When hip-hop was first established, it was a politically and socially conscious art form. Decades later, the art has been degraded by rappers such as Chief Keef, who glorify gang-banging, drug use, and disrespect of the law. The violent, desensitized music has it’s own category; it is known as drill music, a term that originated in Chicago. Media outlets love this redefinition of the genre; it is easier to sensationalize negative ideas than uplifting ones.
Amidst the crowd of “drill” rappers, there is no absence of musicians producing positive music. Though it is harder to find an audience for these so- called “conscious” rappers, Chicago native Lupe Fiasco has done so successfully. His breakout song, “Dumb It Down,” addressed the lack of substance in hip-hop, and holds as much relevance today as it did when premiered in 2007. The song is broken down into two intertwining sections. In the first section, Fiasco talks down on the mainstream themes and portrayals of hip-hop. Alluding to the film The Matrix, Lupe states,
“Took both pills when a bloke in a trench coat
and the locs in the chair had approached him here”
In the film, the main character lives in a false reality. He is given a choice to take a blue or red pill; the blue pill lets him continue living in his false reality, undisturbed by the actualities of his universe. The red pill wakes him up, revealing the corrupt, decimated world around him. They are symbolic of the duality Lupe maintains; he must have a presence in the mainstream world if he cares to have an audience and provide for himself, yet he doesn’t want the pressures of the industry to take meaning away from his words.
The second section of the song is a skit of sorts. It parodies the mainstream rapper and industry higher-ups alike. The first conversation is uttered from the position of the rapper,
“You going over heads, Lu (dumb it down)
They tellin me that they don’t feel you (dumb it down)
“We ain’t graduate from school (dumb it down)
Them big words ain’t cool (dumb it down)”
In the eyes of the shallow artist, Lupe can’t maintain his integrity if he hopes to achieve success. His concepts and the vernacular that he chooses to express himself through are too complex for the average listener who doesn’t find big words cool, apparently.
The following layer of the skit involves a man who is supposed to represent the hip-hop industry, which Lupe believes to be the source of the glorification of senseless music. The man accuses Lupe of “shedding too much light.”
“They're gettin self-esteem, Lu (Dumb it down!)
These girls are trying to be queens, Lu (Dumb it down!)
They're trying to graduate from school, Lu (Dumb it down!)
They're startin to think that smart is cool, Lu (Dumb it down!)
They're trying to get up out the hood, Lu (Dumb it down!)
I'll tell you what you should do (Dumb it down!)”
The executive lists his griefs with Lupe’s music, annoyed that he is trying to empower the impoverished, upsetting the system that works to keep the poor poor and make the rich richer. Fiasco is aware of the industry's habits, and he does not intend to keep quiet about them. Adding yet another dimension to his persona, Lupe refuses to turn a blind eye to what he believes is wrong.
As a whole, “Dumb it Down” is an art piece full of outspoken, educated, and empowering concepts. Quite contrary to the pop-rap played to the masses, Lupe Fiasco paints an image of what the genre was meant to be. He presents the flip side of the popular image, showing that while the radio may only bring you the gritty, violent hip-hop music that has defined the genre for so many, with a little digging, pure and meaningful hip-hop still exists.