Updated: November 11, 2012 6:12AM
Lupe Fiasco was in town last week — for some promotional events around the release of his latest album, “Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Part 1” — and he stopped on a street corner to snap a photo with his phone. A mother recognized him and approached him, he says, telling him she encouraged her son to listen to Fiasco’s hip-hop because of its positive messages.
Then she added that a teenager shot and killed the previous weekend was her son’s best friend. The boy died in her son’s arms.
“That was this morning. I wasn’t asking for that ... I didn’t go out reaching out for that. I didn’t go on Twitter and say, ‘Tell me your saddest story that happened to you this weekend.’ I was in the road taking pictures,” Fiasco says. “So it’s that visceral.”
Splitting his time between Los Angeles and his native Chicago, Fiasco — born Wasalu Muhammed Jaco 30 years ago on the West Side — has been watching the news of Chicago’s escalating street violence with alarm. Shaking his head during our conversation, he refers to “these heartbreaking times for the city” and adds, “I’m distraught and destroyed by it.”
“It’s terrible, terrible to see the city still operating like everything is normal,” he says. “There’s no outcry as a whole. That kind of frightens me.”
Since his 2006 debut, the first “Food & Liquor” album, Fiasco has been acclaimed for his social consciousness and criticized for occasional gaffes, such as labeling President Obama a terrorist or, on one song from the new album (“Strange Fruition”), explaining why, for purely religious reasons, he won’t salute the U.S. flag.
Recently, comments Fiasco made during a Baltimore radio interview involved him in a brief war of words with South Side rapper Chief Keef, who threatened to “smack him” via Twitter.
This new “Food & Liquor II” (which bowed at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart) installment has plenty to say. It does not directly address his hometown crisis, however, mainly because most of the tracks are about three years old. (In June, Fiasco debuted as a contributing columnist in the Sun-Times’ Splash section; he’s written three columns thus far, only one of which mentions “Chicago’s perpetually skyrocketing murder rate,” and that’s in passing.)
Face to face, though, Fiasco admits there’s simply not much that can be said.
“You can’t tell them s---!” he says, speaking about black Chicago youth. “You can’t tell them nothing, and that’s the chilling part of it. At this stage in the game, there’s nothing anyone can say, certainly nothing Rahm Emanuel can say. He could take this moment as a point to give up and send in the National Guard, or he could take it as an opportunity to say, ‘We ain’t got nothing to talk about, so let’s go rebuild this community right around it without them even knowing, the same way it was destroyed around them without them even knowing.’ Let’s go build 10 basketball courts without saying anything, throw a bunch of basketballs in there and just leave.”
He thinks for a moment, stares out the window. “You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to go get a bunch of buses, go out into the neighborhood. ‘Hey, man, where we going?’ ‘We’re just going to go to Great America [theme park] today.’ Nothing about it, no pitch, no agenda. Just one day and go have some fun. Sometimes it’s all they need, bro. It’s not about telling them how to live, because then you have to unpack 60-70 years. They don’t know why they live there. I never knew why I lived in the ’hood. But they’re there, and they got stress.”
“Food & Liquor II” (“Part 2” is due next spring) draws mostly from the pile of tracks made — and approved — during the “Lasers” sessions three years ago.
Fiasco has threatened to retire on several occasions, including during a 2008 performance in Chicago and as recently as Sept. 5 when he tweeted, “This album will probably be my last.” He’s still contractually obligated to deliver one more album to Atlantic, and he later clarified that tweet by saying that what he intends to retire from is “making music for commercial purposes.”
“It’ll still be music, but it won’t be the 31/2-minute song,” he says, trying to explain what a post-major-label Fiasco would sound like: “I don’t want to spoil it, and I’m still researching it. I’m not reinventing the wheel. If you’re a Lupe Fiasco participator, you see what’s happening now in the packaging for ‘Food & Liquor II’ — that all-black packaging. There’s nothing in there, but it’s still a booklet. A printer somewhere had to make seven pages of black page and put it together with nothing in it. It’s a pure artistic expression. I’m going to complete the thought in the artwork for ‘Part 2.’
“After that, I might say, OK, and take two years off. Say, ‘See you in 2015 with the new thing.’”