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Lupe Fiasco's story is a strange one. He made his name as an off-kilter rapper with an urgent message of social justice and sometimes anti-corporate sentiment, but he made his debut on Atlantic Records, one of the largest music corporations in the world. With the backing of both Kanye West and Jay-Z on his first album, Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor, Fiasco seemed to be taking (corporate) hip-hop by storm. The album, released in 2006, received rave reviews, and Fiasco found himself listed as GQ's "Breakout Man of the Year", among other pop culture honors. Critics called the album "bold and different" and "one of the best rap albums of 2006." But from the start, there seemed to be a sentiment that Lupe could afford to bring his grandstanding tone down a notch. "He doesn't have to be a savior," wrote Pitchfork. "There's no one to save."
At 23, Lupe Fiasco did come off as an emcee with a mission. Raised on Chicago's West Side by devout Muslims who were also political activists (his father had been a Black Panther), Wasalu Muhammad Jaco openly admits that he didn't initially love hip-hop. Sexist lyrics and materialistic bragging drove him the other away, especially since his Muslim religion includes teachings against drinking and materialism. But he came to love the music for its catchy sway and open creative potential, and he began to hone his skills as an emcee around age sixteen. He worked his way up to an appearance on a Kanye West track, and the rest is history.
Well, maybe it wasn’t that easy. After his breakthrough moment, Fiasco got famous fast, but fame didn't quite suit him. Even on his debut album, when he was more than knee deep into the land of pop-rap and corporate control, he kept his politics as far to the left as he could get away with on a major record label (see, for example, Food and Liquor's "American Terrorist"). As early as 2006, he could be found giving interviews about his critiques of corporate-controlled music. He released a follow-up album, Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, and again he was hailed by critics, but it fell short of being a classic. Then in 2008, Fiasco rather oddly announced his retirement, which was to be marked by the release of a three-disc album called LupE.N.D.
That turned out to be an awkward announcement, for a few reasons. First of all, as of 2011, Fiasco does not appear to have actually retired. Second, LupE.N.D. still does not exist. In fact, after LupE.N.D. was announced in 2008, years went by without the release of any third Fiasco album. It seemed Lupe had gotten into a power struggle with Atlantic record execs and producers. Among other things, they wanted top-40s hits, while he wanted more raw, political material. They wanted him to sign a 360 deal, which he refused (these deals give record companies a cut of just about everything the artist does). About Atlantic, Fiasco said publicly, "They think I'm whack." And there you have the heart of the problem: Lupe Fiasco's independence and originality had finally gone head-to-head with Atlantic's big-box mentality.
The standoff got increasingly heated, and without Lupe's urging, fans started an online petition demanding the release of the album. One thing led to another, and in October 2010 Fiasco fans actually protested around the world. More than 200 people showed up outside of Atlantic's New York offices, receiving a defensive visit from the CEO and a delighted visit from Lupe, who seemed genuinely tickled and a little humbled by the show of support. Well, sometimes direct action works. Soon after the protests, Atlantic promised the public a release date.
When the first single on the album, the Kanye-produced track "The Show Goes On," was finally released, fans and critics were pretty pleased (the song also samples Modest Mouse, a big bonus for indie rock geeks). But Lupe told the press that he felt he'd been duped: "It's their [Atlantic's] record. My words, their music. They forced this song to be a No. 1 single, and that's what they got. I can't take any credit for it." Weirdly, "The Show Goes On" is an uplifting celebration of an artist overcoming obstacles in order to get out and give a great show to a loving audience. Atlantic got their big hit, and in March 2011, along came Lasers.
The overwhelming response was that Fiasco’s third album was, well, underwhelming. New Music Express and a host of other reviewers had kind words, but for only two tracks on the album. "Save for the brief reprieves of the barbed, anti-everything 'Words I Never Said' and the historical rewrite of 'All Black Everything', Lasers walks a fine line between conscious hip-hop and sleepwalking," they moaned. At Pop Matters, one reviewer wrote, "My jaw remains affixed to the ground, my main goal from this point onwards remains to never hear Lasers in its entirety again."
Fiasco blames Atlantic for the dumbing down of his music and message on Lasers. Although the album debuted at #1, Fiasco himself went on record saying that he was a "hostage" to Atlantic and claiming to both love and hate the album. Commercial success was already in his corner, but the artistic compromise was a huge letdown. "I was specifically told, 'Don't rap too deep on this record,’" Fiasco said to the Chicago Sun Times. "That was a specific order from the top. 'You're rapping too fast or too slow, or it's too complex.' ... There are consequences and combat that comes from that process and the eventual compromise. With me, though, I'm not writing about someone else. I'm writing about me. This is my life. It's very personal for me. So for somebody to kind of put their fingers in that and play with that, it becomes more damaging." He even spoke about being suicidal while making this album. It seems that the corporate game really got to him.
The only redemption that a lot of critics saw for the album was none other than its final single, "Words I Never Said," which manages to be a complex and edgy political condemnation even as it incorporates a predictable, catchy hook and the synthy pop sound some reviewers so hated. "'Words I Never Said' is like B.o.B's 'Airplanes' or Eminem's 'Love the Way You Lie' with a dash of early-'90s Ice Cube and a whole bunch of Evanescence angst," wrote Spin magazine. "Armed with that wonky combination, Fiasco smuggles 9/11 conspiracies and a fairly sophisticated take on the Middle East into a pop-rap anthem. Compared to Lasers' other confrontational crossover songs, 'Words' is an effective attempt at culture-jamming the Billboard charts."
Culture jamming? We thought that was supposed to be some sort of anti-commercial enterprise that made fun of the big wigs who control the media and limit freedom of expression through corporate control. It's a counter-cultural movement typically led by people on the outside, not the inside, of big media outlets. Lupe may feel like a "hostage," but a contract with Atlantic is definite insider access. So was Lupe Fiasco culture jamming the top 40s or selling out to the big records companies? Is the fame he has gained by signing with Atlantic worth the pain and compromise he's attested to going through?
The mere existence of "Words I've Never Said," which attacks everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Barack Obama and everything from the War on Terror to television to diet soda, seems like pretty strong evidence for at least a slice of victory on Fiasco's end. Even an irritated reviewer at The Guardian (who called Lasers "occasionally likeable, sometimes excruciating") had a couple of kind words for "Words," calling it "an inspired blast of honed, intelligent, political frustration; Lupe targeting both easy targets – Glenn Beck, crooked bankers – and unexpected ones – Barack Obama, Islamic fundamentalists – before turning his attention to himself."
After everything that he’s been through, Lupe Fiasco probably won't go in for another big contract at Atlantic, although you never know. His story might also serve as a lesson for up-and-coming rappers with drive and vision but who don't want the artistic life sucked out of them. Plus, no one can accuse him of selling out down the road, since he basically did that already, whether or not he meant to. And "Words I Never Said" is a pretty impressive piece of political resistance for a #1 album on a major label.
What of the dissatisfied rapper himself? He still has a little love for Lasers. "Lasers is a great album," Fiasco told the Sun Times, who describe him choosing his words carefully. "I feel I got to say what I wanted even with… It doesn't make up for what it took to get through it. It's still being argued and debated upon. ... The climate of this record was very weird, in some instances surreal. I became very abstract. I had to create this commercial art that appeases the corporate side. I had to acquiesce to certain forces. Hopefully within that I snuck in some things I actually wanted to say any way I can."