Joshua Lerner has delusions of flaneur.
For some time now, the career arcs of Rick Ross and Lupe Fiasco have followed opposing trajectories. Five years ago, the very ordinary job of Florida corrections officer, revealed to be hiding at the bottom of Ross’s resume, put his drug kingpin persona in peril. But from where Ross stands today, that big reveal amounts to nothing more than a forgotten blip. Ross redoubled his efforts to cash in on that tried-and-true narrative that drug trafficking begets ridiculous levels of wealth, and it worked. As the face of MMG, Ross has become larger than life—“the very pinnacle of street,” as Sasha Frere Jones put it.
Far away from the flaunting magnificence of Rozay and his posse, Lupe Fiasco has been moving steadily away from the street and into the lecture hall. His career, as a result, has taken an artistic nosedive. While Lupe’s albums, from the very start, have had an air of didacticism, he at least reached a somewhat broad cross-section of mainstream listeners when he first came on the scene. His feel-good feature on “Touch The Sky” in 2005 is still one of the best major debut verses in recent hip hop. Despite the moderate achievement of Food and Liquor II, the middling success of “Bitch Bad” symbolizes what has happened to Lupe’s music as a result of his program of rap edification. It was the right message in the wrong vessel. The sole recipient of his preaching was his own choir.
Now Lupe Fiasco is back on the radio. Ross and Wale granted him the middle verse on last month’s mystifying “Poor Decisions,” one of three tracks dropping this summer in the march up to the August 6 release of MMG’s Self Made Vol. 3. Bloggers are calling “Poor Decisions” an attempt by MMG at some kind of social responsibility or street consciousness. The song is really an example of dumbed-down lyricism masquerading as thoughtfulness, simply another revenue stream for Ross’s empire.
The video for “Poor Decisions” begins with a pensive Ross, his head alternatingly held in his hands or gazing up in repose at the sky. Ross’s verse holds together well in its rhythmic simplicity. It’s the content that’s alarming. Ross bemoans the poor decisions of young black men involved in the drug trade. The subjects of Ross’s verse shatter family relationships and abandon their children. Young boys grow up without fathers. Young girls grow up to be strippers.
What Ross is really doing here is invoking the “culture of poverty” argument that white people have used to define poor black communities for decades. It’s hard to be sure, given his laconic way with words, but it actually appears that Ross is blaming a generation of hardship on the poor decisions that black men have made against their own self-interest. Dude should do a book tour with Bill Cosby. Only Cosby didn’t create a multi-million dollar empire built on the glorification of those same choices. It seems that Ross’s opinion on the drug trade is that it’s only a poor decision if you get caught.
Ross’s verse casts poor decisions in a social vacuum, ignoring the circumstances that are the very drivers of his character’s behaviors. This is where Lupe steps in with the song’s best line to drop some knowledge about structural oppression: “When your P.O.V. is poverty / It’s like D.O.C. a lottery / That D.O.C. be lock and key.” Props to Lupe for finding the dopest way to explain how a lack of jobs yields increased participation in drug crime and street violence. Ross may have forgotten the unemployment rate in black America has been at recession levels for 50 years. He may have never heard of the War on Drugs. Count on Lupe to hold the center.
The context Lupe provides for the song is complicated, however, by his longstanding belief that rappers should be held accountable for their lyrical content. “People die behind what you say,” he told Peter Bailey in a recent interview. On “Poor Decisions,” Lupe puts the same sentiment into the closing of his verse: “Rappers influence your shootin’ sprees / Turn around and publish bars like it ain’t got shit to do with me / Easy to record so ruthlessly.” So it seems that Lupe’s interpretation of the track’s title contradicts that of his predecessor’s. Ross blames black men for the choices they make. Lupe blames rappers like Ross for the irresponsible use of their influence on those same individuals.
To be sure, Lupe Fiasco does believe people living in the ghetto should take some degree of personal responsibility. He takes them to task for their unhealthy eating habits, for example. If this strikes you as strange, it is. Lupe has named half of his albums after the ubiquitous corner stores found on the South and West Sides of Chicago, which take advantage of their food dessert surroundings by marking up prices on the least nutritious of items. Now we’ve got a scene where two black men go into one of these stores to choose some sodas over bottles of water, and it seems we’re meant to place the blame solely on them.
Unfortunately, as Wale pulls into the third and final verse, it doesn’t get any easier to discern the overarching message of “Poor Decisions.” He laments the destiny of a woman who ends up using sex to gain the status she could never afford to buy: “Lust apparel / who dreams of Rolls / but can’t Accord or afford / a Dodge or a Ford / Where she ends up on your knob cause she has never been adored.” Another poor decision, I suppose. But what’s up with these guys pitying their women on this track yet using their bodies so offhandedly on every other one?
Contradiction is not necessarily an artistic defect. It’s a great achievement when rap artists bring to bear the inherent dualities of today’s hip-hop landscape. Wealth and poverty, consciousness and self-hatred, dignity and commercialism, love and objectification—the most honest rap songs show an awareness of these competing forces, often revealing an artist who confesses to personal flaws and grapples with difficult decisions. Self-reflection and admission of weakness can go a long way.
The problem with “Poor Decisions” is that these three artists seem to be wholly oblivious to their inconsistencies. Perhaps Ross, Wale, and the rest of MMG are trying to branch out, hoping to gain more customers for the new album. Conscious rap is a market, despite the Billboard classifications. And maybe Lupe just wants some of his old freshness back, appearing important alongside two of today’s biggest stars. But the end result of the collaboration is just a bunch of faux- sermonizing, both vapid and hypocritical.
“Poor Decisions” fails because these artists are saying very different things, and not at all convincingly. They think they are telling us something meaningful about ourselves, but they’ve only revealed their willful ignorance.