Lupe Fiasco and DJ E Nyce

Touch the Sky Mixtape

(Mix Unit; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 2 June 2006

If the menu to your left looks appealing, please allow the host of CMG, Chet Betz, to lead you to your seat. He’ll look smart, cloth hanging over his arm, as he intones our upcoming special: “Lupe.” “Lupe?” you’ll say? “Yes,” he’ll respond, “here at CMG, we have loved Lupe forever! Your server, Mark, will be with you momentarily.” Unfortunately, I don’t look as good as Chet in my work clothes, but I’ve got my serving skills down, and I want you to be prepared for what’s coming. So before we get to the Food and Liquor (don’t worry—sommelier Clay is in the wine cellar, honing his skills), I’m going to offer another tasty appetizer to cleanse your pallet.

Touch the Sky may just be a teaser (or, more cynically, an advertisement) for his end-of-June full length, but, as my Thunderantics have already demonstrated, I’m a fan of scotch, and on this mixtape Lupe goes down like a warm, comforting, highly alcoholic single malt—the perfect pre-meal treat. His flow graphs Ghostface over GZA; he spits about Cecil Rhodes, The Flintstones, hustling, skateboarding, all with equal alacrity; even in mixtape format, he uses beats as vehicles for performance, rather than, as is often the case in hip hop, to fill obligatory style slots (although, to be fair, the last third here drags a bit); and, most refreshingly, the problematic sexism and homophobia that regularly complicate my love of hip hop are basically absent. And he fills out that punch card while flirting with widespread popularity as if it’s just, y’know, a thing that might happen.

I think that might be the factor that slightly complicates Clay and Chet’s appraisal of Lupe—backpack meets major label, sure, but also without effort. I mean, I think it’s his goal to court the charts and the underground, but it’s because he wants to court people, which is of course why the paradigm works. And I agree with Chet—it’s sometimes confusing and won’t be everybody’s thing—but I wonder if part of that confusion stems from the fact that this all sounds so natural. I’m still confused that I’ve danced in clubs to “Mrs. Jackson” too, but that doesn’t change the popularity of the song, and Lupe has got some of that quality. On this mixtape he throws his skateboard-romance single (“Kick, Push”) in front of an absolutely caustic revisiting of Kanye West’s “Diamonds of Sierra Leone,” and then follows that duo with his single-ready guest spot on “Touch the Sky?” Outside Outkast, I don’t know of another rapper that could pull that particular triad off.

And, in each context, he’s so good. “Conflict Diamonds” makes Kanye’s complication of the floss industry an evisceration, weaving extended and increasingly complex meters into a highly conflicted essay about the role of diamonds in Lupe’s life. If “Cecil Rhodes saw war and genocide / into the countryside / just to get his shine on” Lupe fears “what De Boers and his peers used to do / before the world really knew / just to get their mine on.” Doubling the meter mid-verse, Lupe notes he didn’t have a clue “that the rappers was helping the rapers / raiders of the villages / pillages of the schools / shooters of the innocents / torturers of the witnesses / burners of the businesses / and my bracelet was the fuel.” The overriding message is impossible to escape; Lupe makes it the focus of the song, and without the (excellent, but fairly apolitical) Presidential interlude that Jay-Z launched on West’s version, the implications here are impossible to escape, at the same time that the overt politics are made more effective through the fact that their urgency is complemented by the relative speed of Lupe’s delivery. He notes you can’t be a hypocrite until you know, but guess what? You just listened to the song.

“Lu Myself” is another phenomenal demonstration of Lupe’s skill on the mic; over the “Lose Yourself” beat, he focuses his delivery around phrases that end with a double “e” monophthong, grinding his teeth every time he spits the syllable, losing it for several measures to become weightless in the beat, only to bring it back to punctuate his phrasing, emphasize the word, and reassert the forward momentum of the song. “Absolutely Fiasco” has him going up on his end phrases at counterintuitive moments in the verse: “that’s the unofficial master plan / minus any unforeseen traffic jams / like my songs carrying the clubs like / Bagger Vance / or getting caught by the long arms / like Mr. Fantastic / damn.” I’m gushing, and that’s longer than I normally like to quote lyrics, but Lupe is incredibly skilled at making his punchlines set-ups, and making a coherent narrative work through his verses, whether he’s talking politics or just talking himself up. Elsewhere, and I’ll avoid saying too much about the tracks slated for the album, “Kick, Push” manages to use skateboarding as a metaphor for racism, youthful alienation, moving forward and life, and romance, all skillfully, and all without making the idea seem cliché. Meanwhile, “Hustlaz Song” runs Lupe parallel to Ghostface, allowing him to rock the traditional themes of hip hop with a whole series of metaphors that are each themselves intriguing and complete ideas.

Once you get past the “oh, fuck” reaction you’ll have to his unending skill, that versatility might just be the biggest strength of this mixtape. It’s why he can shill his sneakers and clothing line without breaking the flow. It’s why he can drop tracks from other artists into the mix to promote lesser-known artists, highlighting their skills without drawing attention away from himself. It’s why Ghostface doesn’t quite outshine him on “Spray Paint.”

The one reservation I have about Lupe, and what separates him from the Wu, or Outkast, or, to a lesser extent, Jay-Z, is focus. Touch the Sky presents a young artist doing almost everything I love about hip hop better than a whole lot of other artists in a whole slew of contexts, and the un-tempered energy and skill that flow off this thing are both incredibly exciting, but Lupe is still finding a distinct creative voice that will make him unique (and not just better) within the hip hop milieu. Which is fine, ‘cause “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” is no “Mighty O,” or hell, no “Rosa Parks,” so if Lupe can maintain this level of skill (of which this mixtape is as much a survey as the full length)? If he can do that and find his sweet spot, everybody better run for cover.

It’s been lovely serving you, but my time is up. In a few weeks? Dinner is served.