Lupe can rap…so what?

Got to thinking about Lupe Fiasco. How I got there doesn’t really matter, but he came up. He’s a bit of a conundrum for me. Saw him kill a show in Chapel Hill — he was in total control of the stage — but I don’t really dig his albums. Not because he can’t rap or isn’t talented, but they don’t move me even a little bit. I hear them, and they’re cool…but that’s it. They don’t stick to the ribs. The Cool, a well-developed concept record, was really, really, really, really good…and I listened to it all of twice.
Some cat just told me I should listen to Lupe because he’s “very cerebral.” Like I’m supposed to give a damn about that.
Smart records are good…if they’re good. Otherwise, the smart isn’t worth anything. Tell me how “smart” this song is, then tell me if that matters.

This is the problem I typically have with rappers like Lupe and a few others (Talib Kweli comes to mind). I just don’t care about how good of a rapper you are, at least not in a technical sense. Your breath control can be outstanding, your punchlines fire, your way with words nimble and powerful. But if you don’t make me feel that shit in my chest or her hips, you’re wasting our time.
In “Live at Pompeii,” Pink Floyd’s fantastic concert flick (that has no audience), Roger Waters broke it down perfectly: the only thing that matters is whether it moves you or not. Now, it’s not my place to tell anyone what should move them, but if you come in my face talking about how cerebral something is as a reason I should listen to an album, I can’t figure out why you didn’t read a book instead. If that’s what you’re in it for, you could get a lot more knowledge from someone other than Lupe Fiasco.
What really hooks me on a record is that emotion. I listen with my ear on the bass and drums before anything else. To me, the rhythm is like the setting. Drums are the time, and the bass is the place. It’s telling me where we are, whether that place be happy, sad, sweaty, sexy, angry, or distant. The feel has always been in the rhythm, and a great vocalist of any kind adds his or her personal experience to what’s on the bottom, and sells the line. Nothing is ambiguous. The feelings, even if not defined, are transparent.
My ears are open, but I’m putting my chest out there. Hit me. Hit me hard. Grab me. Make me move to your pace. Then, if you handle that, then maybe I’m up for some thinking. This one, for example, knocks the wind out of me.

Let’s go back to Lupe, for example, and his cerebral raps. I can tell you right now that he’s no more cerebral in his songwriting than David Bowie, he with his out-of-sight ideas and fascination with the Nietzsche’s ubermann.

Now, you tell me what’s really smarter than that one (especially in the context of Ziggy which required this one to be perfect and transcendent, which it is). Now, you tell me if you really care. It moves, and it hits hard. Thinking? Who’s worried about that?
Nobody is, really. Few people ever are. The albums that wind up as smash hits typically have an incalculable emotional resonance. People primarily are into music for what it makes them feel, what they can relate to. Rumours sold a zillion because damn near every adult has been through every one of those songs, for better or worse. It’s not about how smart they are. It’s about what they do to the listener.
At least this listener, though I feel comfortable with that generalization.
I just can’t imagine spending time listening to music and not really, truly feeling it. If you feel Lupe or anyone else, that’s fine. But if you respond to me about how “smart” it is, my guess is that you’re frontin’. For eons, people have used music to signal their intelligence, which typically means you’re dealing with someone that isn’t that bright. That’s the kind of thing you can take to the bank.
I’ll close with a question, because I’m curious: what makes you want to listen to something? Of course, “it sounds good.” But on a deeper level, what sound are you looking for? Do you require that visceral response? Do you just want to be occupied?
I learned long ago not to expect anyone else to love music the way that I love it. Not as much, but how. I’m always interested to hear what brings people into it. Never heard anyone say they didn’t like music, but rarely are the origins of that explored casually.
So, I’m asking. Your answers are welcome.

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