Lupe Fiasco vs. Kendrick Lamar: Why “Stealing” Is Not A Crime For Artists (Video)

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Hi. We recently created AFH TV, Ambrosia For Heads’ streaming video service, because we believe real Hip-Hop deserves its own dedicated TV home, but we need your help to make it great. Please subscribe to AFH TV. It is only $1.99/month or $12/year, and already features some amazing content, but the best is yet to come. Thank you for all of your support.

Lupe Fiasco took umbrage with Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther soundtrack on social media last week, arguing the cover artwork for the film’s Kendrick Lamar and SZA-led soundtrack single, “All the Stars,” bears a remarkable resemblance to the artwork for his forthcoming album Drogas Wave.

Visual grievances aside, Lupe’s and Kendrick’s names have since remained in Hip-Hop headlines as Fiasco reignited the debate over lyrical supremacy between the two MCs. Lamar is “not a top-tier lyricist,” said Lupe in a Tweet that has since been deleted. In the immediate wake, Fiasco began addressing Top Dawg Entertainment directly, and plenty of heated discussion ensued across Twitter and elsewhere. Now, plagiarism in Rap music has resurfaced as a topic of debate in a way similar to the recent debates over ghostwriting.

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In this week’s TBD, Justin “The Company Man” Hunte tackles the story and its implications. Citing Lu’s extended accusations of Kendrick’s plagiarism against him (which include copying the all-black cover album idea for untitled unmastered from 2012’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1; applying the backwards-forwards track listing approach from 2015’s Tetsuo & Youth to DAMN.; and more), Hunte says the similarities between Lupe Fiasco and Kendrick Lamar have helped fan the flames of a “Lupe vs. Kendrick” debate for years. “We’re talking about two of the most important artists in Hip-Hop history, two arguable G.O.A.T. contenders who both cut through the muck by crafting timeless bodies of work without dumbing down to their eras,” he says.

Lupe’s ability to cut through the muck in the mid- to late-2000s was nothing short of a miracle. When Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, Papoose and Saigon were all shelved, Lupe Fiasco managed to not only achieve chart-topping success but did so without compromising his lyrical approach. “The spectacle-wearing kid from The Chi cuffing Kanye production and JAY-Z co-signs talkin’ about all the world’s ills from a third-person perspective” was at the top of his game and in a place very similar to Kendrick when good kid, m.A.A.d city dropped in 2012. Lupe is also considered a pioneer, and was pushing things like skateboarding, streetwear and Japanese culture into mainstream Rap years before rappers like Lil Wayne and, of course, Kendrick Lamar.

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But at what point do similarities become the result of stealing? “I don’t have an example of any truly great artist that hasn’t influenced a generation. Lupe absolutely has, and Kendrick is doing that right now,” says Hunte. “But I also don’t have any example of a truly great artist who hasn’t been accused of biting.” Beyoncé, Jigga and even Shakespeare have all been suspected of plagiarism to varying degrees and the persistence of these accusations throughout time suggests there’s more to it than one artist simply stealing from another – it’s a characteristic of the creative process, in general.

That’s the perspective in Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, a book by Austin Kleon which says so-called “original thinkers and creators are simply people who effectively learn to remix other people’s material,” Hunte says citing Kleon. “Originality isn’t about doing something that’s never been done in a strict sense, but it’s about the unique way in which an individual gives expression to his or her artistic influences.”

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Should simply inspiring greatness be considered something noble?