by Ed Singer
Analysis of Lupe Fiasco's "Superstar"
| Lupe Fiasco's three verses from his song “Superstar”, through the method of assuming first-person, third-person, and second-person roles, illustrates the detrimental effects of the mainstream music industry and the hype it creates. He narrates the superficial lifestyle of those part of the industry, and the negative effects that come with it, which are not only adverse to the performers, but to society as a whole.. He also, to a minor degree, points out how the listeners of modern popular music are sometimes guilty of the same things as those who produce it. Despite the subject matter, his rhyme scheme and meter throughout the verses remain relatively upbeat, possibly to call to attention to the aforementioned guilt of the listeners; one who hears the song for the first time will think it to be yet another “this is the life” song, before (hopefully) realizing it isn't just another short-lived cash cow radio hit.
The first verse consists of sixteen bars (as do the other two), and nearly each one uses a single rhyme; a three-syllable feminine rhyme using the sounds “û-ē-û” This verse depicts, in summation, a divide between newer musicians who are entering as rookies the world of mainstream and the veterans of the industry.
It begins with three lines where he more or less explicitly refers to himself:
“A fresh cool young Lu,
Trying to cash his microphone, check two-one-two
Wanna believe my own hype, but it's too untrue.”
This song was written in 2007, following the commercial success of Lupe Fiasco's debut album, Food And Liquor, so he was at the time (and could still this day easily be considered) an upcoming artist with, as the words “fresh,” “cool,” and “young” imply, a good deal of promise. In the second bar, when he states that he is “trying to cash his microphone,” he most likely means that he is attempting to accumulate some sort of profit from his skills as a vocalist, as it is understood that in the music industry, “the talent” seldom makes very much money in comparison to the executives of the business. The latter half of the line gives a far more literal meaning to the microphone he mentions, acting out the process of “checking” a mike rather than using it as a metaphor for his performance in the studio and on stage. For the third line, let's go back to the first where he alludes to his emergence in the mainstream as an artist. And with that emergence comes the inevitable hype that surrounds him, wherein he admits that even he is having a hard time believing all the promotion of his name and his music, going as far as to say that it's partly fabricated.
The next six lines relaying the monologue of what appears to be a bouncer at an exclusive night club.
“The world brought me to my knees, what have you brung you?
Did you improve on a design, did you do somethin' new?
Well your name ain't on the guest list, who brung you?
The more famous person: you come through,
And the sexy lady next to ya: you come too”
The first half of the first line from that excerpt is most likely still Lupe referring to himself; but makes way for the second half, which introduces us to a new character, one he is addressing in the second person. “The world brought me to my knees” means that Lupe has been overwhelmed from the pressure of the limelight, while the question “what have you brung you?”, directed at a fictional artist who has yet to make a name for himself, is essentially a way of saying “what makes you so special?” The next line elaborates on this, implying that the addressee has done nothing inventive or innovative that has earned him notability. The third line is the first implication that this scene takes place at the entrance of an exclusive club somewhere, where a bouncer is talking to the aforementioned artist, reinforcing the fact that the character does not have enough of a reputation. The next two lines illustrate the bouncer letting in both a “more famous person” as well as a “sexy lady next to” him. In the case of the famous person, he has gained enough notability in his career to be let into this club with no questions asked, and in the case of the sexy lady, she is let in because of her attractive appearances and her adjacency to the famous person. It can be inferred that this alleged club is a metaphor for the entertainment industry as a whole; one can be allowed in if he or she has acquired fame, is close with someone that has acquired fame, or is simply good-looking.
The next two lines relate to the previous six, but ascend to a higher level, and the two following those talk about Lupe's own atypicalities and his self-induced separation from the standards.
“But then it hit me,
Standing outside of heaven waiting for God to come and get me, I'm too uncouth,
Unschooled to the rules and too gumshoe,
Too much of a newcomer and too uncool”
Here, it is made apparent that the club our hero was trying to get into could easily be heaven itself. Lupe stating “but then it hit me... I'm too uncouth,” is the realization that he isn't conventional enough to be fully accepted into the majority, and isn't aware of this until he is facing his death. The phrases “unschooled to the rules” and “too much of a newcomer” imply that he still has yet to learn the ways of the music business. Contrastively, “too gumshoe” suggests that he is overly ambitious, trying to find out things he shouldn't know and sticking his nose where it doesn't belong, assuming he is using the term “gumshoe” by its slang usage, meaning a detective.
The next few lines conclude the verse:
“Like Shadow and Lavelle, I battle with it well,
Though I need a holiday like lady who sung blue,
Go back, whatever you did, you undo,
Heavy as Heaven, the Devil on me, two tons too.”
The first line from this excerpt deviates from the rhyme pattern of the rest of the verse, using an impressive five-syllable rhyme. The first half of the line references the electronica group Unkle, DJ Shadow and James Lavelle being the two members of said group. The next line states that Lupe is in need of some time off from the previously mentioned overwhelming pressure of the limelight, with a clever allusion to Billie Holiday, who starred in Lady Who Sung The Blues. “Go Back” in the next line refers to the previous segment of the verse where he is standing in front of the gates of Heaven, where he is being addressed by Saint Peter, who has rejected him, telling him to correct the errors of his life. The last line of this verse is a bit tricky, to say the least. “Two tons”, in conjunction with the concepts of “Heaven” and “the Devil”, suggests that both of those forces are weighing down on him equally. The phrase “the Devil on me” by itself implies, probably unseriously, that Lupe has sold his soul, like the classic deal-with-the-Devil tales go, in exchange for a chance in the limelight.
The second verse of the song illustrates the dangers and side effects of fame and, more specifically, stage performing. It kicks off with this passage:
“And you better wear your shades,
The spotlights here can burn holes through the stage,
Down through the basement, past the Indian graves, where the dinosaurs lay,
And out through China, nearly misses airliners,
Magnified times five; this is pointed at the rhymer
Ricochets off the moon and sets the forest ablaze”
The line that states “the spotlights here can burn holes through the stage” uses a hyperbolic metaphor to describe the amount of pressure put on the performing artist The preceding line saying “you better wear your shades” is a warning of sorts to such artists, telling them that it would be in their best interests to prepare for such pressure. The third line talks about the negative effects on what is sacred and disregard for history. “Past Indian graves” means the unearthing of Native American burial grounds, an act which is viewed as disrespectful and believed to bring about supernatural hauntings. “Where the dinosaurs lay” implies this metaphorical beam of light carelessly tearing through what archaeologists take months to uncover and preserve. The words “out through China” illustrate the music's impact on the world as a whole, the fact that it is made known on the other half of the world. The following line is telling the performer that all the stage lights' impacts that have been previously stated will come back and point to him, increasing the pressure he has to bear. The last line of the excerpt, implies that eventually, all these events will accelerate far beyond the control of the performer (“ricochets off the moon”) and will cause disastrous and detrimental, albeit glorious and exciting to witness, effects on the world (“sets the forest ablaze”). The ricocheting off the moon part also has an additional meaning, taking the notion that any light from the moon is simply a reflection of light from the sun.
The next set of bars alludes to a certain misplaced hope assumed by both the musicians and the fans, followed by an analogy of a man about to face the death penalty.
“Now that's important to say,
Cause even with all that, most of us don't want it to fade,
We want it to braid, meaning we want it to grow, meaning we want it to stay,
Like the governor called, and they told him to wait,
Unstrap him from the chair and put him back in his cage.”
The “don't want it to fade” line relates back to the previous one about setting a forest ablaze. While a grand and magnificent flame can be awe-inspiring, it only lasts for so long. This is further exemplified with the next line, stated from the point of the view of the fans, who want to are vainly hoping for their favorite hyped-up artist to actually make something of himself rather than quickly burn out. The next lines take a more metaphorical route, directly illustrating a man who has been sentenced to death by the electric chair, but has been pardoned by the man on top, who wants him to continue serving in prison. This represents corporate executives of the music industry (“the governor”) not allowing the artists to simply die out quickly and painlessly (“unstrap him from his chair”), but rather to keep him as a slave to the industry and record label (“put him back in his cage”) and use him to make as much money as possible with him until he is completely dry (analogous to rotting away in a prison cell).
The final lines of the verse are focused on the fans and their collective dissatisfaction, illustrating a lack of applause, demands for refunds, and unrewarded patience. The concluding line in particular, “they've been waiting since ten to see the lights get dim,” tells us of a concert in which the performer has yet to show up on stage for apparently some time, much to the disdain of the fans.
The final verse continues to illustrate the goings-on at a concert, beginning with these four bars:
“So chauffeur chauffeur come and take me away,
Cause I've been standing in this line for like five whole days,
Me and security ain't getting along,
And when I got to the front, they told me all of the tickets were gone”
The line about being “taken away” means that he wants to be removed from all the hectic action of his hyped-up lifestyle to find something more relaxing. The following line can mean two things; the first is a literal depiction of fans waiting in an exceedingly long line to purchase tickets, and also the fact that Lupe himself has been waiting and trying for something rewarding to happen to his career. This double meaning continues on with the next two bars, which, taken literally, depicts restless fans that have been waiting for too long to find out that, exactly as the line says, “all of the tickets are gone.” We can once again apply this to Lupe's relationship with the industry, how he's spent all this time working his way to fame while still retaining his sense of individuality by going against the norm (me and security ain't getting along), but by the time he reaches stardom status, he realizes that it's the inverse of what he expected and wanted it to be.
The next few lines summarize the feeling of disappointment that follows the previous excerpt, and expresses somewhat of a feeling of regret:
“So just take me home where the mood is mellow,
And the roses are grown, M&M' are yellow,
And the light bulbs around my mirror don't flicker”
The first line of this reiterates the fact that Lupe wants to separate himself from this lifestyle, this time specifically being taken home, where he can truly feel relaxed. The part about the roses directly means that at home, contrast to the music business, roses and other symbols of peacefulness are present, but can also mean that no one that chooses to live in the fast lane has any time to stop and admire a blossom. The following line takes the classic archetype of the mirrors in the dressing rooms of stars (a mirror perimetered by light bulbs), Lupe desires the record label to provide a comfortable atmosphere for him. It is also symbolic of his desire to have a consistent (un-flickering) stable career in the industry, which is rather hard to obtain.
The next lines shift the perspective, where a performer is directly addressing his audience at a concert, then goes on to narrate the critical reception thereof:
“Everybody gets a nice autographed picture,
One for you and one for your sister,
Who had to work tonight but is an avid listener,
Every song's a favorite song and mikes don't feedback,
All the reviewers say you need to go and see that”
The first three lines of this excerpt are, as previously stated, from the viewpoint of a performer addressing his audience. It illustrates him signing photographs for each of his fans, including those who were unable to show up for the concert. The third line is special, as it takes into account the fact that there are many fans out there who are unable to fully appreciate the works of an artist due to demanding lifestyles of their own, and are somewhat deprived because of it. The following two lines state the fact that the concert was considered a success by critics, made clear by the fact that “all the reviewers” recommend others to attend upcoming shows. The “every song's a favorite song” testifies to the fact that the fans themselves greatly enjoyed the act as well, and the “mikes don't feedback” relates back to that line about the light bulbs around his mirror. It essentially tells us that the equipment and management production of the concert was up-to-par, and everything went smoothly.
The third verse ends on an upbeat note, following suit after the mostly positive excerpt above:
“And everybody claps cause everybody is pleased,
Then they all take the stage and start performing for me,
like 'ha ha ha ha ha'...
'ha ha ha ha ha, ha'”
Again, this reiterates the fact that the audience was generally satisfied with the concert. The final bit take a more surreal tone, with Lupe stating that he would like to see his fans perform for him. This can be taken to mean that he hopes his music inspires others to do positive, productive things with their lives. The final verse ends with laughter slowly fading away, letting us know that everything has all worked out in the end for the better.
So, that's all there is to it. But before I go, I should probably add a couple side notes. When this song was written in 2007, Lupe Fiasco was planning to retire from the music business after the release of his to-have-been following album, titled LupE.N.D. (now to be titled Lasers). This could add more meaning to certain parts of the song, for example the “come and take me away” line. Also, during this analysis, the hook (performed by Matthew Santos) and the instrumental have been omitted, leaving only Lupe's rapped verses, leaving no real musical tone to be analyzed. However, it should be noted that while performing the song, Lupe begins to add a minor melody to his rhyme beginning with the “take me home” line, incidentally where the general mood gets more light-hearted.
Well, that's the song in a nutshell. If you are still reading this I commend you for getting this far. Thanks for listening, and have a good night.