Last year, Lupe Fiasco found himself in the middle of a hot-button debate in hip-hop. His single at the time, "Bitch Bad," explicitly confronted the culture's knotty issues with misogyny, language and gender roles. The chorus begins with the song's title, but finishes with Fiasco adding, "'Woman' good, 'Lady' better."
The 31-year-old Chicago rapper thought he was initiating a healthy conversation, but some felt the rapper's tone was self-righteous to the point of sabotage. ("Lupe Fiasco mansplains misogyny on counterproductive" single, read Spin magazine's headline.)
More than a year later, Fiasco, who headlines Rams Head Live on Sunday, says he wishes he had never written the song in the first place.
"The people who hated it were the people you would think would be the ones that would, if not champion it, at least show you some respect for it," Fiasco said on the phone last week from his tour bus. "I think that's the Lupe curse. No matter what I do, I'm always going to get beat up for it."
That is why the musician born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco selected "Old School Love" as the lead single from his forthcoming fifth album, "Tetsuo & Youth," due next year. Fiasco says the sentimental ode to simpler times is "completely safe," a claim backed up by Taylor Swift buddy Ed Sheeran singing the chorus.
But he's telling a half-truth. On its surface, "Old School Love" is an easy-to-digest ploy to get on the radio, but in typical Fiasco fashion, it has more layers. Lyrically, he depicts an embattled Chicago filled with troubled youth: "Chiraq summer looking so cruel / Look shorty in the eye, told me it was 'no rules.'"
Chicago won't turn around its problems with violence, he says, "until the kids want to put their guns down and try to reconcile their problems."
He admits he's not optimistic Chicago can improve, but he believes the solution lies in erasing the sense that residents, rich and poor, are not welcome in certain areas.
"The entire outlook of the city has to change. The borders and the neighborhoods have to come down," Fiasco said. "People have to embrace and allow people to be accepted socially, culturally and physically, to be honest, in different sectors of the city."
Still, "Old School Love" sounds radio-ready, and that is by design. He says "Tetsuo & Youth" is, overall, more aggressive lyrically, but that he wanted a pop-oriented single to build interest.
"There's still that formula of nice, soft records up top to do the business of selling the album and creating the radio buzz," Fiasco said. "But then you get into the bulk of the album, and it's all down to business again."
For longtime fans, the promise of new music is encouraging enough. Last September, after a Twitter spat with teenage Chicago rapper Chief Keef, Fiasco wrote online, "This album will probably be my last. ... My first true love was literature so I will return to that. Lupe Fiasco ends here."
With a tour and a new album on the way, he's clearly had a change of heart. But why?
"Because I'm contractually obligated to do six albums," he said bluntly before adding that friends, family and lawyer often have to keep him motivated. "Trust me, every time it's not as simple as me waking up one morning and saying, 'OK, I just want to rap again.'"
Fiasco says that after he fulfills his contractual obligations to Atlantic Records, he could see himself being an independent artist. Labels aside, he says it's his wide-ranging fan base, regularly represented at his concerts, that keeps him going.
"You'll see a group of kids from Palestine with Palestinian flags. You'll see Wounded Warriors against the Iraq War in their fatigues there supporting," Fiasco said. "You'll see the weird college kids in the back that just want to get drunk to 'Kick, Push.' Until that dies off completely, I'll still be rocking."
If you go
Lupe Fiasco performs Dec. 15 at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live, downtown. Stalley and the Boy Illinois will also perform. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $40. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.