Kick, Push

Kick, Push


An Adolescent Love Story

June 2018, Phoenix


We were cruising in a Silver Honda Civic along the Arizona highway. My cheeks stung red from the heat, brow furrowed as I rolled a blunt. 

Omar rested his hand on the ignition, absentmindedly driving with his knees. Lily sat in the passenger seat, while Khalil, Yusif, and Zain all piled into the back seats, arguing about where to stop for dinner. I sat on Zain’s* lap, shouting when Omar took a sharp right onto the inner roads, careening my body against the passenger door. The weed scattered all over the carpet like ashes. 

“My bad!” he yelled over the speakers as Lily nudged him on my behalf. “I forgot this was our exit.” 

We ended up at McDonald’s.

Weeks earlier, Zain and I had walked along the canal by South Mountain in South Phoenix, past the crops and livestock towards the skate park. He had recently moved to Phoenix from Seattle to attend a football academy in Casa Grande. 

I liked him almost immediately. His dark brown eyes turned amber in the sunlight, and his curly black hair fell over his eyes every time we skated. A first-generation Moroccan-Algerian immigrant, he would teach me little phrases in Arabic and French, referring to me as habibi, my love.

South Phoenix was the underbelly of the city. A food desert of middle-class cookie-cutter family homes, it was like looking into a sea of brown: brown houses, brown mountains, brown underbrush, brown skin. Immigrant communities self-segregated in different areas, but in the skate park cultures collided—Mexican, Aboriginal, Arab, Filipino—we were all the same, with parents who worked long shifts and a handful of younger siblings to boss around. 

Between skating, we would sit on the side of the slope where the shadow of the trees blocked the sun, legs hanging off into the abyss. 

“Wanna take a listen? This reminds me of you,” he told me. Taking his iPod and earphones out of his pocket, he stuck one in my ear and one in his own.

I heard a click before lush, orchestral instrumentation swelled over static, building into a drum loop melee. It wasn’t long before an urban, slightly nasally voice sat over the track: “First got it when he was six, didn’t know any tricks / Matter of fact, first time he got on it, he slipped,” Lupe Fiasco rapped about a boy skating through stages of life—childhood, dating, marriage, and adulthood

Later along in the verse, Fiasco raps, “Labeled a misfit, a bandit,” referencing him being labeled as a misfit by society because what he did was different—while many kids in his Chicago neighborhood joined gangs and sold drugs, Lupe decided to do his own thing and skate. Born into a Muslim Black Panther-affiliated household, he was a loner. He hated hip-hop, holding a preference for Jazz and writing poetry.

It wasn’t until his late teens that, inspired by Nas’s It Was Written, Fiasco began rapping. His eclectic musical style wasn’t embraced until much later when Jay-Z, President of Def Jam Records, told him he reminded of a younger version of himself. It was a spiral effect: soon after, he was signed to Atlantic Records, featured on “Touch the Sky” in Kanye West’s Late Registration (2005), and debuted his first album, Food & Liquor (2006) to critical acclaim. 

Zain told me all this as we poured over the album, whose songs covered topics from absent fathers to misconceptions of Islam in America. Before then, I never really understood the art and lyricism of hip-hop, especially since my parents had drilled into me that it glorified all the world’s evils. In my strict Catholic household, saying a curse word or talking out of line was an instant death sentence.

Listening to Fiasco was like constantly solving word puzzles—every line was that intricate and referenced. Before the era where you could scan through lyrical analysis on Genius, you had to wind back the track and dissect the wordplay. Zain and I would do that for hours, pouring through every track til the sun went down.

Up until that point, the furthest I had strayed from my father’s 70s rock was Joni Mitchell, Amy Winehouse, Fiona Apple, and Regina Spektor—I loved a singer-songwriter. Their pain was riveting; my life was boring. Fiasco, and in turn, hip hop, interrupted my sonic landscape. There was no soundtrack for my joy until Lupe Fiasco.

In retrospect, there is such a funny dichotomy to Kick, Push. Skateboarding? Hip hop? Those two wouldn’t appear to go together. But that’s what was so special about Lupe. He made even the biggest misfits feel like they were on top of the world. 

The chorus was a metaphor for life: “kick, push, kick push, and coast.” We felt invincible; it was our anthem. As the summer progressed, so did my music taste. I wanted to listen to Nas, who Fiasco cited as an inspiration for Food & Liquor. From Nas, I became engrossed in the East Coast vs. West Coast feud, pouring over the likes of Tupac, Biggie, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Outkast. Soon, my taste for the 90s bled into the realm of R&B, and from there, my love for Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Lauryn Hill bloomed.

While Fiasco was somewhat of an intimate experience shared only between Zain and me, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the crew bumping Illmatic or Stankonia as we sped across the Phoenix desert.

We spent our summers doing what dumb kids with working parents and newly acquired driver’s licenses do: wasting our minimum wage checks on gas money and 7-Eleven slushies, practicing our tricks at the skatepark, and hotboxing in church parking lots. I remember one time when Yusif broke his ankle skating and we had to call up his mother at work to meet us at Urgent Care. She walked in cursing him out in Arabic. The five of us sat in a line of clinic chairs for what felt like hours, being scolded as if we were kindergarteners in time out. We were just like that—inseparable in the best of times and worst of times. 

I never became good at skating, even though there was a small period of time when I changed my Instagram username to @skateboardsaresofuckingcool. While skateboarding was just one of many obsessive phases of my adolescence, it spurred a relationship with surprising depth for two 16-year-olds. 

In retrospect, there is such a funny dichotomy to Kick, Push. Skateboarding? Hip hop? Those two wouldn’t appear to go together. But that’s what was so special about Lupe. He made even the biggest misfits feel like they were on top of the world.

But polarity extended far beyond Fiasco’s music. Zain, while showing promise as a D1 athlete coming from a family of footballers, began a side hustle as a dealer our junior year. It wasn’t long before that side hustle became all anyone knew him for. I, on the other hand, was always glued to my textbooks, dead set on getting out of Arizona. 

There’s a line in “Kick, Push” that represents this tension to me perfectly when the protagonist meets his girlfriend: “He said, ‘I would marry you / But I’m engaged to these aerials and varials.’” There was a lot of love between Zain and me, but he wasn’t going to leave his hustle for me. 

So I moved 2,000 miles away. 


February 2022, New York


My relationship experiences after Zain were laughable, and Lupe Fiasco managed to find his way into all of them. My college ex, a music producer, and I originally bonded over our love of Food & Liquor when we met at the start of freshman year. 

We dated for over a year, eventually breaking up when I found out he was hooking up with his bandmate.

We had gotten tickets to see Lupe Fiasco that February, but none of my friends knew more than the chorus of “Superstar.” I ended up attending the concert with a random dude I met through a friend of a friend. 

I remember walking into Brooklyn Steel, two wide-eyed nineteen-year-old kids surrounded by a bunch of hip-hop old heads in glasses and hoodies. I think that’s when it first really hit me that I was not his target audience—far from it. 

Watching Lupe onstage was electric. He had an air of self-confidence in his demeanor, from the way that he walked the stage to the rhythmic pronunciation of his consonants. Yet standing in the crowd, all I could think about was Zain. Here I was, watching the most important artist of my adolescence with a complete stranger. I knew every lyric to every song, my high-pitched voice drowned out by a sea of baritones. 

The whole time, the guy and I exchanged one or two words. To this day, I still can’t recall his name.

“I like your shoes,” he said as we left. I remember thinking, you waited through this whole concert to say a word to me, and that’s what you came up with?

It wasn’t until I saw the look on his face that I realized I was crying. It sunk in that he was probably doing a favor for a friend of the broken-hearted girl who had an uncharacteristic obsession with Lupe Fiasco, and I felt so utterly pathetic.  

I stuttered out a reply that faintly resembled a “thank you,” and then his Uber was there. His car was diminished into a speck in the darkness, and I never saw him again. 


July 2022, New York


I put Lupe Fiasco in my back pocket for a while. It wasn’t until the summer of 2022 that I started listening to his music again. I remember finding a copy of his sophomore album The Cool (2007) at this record store on Avenue A and 6th St. and adding it to my collection.

I put it on one time when a dude I was seeing was over, eager to show off my record collection. I had sworn off musicians and pivoted back to athletes, who (unsurprisingly) weren’t much better. 

“Who’s that?” he said.

“Lupe Fiasco,” I replied. 

“Lupe Fiasco?” he scoffed, a slightly amused smile painting his face. “You mean that dude who had like one hit in the early 2000s?”

We had a fight that night. It was the first time it registered to me that most of the hip-hop world considered Lupe Fiasco to be corny, to have fallen off, to be a one-hit-wonder. He would tease me about my love for him all the time, dragging on about how I was still in love with my high school ex and that was the only reason I hung onto the music.

But that’s not why I’d clung to the music. When I left for New York back in August 2020, I blocked out a lot of my past, and to this day, guilt still bubbles up to the surface when I think about high school. It wasn’t just that I left, my family left too. 

The summer following my senior year, after Zain and I broke up, my family had moved to a more affluent part of Phoenix, where the lawns were grass instead of dirt and the houses weren’t all painted the same stucco brown. We had a community association that yelled at people if there was a patch of brown or if their grass wasn’t cut perfectly. Our neighbors across the street were the equivalent of American royalty: a retired football quarterback, his Fox Arizona morning anchor wife, and two kids with names like Brayden and Paisley who attended 40k-a-year private Catholic school. 

A lot of the people I grew up with never left South Phoenix. Omar works at a Verizon that replaced our old smoke shop. Lily just had her second baby. I don’t keep in touch with any of them, aside from an occasional comment on social media or happy birthday text. There came a point where time and distance had taken their toll, and we were suspended in that awkward space between stranger and friend. 

Zain fell off the grid, and I never bothered looking for him. In a way, I knew that was a path that I could never follow. 

And yet I miss the girl at the skatepark. The girl who believed wholeheartedly that the world was ours. Before he began dealing, Zain and I would drive up to an overlook on South Mountain surveying the sunset over the horizon of the downtown skyscape, talking about our dreams of moving to New York City. He would play a new album we hadn’t listened to, and we would lie back in our seats, watching the world go by as the soundscape filled the car. 

Thinking back, those were probably some of the shittiest car speakers I’ve ever heard. The bass was overpowering, and once you cranked the volume all the way up, the high-pitched tones got distorted. Maybe it was the bud or the dazed love or a combination of both, but I rarely noticed. In an alternate world, maybe we would’ve done the same here, overlooking Manhattan from the pier at Brooklyn Bridge Park. We would’ve eaten takeout Joe’s Pizza while binge-watching Community from my cramped East Village apartment, pulling all-nighters studying at Bobst. 

Zain was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He would read psychology journals to better understand his older brother’s bipolar disorder. He challenged our teachers on the daily with perspectives that made them second-guess their regurgitation of dated textbooks. He even taught himself colloquial French one summer out of boredom. I begged and begged and begged him to go to college, but he wasn’t interested. It took me getting to that point of desperation to realize I couldn’t choose someone’s life trajectory for them. 

I walked into my freshman year of college trying to chase, reconcile, perhaps even bargain with the ghost of him. I couldn’t think about Fiasco’s music without thinking about him, and the association triggered a lot of pain. It took me so long to realize that to let Zain go, I needed to let Lupe Fiasco occupy a space in the back of my brain, tucked away with all the memories. 

The “Kick, Push” intro ends with the line, “I dedicate this one right here / To all my homies out there grinding / You know what I’m saying? Legally and illegally, haha.”1

This one is for you, Zain, wherever you are.

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