lupe

I’ve spent the majority of my life listening to rap music. I’ve spent roughly the same amount of time analyzing my preferences for music relative to critical and scholarly assessment. Aside from my forays in the Youtube comments sections of 2007, it’s been difficult to articulate any of my musical opinions. Like a wise man once said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Last night, though, I was presented with such a strong entry for the Best Rap Verse of All Time that here I am slipping into my ballet shoes. Lupe Fiasco performed Food and Liquor in full at the Riviera Theatre here in Chicago last night. During his performance, we were reminded of classic verses inside classic songs comprising what is one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. No further qualifiers are necessary.

During one particular verse, Lupe closed by reminding the crowd that it was written sometime in 2006. He then repeated it, slowing down each stanza just enough. When we call a verse timeless or classic, prescient or genius, or “sonically airtight” as the Pitchfork writers put it, we’re talking about the staying power of the arrangement. Does it age well? Was it powerful back then and is it meaningful now?

I’m speaking about verse three of Hurt Me Soul. In full:

So through the Grim Reaper sickle-sharpening
Macintosh marketing, oil field auguring
Brazilian adolescent disarmament
Israeli occupation, Islamic martyrdom
Precise, yeah, laser-guided targeting
Oil for food bartering, terrorist organization harboring
Sand-camouflaged army men
CCF sponsoring, world conquering, telephone monitoring
Louis Vuitton modeling, pornographic actress honoring
String theory pondering, bulimic vomiting
Catholic Priest fondling, preemptive bombing
And Osama and Obama and them
They breaking in my car again
Deforestation and overlogging, and
Hennessy and Hypnotiq swallowing
Hydroponic coughing, and
All the world’s ills
Sitting on chrome 24-inch wheels
Like that

This song deals with the conflicting feelings Lupe has about rap music and his place in it. The premise of the album is the good (food) versus the bad (liquor) and how they are so often comingled. By the third verse, he’s moved from personal experiences from the first two verses and touches on what he sees wrong with the world at large. Conflict, badness, and all the things that pain him or hurt his soul. Simply, it is masterful.

So through the Grim Reaper sickle sharpening

This is a punchy introduction delivered in a youthful Chicago twang. Through is particularly hard to pick up on. This preposition is also one of the most interesting words in the line. He’s setting up to detail the ills in a verse that is one nearly-breathless run-on sentence. The line seems to imply that each one of them, in one way or another, accelerates the demise of lifeform or societal construct much as sharpening a sickle makes it easier to slash grains. Through implies more action than with or by, but also harmonizes less with the rest of the verse.

In another interpretation, this line is the first of the twenty-four ills. I leave this up for debate since it’s much more abstract than any of the others.

I was touched to find that there is a Facebook page named “So through the Grim Reaper sickle-sharpening” with one single like. Also, a fair number of public Facebook posts still exist where users have re-posted the verse. This includes a few where “So through the Grim Reaper sickle-sharpening” alone is affixed to news stories of sin and tragedy. I’m sure these people’s friends knew exactly what they were talking about.

The Grim Reaper isn’t known to carry a sickle. He carries a scythe, which is more capable of reaping someone’s soul than a sickle, which is designed to be held in one hand. There are a few competing interpretations here. First of all, “scythe-sharpening” removes one symbol and is a tongue twister before you apply any accent. With the syllables the way they are, though, Lupe is gasping for air after line two.

It’s possible that the mention of a sickle, which is much less powerful yet more agile than a scythe, suggests that Death himself needs to swing his blade faster due to the proliferation of badness. The act of scythe sharpening is described in this 1832 edition of the Country Gentleman’s Magazine:

The evil arising from the want of dexterity among reapers in the use of the scythe hook, is greatly enhanced by the still more frequent want of skill in sharpening it; and this is not to be wondered at, for it requires a considerable degree of adroitness to whet an edge tool.

It’s possible that the Grim Reaper himself, rather than being the just-doing-my-job entity usually imagined is himself entrapped by the lusts of mortal man. Not only that, but this particular embodiment of the reaper possesses considerable adroitness (skill) in actually being able to whet (sharpen) his tool. My interpretation is that this is all true but that the one-handed sickle is used because the Reaper has some use for his free hand. That is because the Grim Reaper here is Lupe Fiasco and in his other hand is a microphone.

Macintosh marketing (Ill #1)

In 2006, the Get a Mac ad campaign was launched. This campaign was seen as somewhat elitist, writing off PCs (to be precise, personal computers running the Windows operating system) as inferior in every way. Even though the iPod was a resounding success by this point, Apple was still a fringe company when it came to personal computers. I remember using a Macintosh in 2005 and it being quirky, to say the least.

Moreso, though, I remember these commercials. They are iconic. The background music unmistakable. They fit into Lupe’s overarching theme of “the box,” or television and how it fries our brains. You could not have watched T.V. during the years between 2006 and 2009 and not remember these commercials.

One criticism of the ad series is that the differences highlighted by the commercials didn’t… really matter. Even today, where we have an iEverything, I do enjoy the slightly-elevated user experience of a Mac. But, for the average person, and what Lupe may have been getting at back then, is that these are aspirational products whose owners possess a sense of entitlement and smugness.

Though most people publically associate Apple (Steve Jobs) with good and Microsoft (Bill Gates) with evil, this line has aged incredibly well. Less than a year later, the iPhone was announced, which changed… well… life, when you really think about it. Apple is still on an upward trajectory. Lupe wasn’t trying to predict the success of Apple, but this ill is especially significant because there have been thousands of rap lyrics about iPhones since he wrote it but probably not a single one about a Macintosh.

Oil Field Auguring (Ill #2)

RapGenius has a pretty weak annotation for this, supposing that Lupe is upset by “greedy” oil companies and that “the word ‘auger’ is a synonym for ‘drill’.” Not wrong… but it ignores something very important–the word choice. Yes, augering and marketing rhyme better than drilling and marketing. But the homophones auger and augur have different meanings. The lyric, at the time of writing this, is listed as “auguring” but the annotation interprets it is “augering,” which demonstrates how underappreciated this ill has been.

The genius of this ill is that augur, which is an archaic word I only know from playing fantasy videogames, means to foretell or predict by omens. You can literally auger (drill) a well in an oil field. That oil field can augur (foretell) prosperity or it can augur conflict. The cluster of ills that almost immediately follows all deal with the fallout from the conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world that can be foretold simply by the prospection of a source of vast energy wealth.

This ill is the most direct criticism of capitalism, in somewhat of the same vein as the line from verse 2: “What constitutes a prostitute is the pursuit of profit.”

Brazilian Adolescent Disarmament (Ill #3)

Stemming from my brief career as a rapper, my attitude toward words like disarmament is that if you can find a way to use it in a rap verse, you probably should. However, this line still can be a source of bafflement as the disarmament of adolescents should not, at face value, be considered something that hurts Lupe’s soul. It’s also an ill-fitting bridge from oil field auguring to several ills related to conflicts in the Middle East.

Brazil has a serious violent crime problem. In the year 2006 when this information was not ubiquitous, Lupe was using his platform to spread a message that hadn’t reached the mainstream yet. Yes, back in 2006, this was something that happened and was meaningful because we weren’t using the internet to its full potential yet.

But is disarming children an ill? In one way, one can say that the children possessing firearms in the first place is suggestive of major societal dysfunction. In another, disarming adolescents can 1. Put the guns into the hands of more nefarious people while 2. Simultaneously leaving vulnerable kids defenseless. These three words are denser than they seem.

This line, which, again, is out of left field, aged extremely well in light of the Rio Olympics of 2016 where much of the favela violence in Brazil penetrated international conscience. Indeed, there were videos of Brazilian Adolescents robbing tourists at gunpoint, thinking nothing of it, and running back five minutes later to rob someone else.

Israeli Occupation (Ill #4)

Lupe has been attuned to controversies in Israel for a long time. His better-known reference is the blunt “Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit” from Words I Never Said. In 2006, “Israeli Occupation” was profound, the average listener wouldn’t have had much of an idea of what he was talking about. Of course, if Kendrick made a comment like this in 2016, it would get news coverage.

Israel has laid claim to contested territories for decades. The best known may be Gaza, to the west, but the Golan Heights and West Bank are also significant. Many of these claims are not fully recognized by world powers (i.e. the Golan Heights is officially Syrian land occupied by Israel) and are bitterly disputed by Israel’s neighbors. There are so many rockets fired into Israel on a regular basis that the country possesses the world’s most effective missile defense system, called the Iron Dome.

Occupation and “settlers,” Israeli citizens who live in contested areas, continue to be hot topics even thirteen years later. Just days before Lupe’s concert, the Trump Administration released a statement claiming that the settlements were not illegal, reversing a long-held stance. This will, undoubtedly, lead to further conflict in the region.

To keep track, so far we have 4 ills that are eerily relevant today, all to a greater degree than they were in 2006.

Islamic Martyrdom (Ill #5)

While the western world doesn’t take much issue with Israel’s militaristic dominance in the region, much of the displacement caused by Israel’s claims to land in Muslim-majority countries inspires brash and terroristic attacks by Islamic militants. We tend not to ignore that part of it. Really, it’s a deeply-rooted culture war that I have no business writing about.

One topic, Israeli occupation, flows into another, Islamic martyrdom, which comes as a direct reaction to the former. Notable is Lupe’s emphasis on the first syllables of Israeli and Islamic. Two words that some would consider antonyms or at least paradoxical when in close proximity are perhaps more closely related than we’d like to admit. Unfortunately, the roots of the two words don’t suggest the same pedigree, though they both involve God.

Laser-guided targeting (Ill #6)

Yet the third thread in a tangled web of rock-paper-scissors in the middle east is the United States’ military influence.

It is usually impossible for ragtag groups of fighters to obtain, maintain, and fly aircraft. Even as the Islamic State grew in the mid-2010s, it seemed obvious that they had no interest in planes. They stockpiled a lot of things that could kill huge numbers of people, but not planes.

Aircraft changed the rules of war. Laser-guided targeting allows for precision strikes. Around this time, the mainstream media had picked up on some incidents where pilots seemed to feel a false sense of confidence with laser strikes, often killing innocent civilians while bombing “approved” targets. In one case that I recall right around 2005, Good Morning America (before it was dumbed down) used to play videos of combat in Iraq including airstrikes.

Oil for food bartering (Ill #7)

Since we have “food” present here, my first impression is that oil is ultimately useless when it comes to providing basic human needs despite being one of the most valuable substances in the world by volume. (No, I don’t consider energy a basic human need).

However, there was a program sponsored by the U.N. starting in 1995 called Oil-for-Food. It allowed Iraq, which was heavily embargoed at the time, to trade crude oil for humanitarian aid under the condition that the country would not use any proceeds to bolster its military. By bartering, suggesting no cash was exchanged, trade partners resorted to a more primitive and ultimately more rife for abuse method of dealmaking.

You may be wondering how multiple countries were able to agree on fair exchange rates between crude oil and foodstuffs. In actuality, the oil was sold for cash and held in escrow by a single bank. Does that sound like a good idea?

As of today, there are 14 sub-sections under the abuse section of the Wikipedia article and a further 8 sub-sections for investigations. More generally, this ill is a criticism of all of the valuable things we as human beings sacrifice just to get by.

Terrorist Organization Harboring (Ill #8)

At the time of rapping, Iraq was believed to be harboring, meaning supporting and protecting, Al-Qaeda. Also, Hamas, the de facto ruling party in Gaza, has been designated a terrorist group.

Over the years, there have been continuing revelations that middle-eastern countries are sponsoring terrorist organizations. One of the most extreme examples was the birth of ISIS, which became a state in and of itself. Also, Pakistan harbored Osama bin Laden for years. Many people still don’t understand the machinations of this region. It’s important to state here that, in 2006, many people still believed that terrorism on a global scale could be eradicated.

Sand-camouflaged Army Men (Ill #9)

A reference to Desert Storm, the Gulf War, or the War on Terror, the army men are the United States armed forces. This is somewhat of a filler, but the image of the desert camo has always been so vivid to me. What goes unsaid here is how soldiers are used to do the bidding of more powerful men and all they need to do is change their uniform in order to deploy to different regions.

CCF Sponsoring (Ill #10)

CCF was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was an anti-communist advocacy group. In 1966, the New York Times revealed that the majority of the funding of the CCF came from the CIA. The organization ceased to exist in that form nearly immediately after the detailed reports.

In short, even the most powerful nations of the world often resort to underhanded shit in order to pursue their policy goals.

World Conquering (Ill #11)

Ills 10-12 together are a critique of the United States government. In the wake of WWII, many different resolutions were passed with the express purpose of limiting countries’ abilities to expand their borders and conquer their neighbors. In light of this, many people see the way that the United States asserts its will over other countries in the world to be a type of modern imperialism.

Telephone Monitoring (Ill #12)

This is a reference to the Patriot Act, which was post-9/11 legislation that allowed for government wiretaps on communication devices without probable cause, which many people decried as unconstitutional.

Remember that this reference predated the smartphone. It has evolved to encompass the fact that many commercial enterprises can now understand your life in intricate detail by collecting or purchasing your phone usage data.

The implications of the Patriot Act were not, and still really aren’t, well understood by the populace.

Louis Vuitton Modeling (Ill #13)

Louis Vuitton is a French fashion house and one of the largest purveyors of aspirational luxury goods. There’s an off chance that there was some specific minor controversy related to Louis Vuitton fashion models circa 2005 but it’s likely that Lupe plainly hates the fact that people spend so much money on high-end goods like Louis Vuitton handbags.

Pornographic Actress Honoring (Ill #14)

I was pretty young when this song came out and I can take some pride in saying that I had not viewed pornography by this point in my life. For this reason, I have absolutely no idea if this is a specific reference or is just a criticism of how adult entertainers were becoming less taboo and even honored in the mid-aughts

I’m sure that something specific inspired Lupe to include this ill. What makes it so jaw-droppingly prescient is that we now live in a world where pornography has permeated popular culture. Hardcore pornstars like Mia Khalifa transitioned into… somewhat respectable roles (I have no idea what she does now). Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, released a year after this song and widely recognized as the sex tape, catapulted her family to indescribable fame (I have no idea what she does now, either).

More recently, we’ve seen the rise of Instagram modeling which ties these two ills together quite nicely. While Instagram disallows hardcore pornography, there are countless “models” on Instagram who are posting photographs under that would have been considered as softcore pornography a decade ago. Often, pictures of cheeky bikinis or just… underwear… are posted under the guise of flashing designer goods or travel to foreign destinations.

String Theory Pondering (Ill #15)

This is a unique one. String Theory is a framework used to explain a number of topics in fundamental physics. Nothing bad about it!

In this branch of physics, you don’t solve problems. You research and, well, ponder them. Most directly, Lupe could be criticizing theoretical research as a waste of time compared to solving tangible problems, especially when considering that some of the brightest minds in the world are researching subjects that may seem arcane.

“String Theory” could also refer to puppet governments and other public figures who are in fact controlled by difficult to describe hidden actors.  In this interpretation, Lupe is pondering the fakeness of our world’s leaders and figureheads.

Bulimic Vomiting (Ill #16)

Bulimia Nervosa is an emotional disorder in which one is overcome by an obsessive desire to lose weight, often by purging. In 2006 this was especially characteristic of people who had nothing else to worry about other than their appearance. As I’ve come of age, this has become more widespread and people generally have become much more self-conscious about how they appear.

Catholic Priest Fondling (Ill #17)

This has always been an… issue in the Catholic church. If I had to pick one ill from 2006 as one that would spur renewed discussion at the tail end of 2019, this wouldn’t be it. But, here we are, in a world that has seen even more significant abuses of both Catholic altar-boys and, generally, the exploitation of children as a whole. This hurts my soul, too, but I don’t think this merits further explanation.

Preemptive Bombing (Ill #18)

Preemptive bombing is a hawkish (sometimes nuclear) tactic used to neutralize threats before they are able to carry out an attack or are officially engaged in a war with the aggressor.

Throughout the last two decades, there has at times been widespread sentiment that “we should just nuke them” in reference to the middle east or other areas in conflict. I think what Lupe is getting at here is that wanton aggression bothers him especially when we don’t consider consequences of our actions. By bombing unsuspecting targets, we are removing a lot of emotion and humanitarian concerns that accompany courses of action such as putting troops on the ground. To relate this to the Lupe song Theme Music to a Drive-by, I see a military’s preemptive bombing as similar to a drive-by shooting.

Osama and Obama and them (Ill #19)

This song was released about five months before Barack Obama announced his presidency in February of 2007. Lupe, being from Illinois, surely was aware of his senator and perhaps was aware of his greater ambitions, but Barack Obama getting elected president of the United States was not exactly a sure thing in September 2006.

This is absolutely and without a doubt the most significant line in this verse. It’s worth pointing out that there are still lyrics sites and videos on Youtube that misinterpret “Obama” as some flavor of “bombing,” which illustrates the meaning behind the line precisely.

Osama bin Laden was universally hated in the western world at this time. A few months later, Obama would be seen as the savior of the western world (though not as dramatically or as universally). As we know now, Obama ordered the mission that killed Osama bin laden in 2011.

The similarity between the men’s last names is wild, in retrospect. It’s even more noteworthy because you can mumble your way through “Obama” without realizing what you’re saying. It’s sublime. By constructing the line in this way, Lupe is saying that these two actors (along with “them”) hurt his soul in similar ways.

What he had to criticize Obama for back in 2006, your guess is as good as mine, but Lupe was an O.G. Obama hater on Twitter. This was one thing that isolated him from his fan base during the long gap after The Cool. An African-American from Chicago saying bad things about Barack Obama was sacrilegious. I remember seeing some of these tweets and thinking “WTF Lupe?”

They breaking in my car again (Ill #20)

In contrast to the previous line, while many people focus their energy on criticizing elected officials and leaders of foreign terror groups, there are still personal affronts faced by people all over the country. Lupe draws attention to that his neighborhood has a high rate of property crime. In another interpretation, this could mean that “they” (meaning the government) are trying to stop him from speaking out or, with Ill #12, are bugging his car.

Deforestation and Overlogging (Ill #21)

Around 2006, the Amazon Rainforest was getting a lot of attention due to, well, deforestation and overlogging. I don’t admit this often, but I’d never seen the word overlogging until sitting down and analyzing this verse. In reciting this song in the past, I never considered that it could be written as a single word.

Unfortunately, the Amazon is still under assault and environmentalists are becoming an increasingly-vocal crowd. Hopefully, for the better.

In another too-good-to-be-true, bizarre coincidence of Lupe’s lyricism, that South Park episode where internet access dries up and there’s a great migration similar to the story of The Grapes of Wrath is titled Over Logging. It was released a year and a half after this song.

Hennessy and Hypnotiq Swallowing (Ill #22)

These are both popular brands of liquor, especially in low-income communities. People drown their sorrows in alcohol rather than trying to make positive changes.

Hydroponic Coughing (Ill #23)

Hydroponics provides a modular solution for growing plants in environments that lack things such as sunlight or freshwater. Marijuana may be grown hydroponically and so this ill, similar to the one that precedes it, is a critique of drug use.

To utter the word “hydroponic” in a meaningful way in 2006 still strikes me as genius.

All the world’s [other] ills (Ill #24)

Controversially, I think that the last ill is everything that Lupe excluded, bundled into this line. It’s possible that the sickle sharpening is an ill and that this is just a transition and filler.

Sitting on chrome 24-inch wheels

The finale–I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve listened to this verse countless times before learning that the “24” here references the 24 ills that precede it. Lupe was asked about this in an interview in 2006, and I’m going to pull in his explanation from Genius and add some of what he said that was trimmed.

On your track Hurt Me Soul, the last verse really sticks out. You rap about the world’s ills, but the same time you’re sitting on 24s, so it appears like you’re saying my life is great, but all this bullshit in the world is happening.

Well, it’s a little deeper than that; it’s the grotesque standing next to the beauty and they interchange, and it’s really meant as a vehicle of hip-hop. To me, if hip-hop was a car it would be a Benz sitting on 24s, Rock & Roll would be an old school Cadillac from the 50s, Opera’s car would be a long old fashioned car from the 20s, but hip-hop would be a Benz on 24s and that’s the vehicle conveyed in that third verse. Everything that I talked about, or something that’s real ill or going on in the world and has a certain level of grotesqueness to it. So, Food & Liquor was about balance, it was about the good and the bad

So you got this Benz and it’s clean and da-da-da, and on the inside you have all this vice and nonsense, and that’s the theme I tried to carry throughout the album. It pops up in certain themes throughout the album. There was another song that we didn’t get a chance to put on the album that was called the Pills, which came out on this MTV My Block Compilation and that song kind of personified the ills of the world standing next to the beauties of the world.

To give a little more color on the “lost track” Pills, it’s a darker and more literal critique of the same things from verse three. Stood up next to Hurt Me Soul, it feels unfinished. It was actually one of the songs from the leaked version of Food & Liquor that Lupe mostly scrapped.

In Lupe’s words

The most inspirational performance of the concert was this song. I’ve transcribed the monologue which immediately followed his recitation of the verse. Hopefully, it can help you understand why I felt compelled to write this essay and why I feel I have no business performing further analysis.

Now, that’s 2006. That’s one verse… from 2006. From that point ’til now, everything in that verse rang true. Unfortunately or fortunately. It all depends on what we do with the world, you know what I’m saying? How we choose to interact with it, how we choose to adjust it; the part we choose to play. We can either observe these things and find comfort in that we are able to observe and articulate them. But it’s more, more powerful, more meaningful, to be able to come up with a solution to those things out there in the world as opposed to just categorizing and listing them for all intellectual [inaudible over crowd].

You ain’t gotta do all this shit! You probably good at one thing. But that one thing is enough to partner with somebody else whose good at another thing. And you both have mastered these two individual things but when you put them together… you’ve created something that a third person can step in with their mastery of a single thing… combined with something else… and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on, and so forth. Before you have a community of… mindful… educated… interactive, motivated, inspired, changes. Now that’s what the world needs.

This rap shit is merely just pointing in a direction. Giving you certain little tidbits of information that hopefully you’ll Google now. Cause, back in the day, we couldn’t even do that shit. Now, the whole world is in your pocket, it’s in your phone. Access to everything on this entire planet is at your disposal. You have to be motivated to be able to want to dive into these problems that the world is facing.

Through the Grim Reaper sickle-sharpening

Macintosh Marketing

Oil field Auguring

Brazilian adolescent disarmament

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah

That don’t mean shit

The soul will continue to hurt. Unless the body starts to activate and militate towards a goal. You will always have a hurt soul and a punctured and damaged heart. Something that leaks and bleeds that can never get healed. No matter what the fuck song you put on, no matter how many raps you write, how many Instagram photos you take, how many classes you take in school, how many jobs you get and then quit and then get and then quit, it ain’t gon’ matter. Unless you activate and militate towards a goal based on mastery of the individual things that you can do with your own two hands and own two feet. That is the key.

So… please… this album is merely motivation, it’s not a blueprint, it ain’t got the answers, it’s flawed, it’s imperfect.

Musically, lyrically, I hear my own flaws, my own [gasping for breath]. Ya’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s a fucking try. Hopefully a try that push some of you all… in the right direction.

[extended applause]

And now some raps.

[Pressure begins playing]
The Best Rap Verse of All Time Entry #1