not.”

Lupe Fiasco plays Sound Safari at Melbourne Zoo tonight.