Note: I typically only discuss books and the intersections of culture and literature, but I wanted to share this anyways. In my eyes, hip hop is as literary a form as any.
Song: Hurt Me Soul
Artist: Lupe Fiasco
In hip-hop’s short history, the genre has undergone innumerable paradigm shifts, as its trends, demands, and contexts are inevitably changing. In the mid-2000’s, mass commercialization of hip-hop left many fans wondering whether perceived stagnation meant the death of a once powerful, socially-conscious art form. This was the hip-hop landscape Lupe Fiasco entered when he released his 2006 debut album, “Food & Liquor”—a thought-provoking effort that took the landscape in question, and boldly questioned it. At times, Lupe appears to be battling against gold rims in favor of soul hymns—but his feelings are complicated by the fact that, sometimes, those gold rims are rather appealing. One of the album’s standout tracks, “Hurt Me Soul,” explores the frustrations of a conflicted conscious rapper who loves rap, but finds its landscape, hollow, irresponsible, and duplicitous.
In the first lines of the song, as a soulful Cecil Holmes sample drives the beat, Lupe frankly declares that he “used to hate hip-hop.” Lupe puts this paradoxical declaration in context with two anecdotes, each driving the respective conversations in their given verses. The first finds Lupe abstaining from hip-hop, primarily due to his issues with the word “bitch.” He finds the degradation of women in Hip Hop far too prevalent, but these feelings are paled when he comes across an enjoyable Too Short song. Known for his pro-pimping imagery and sexually explicit lyrics, Too Short’s music presents Lupe Fiasco with something audibly pleasing, but utterly incompatible with his values. His relationship to the music is further complicated when he finds himself applying the word to a former girlfriend, and realizes he’s been trained by hip-hop to react to females in a way that he finds uncomfortable and damaging. The rest of the verse transitions into a conversation about rap as an influence for the younger generation, critiquing an era of irresponsibly contrived gangsta music that kids discern as reality. Lupe explains how the flamboyant, outlandish material of rap videos seemingly poison impoverished children’s vision of success when he rhymes, “Gangsta rap-based filmings became the building blocks/ For children with leaking ceilings catching drippings with pots.” Instead of inspiring the urban youth to strive for positive and realistic goals, Lupe feels these rappers only create unrealistic pipe dreams. In the subsequent lines, Lupe stresses the unique complexities faced by the Hip Hop fan, as he attempts to bring his “living conditions, religion, ignorant wisdom, and artistic vision” in harmony with this somewhat volatile music. Simultaneously, and ironically, this is the same music that sparks his own motivation and brings him to create his own hip-hop. However, instead of approaching it the way other rappers do, he plans to “tap into the world” and rap about social realities.
In the second verse, Lupe hits his listeners with the next anecdote—this time, expressing his distaste for what he finds to be a blasphemous Jay-Z rhyme. The line, taken from Jay’s song “D’Evils,” finds Hov proclaiming, “I never prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti.” As a devout Muslim, Lupe finds this proclamation even more contradictory to his beliefs than Too Short’s love for the word “bitch.” It glorifies the very issue that seems to keep Lupe up at night—that Hip Hop leaves role models and values misplaced. Nonetheless, despite attempting to boycott Jay-Z’s music, he finds himself “back to giving props” again after watching Jay-Z’s “Streets Is Watching” documentary. The value crisis continues, as Lupe battles between loyalty to his religion and loyalty to the art he loves. In addition to his own difficulties, hip-hop fans appear to love the music for all the reasons that he finds it jarring. A worried Lupe rhymes, “The theme songs that niggas hustle to/ Seem wrong, but these songs were coming true/ And it was all becoming cool.” Lupe concludes that all of those “gangsta rap-based filmings” have evidently become real inspiration to the kids with “leaking ceilings.” Thinking it’s all “cool,” the same kids now act out those dangerous fictions in reality. Lupe’s reflections turn back to the artists, and he wonders about their role in exploitation. If “what constitutes a prostitute is the pursuit of profit,” then all rappers selling sexualized images and themes are prostitutes in a capitalist-driven system. In a larger scope, Lupe argues that these rappers have effectively traded the poor community’s well-being for personal riches. Of course, with so few inner city residents finding large-scale success, it’s difficult to then knock their hustle. In a hypothetical dialogue, someone tells Lupe, “His business isn’t mine and that nigga pimpin’ got it.” Though he’s happy for the people who escape impoverished situations, he can’t support a culture of indifference to the issues that keep the rest in. Other hip-hop listeners share the same troubles that Lupe goes through, but they ignore the hurtful themes in Hip Hop, because those themes are inevitably a part of the music they adore.
While the first two verses set the context for Lupe’s tortured, conflicted relationship with hip-hop’s falsehoods, the rest of the song represent the topics Lupe wants to replace those falsehoods with. The emotional choruses are the results of his tapping “into the world,” and they constitute the most moving parts of the song. Behind the careless materialism and the glorified violence rappers use to represent their neighborhoods are these real problems, which Lupe masterfully lists in a soulful, rhythmic list. In the first chorus, Lupe sings, “I have sex for money/ the hood don’t love me/ The cops want to kill me, this nonsense built me/ And I got no place to go.” Prostitution, deceitful streets, racial profiling, poor education and more pack these lines full of emotion, but the weight of Lupe’s words is fully realized in his admittance that “this nonsense built me.” Though he sees how problematic it is to look up to the images in commodified Hip Hop, he’s grown up on these cultural images as well. Once one realizes that most of rap’s glorifications are embellishments, one is left with “no place to go.” The idea of having no place to go also relates back to Lupe’s status as a Hip Hop listener who hates Hip Hop. All of this combines to create a situation that truly hurts Lupe’s soul.
The song culminates in an assonance-soaked final verse that takes the choruses to a new level, and puts Hip Hop in conversation with “all the world’s ills.” Lupe intends to set these ills up next to the central problem he has with Hip Hop—that mainstream rappers will never be allowed to replace their shallow, braggadocio rhymes with discussions of these monumental problems. Instead, record labels will continue to push a fantasy that will undoubtedly sell records. By nearly the last line, Lupe is telling his listeners, “I lost my earpiece, I hope ya’ll hear me,” signifying that there is no one telling him what to rhyme. He’s a free emcee, and the unfortunate rarity of that certainly hurts his soul.
While powerful, a proper analysis of “Hurt Me Soul” does require listeners to consider several aspects of Lupe’s character, before immediately becoming a Lupe disciple. Though his feelings are driven by an admirable humanism, much of his stance seems to stem from his Islamic roots. The first word of the song is an Arabic word meaning “Allah, forgive me.” This plea sets the tone for the rest of the song, as Lupe’s shame is derived from loving and existing in a Hip Hop culture that he finds heretical. His problem with Jay-Z’s “D’Evils” line likely comes off as tame to most who aren’t devoutly religious, and in today’s generation, many simply aren’t. Consequently, barring religion, Lupe’s grievances are based in the idea that the hip-hop listener has a responsibility to be in support of hip-hop’s content. Lupe’s issue with Jay-Z is that Jay-Z doesn’t pray to God, but should that affect the way Lupe enjoys the music? Does Hip Hop have to be a moral undertaking that just so happens to entertain, or can it be entertainment that just might contain moral lessons? The opinion that one should never separate oneself from the contents of a song lie at the heart of Lupe’s argument, and in some cases, that seems just as unrealistic as the champagne, cars, girls, and jewels. According to Lupe, mainstream Hip Hop would prove inaccessible to any brand of humanitarian, or anyone with a strict value system. This is problematic in that Hip Hop needn’t be weighed down by an unrealistic responsibility to always impart wisdom. Like any other musical form, it exists partially as a form of entertainment, performed by imperfect entertainers. If every Hip Hop song mirrored “Hurt Me Soul,” then what would party-goers listen to in the club? In some ways, this type of hip-hop would be less human than current forms.
The aspect of this track that saves it from being overly pretentious is that Lupe’s value crisis is his own. He doesn’t suggest that all of rap change to fit his tastes, but rather that maybe his tastes just aren’t compatible with rap. While it hurts his soul, it doesn’t necessarily have to hurt yours. By entering the Hip Hop landscape, challenging its canonical works, and putting bigger issues in conversation, Lupe grasps at the possibility that other rappers will lose their earpiece—but he isn’t snatching them from their ears. Unfortunately, his recent albums have demanded changes instead of suggesting them. This has resulted in self-righteous music rendered inaccessible to most hip-hop fans. Lupe’s disillusionment has stretched far past “Hurt Me Soul,” leaving him with “no place to go” in the current Hip Hop landscape.