There is something very timely about listening to Lupe Fiasco’s new mixtape at this point in time. Part of it is obviously deliberate, dripping from the tape’s words and beats. Part of it is also, for lack of a better term, coincidental, the kind of happy half-accident that’s bound to arise when a grassroots movement captures the attention of people around the globe.
A few days before Lupe made Friend of the People: I Fight Evil available — online, for free, over the Thanksgiving break — I had cracked open Jared Ball’s recent book I Mix What I Like! A Mixtape Manifesto. Ball, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore and frequent contributor to the Black Agenda Report, puts forth a main point in the book that surely isn’t lost on hip-hop’s most faithful: that the mixtape, “rap music’s original mass medium” as he calls it, is one of the few avenues where radical, bottom-up ideas can be expressed without the meddling censorship of the music industry.
Unlike other popular forms of mass media today, the mixtape remains among the most viable spaces for the practice of emancipatory journalism and inclusion of dissident music or cultural expression. With few exceptions, the intentionally designed structure of commercial radio [as well as the record business -AB] exempts that space for any such content.
There are plenty of artists who know this first-hand, countless MCs who despite talent out their ears have been deemed too “controversial” by the biz. And as Lupe can attest, even those lucky few with a contract have no guaranteed freedom of speech. A version of Friend of the People was meant to hit the ‘Net last Christmas. But, presumably because of the two-year wrangling between Lupe and Atlantic Records over the content of his album Lasers, the mixtape was delayed indefinitely.
Even after Atlantic finally agreed, under threat of protests outside their headquarters, to release the album, its content was quite obviously compromised by record label meddling. Lupe himself admitted that this harrowing process, not rare in the music industry, took such a large toll that he was for a time thrust into full-blown depression.
The Lupe we hear on Friend of the People, however, is much different than that of Lasers. Right out of the gate we’re exposed to a melange of quotes from Howard Zinn, Amy Goodman, and news soundbites of the crackdown at Occupy UC Davis. These are near-textbook examples of Ball’s emancipatory mixtape journalism — unabashedly radical and seamlessly interwoven with the content of the music.
The whole feel of Friend is one that runs the gamut between impending meltdown and plain-spoken, steadfast humanity. Sampled beats — the rusted-factory electronica of Justice, the longing shoegaze of M83, even John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” — are notably un-fucked-with, adding an extra air of underground, spur-of-the-moment guerrilla musicality.
And in case there’s any confusion about Lupe shaking off his own restrictions, he directs a few barbs against his own label on the opening track that no doubt make folks like Professor Ball smile and nod:
You can stick that 360 between your ass-cheeks
Artists let’s mobilize and unionize like the athletes
Radio is making our craft weak
Forced to repeat the same dumb shit that work
Only as hot as your last beat
And rappers, they relating to that last piece
The “360” is in reference to the “360 Deal,” an increasingly utilized contract giving labels not only a slice of album sales, but merchandise, ticket sales and just about anything else an artist does. It’s a contract format “innovated” in recent years by — you guessed it — Atlantic Records, who are no doubt a bit uncomfortable with one of their biggest acts dropping the U-word.
So what’s happened to transform Lupe from an embattled, seemingly isolated MC into one willing to so fiercely “bite the hand that feeds him”? In a word, Occupy. Lupe was one of the first to publicly support this new movement, donating tents, writing poetry in support of it, showing up to demonstrate shoulder-to-shoulder with occupiers in Los Angeles, Chicago and a handful of other cities.
His performance on the BET Hip-Hop Awards, decked out in an “#Occupy” t-shirt with a Palestinian flag draped on his microphone, has already become one of the most iconic moments in music of the past year. It has also come to represent a shift in the way ordinary people are approaching politics, economics, and even culture. Word is that the broadcast of the performance even played an indirect role in inspiring young activists to become involved in Occupy the Hood.
Friend of the People’s content doesn’t limit itself only to the straight political, though that’s undeniably there. Rather, the politics are only one part of a much wider missive incorporating Lupe’s pains, fears, hopes, his most vivid memories, and madcap musings on a whole variety of topics. From spinning his favorite scenes in the movie Friday into a somehow melancholy ending note (“Double Burger With Cheese”) to ruminations on the hardships of being a self-aware working musician (“Lightwork”).
In other words, contrasting with the quasi-sanitized content of Lasers, Friend comes off as Lupe conversing directly with his fans without the label’s interference. Warts and all. There is, obviously, something inherently more democratic about that — not to mention more exciting. Heard in the right context, Friend is an all-too-short glimpse on what music might look like without the one percent.
And so it’s appropriate that he end Friend of the People with what might be the mixtape’s most brilliant moment: “The End of the World.” Such a title might lead us to think we’re being left on a down. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more intensely uplifting and hopeful note than this track:
The people, united, will never be defeated
And on the People’s Mic will this forever be repeated
Whose streets? Our streets! It’ll never be deleted
No matter how many cops that you send to try and beat it
This is revolution in the making
A rag-tag movement set to take over the nation
In other words, it’s not the end of the world so much as it is the end of an order. An order propped up by greed, violence, racism and oppression. Whose vast majority are kept in poverty while a lucky few live in luxury, and whose soldiers are sent to die for nothing more than oil. Whose artists are lasso-ed into writing songs that sell before writing songs that count. If this is the world whose end is imminent, and if, as the chant goes, a better world is possible, we can all agree with Lupe that it’s about damned time.