Friday, August 24, 2012

Lupe Fiasco and the arrogance of the self-righteous rapper

Posted By on Fri, Aug 24, 2012 at 4:24 PM

Lupe Fiasco just wanted to “start a conversation.”

At least, that’s what he said when the controversial video for his song “Bitch Bad” hit the Net. The song is an insightful look at the appropriation of the term “bitch” in hip-hop; how the term has come to be a badge of honor for some women, though many men still use it to degrade, and how the mixed signals can affect young people.

What is commendable about the song is how it seems that Lupe is just presenting a case. He doesn’t seem to be finger-wagging or dictating how individuals should think about the word. He just seems to be raising questions about the impact of its wanton use. I was pleased to hear a hip-hop song that was topical without being condescendingly self-righteous.

Then I saw the video.

Over the course of the clip, Lupe paints the scenarios depicted in the lyrics: a young boy listening to his mother rap along defiantly to a song while declaring herself a “bad bitch,” a young girl watching rap videos where “bad bitches” are depicted grinding on the rappers, and finally, a somewhat patriarchal depiction of the now-adult young boy and girl interacting with each other. She now dresses/acts like the video girls in an attempt to win his attention, he rebuffs her for not being the right kind of “bad bitch.”

The video’s heavy-handed use of a minstrel show metaphor, however, undermines what could have been a deft and insightful look at gender roles and hip-hop’s reputation for repurposing offensive terms. By including a clichéd, ham-fisted metaphor that gets tossed off all too easily by hip-hop’s more self-righteous artists, purveyors, and fans, Lupe decided to remind everyone watching that he can’t address an issue without indicting.

And when a publication (namely, Spin magazine writer Brandon Soderberg) picked apart his video and roundly criticized the Chicago emcee for what it felt was muddled and elitist; Lupe ranted about boycotts and disrespect. Why? Because Spin dared disagree with your vision? Was everyone just supposed to nod and smile and be glad that the ever-so-conscious Lupe Fiasco decided to call out the “bad” rappers who dare not take his musical approach? Obviously, he thinks so.

The wounded arrogance in his reaction to a negative review reveals that some artists believe that just having a “message” means that they are allowed carte blanche for half-baked ideas and hyperbole. At least he’s saying something, is what many of their supporters will likely say. But saying something is only half the battle. You’re not just releasing a PSA, you’re creating art. And art gets critiqued. It’s proof that "conscious" rappers, in their own way, can play to the lowest common denominator in their audience just as club rappers do to theirs.

So, no Lupe — you didn’t want to “start a conversation.” At least, not a conversation that included anything but fans and critics fawning over your song and its sanctimonious video.

You would think a guy that had the gall to liken some of his fellow hip-hoppers to minstrels would be a little less sensitive about his own persona and art being criticized.

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