03.14.11

Lupe Fiasco's Revenge

After his label told him, "We want Top 40," and delayed his album release, the No. 1 success of Lasers is sweet. Now, Fiasco says, they're not "allowed to tell me what to do."

When some highly anticipated, long-gestating piece of ambitious pop goes back to the drawing board multiple times, the public rarely prepares for a world-beating success to emerge at the end of the process. (Two words: Chinese Democracy. Also think of all those movies hurled into theaters without having to suffer the critics’ gauntlet.) But then there are the exceptions. This week’s No. 1 album belongs to Lupe Fiasco, the Chicago-born rapper who hasn’t been heard from since 2007’s The Cool. And yet the instant commercial success of his third long-player, titled Lasers, also belongs, unofficially, to the school of corporate meddling, as well as that uneasy (if age-old) negotiation between art and commerce.

During its three-year logjam, Lasers inspired both significant label intervention (plus some foot-dragging) and artist agita, as well as murmurings of a fan-organized protest outside the offices of Atlantic Records last fall—just before Atlantic up and agreed to the March 8 release date.

While sitting in the 27th-floor lounge of his corporate parent during the month before Lasers' release, Fiasco told The Daily Beast that he initially felt he was "creating new music" with his first draft. Then came the pressure from his label to take a pop turn. "That's what the record label made me do," Fiasco said. "I asked 'What album do you want at this point? You're shitting on my creative [process] and what have you.' ... And they said, 'We want Top 40. We want No. 1 smashes.' ... So the focus for everybody, from A&R [people] down to the writers that I write with, went to: 'Let's get these smashes, write these big-ass hooks and get these big humongous beats.'"

In the end, Atlantic Records got what it wanted. One day after Lasers came out, the industry site Hits Daily Double projected around 200,000 copies would be sold in the first week of release. And in truth, Lasers is inarguably more poppy—and more obsessively built to please radio programmers—than anything else in Fiasco's catalog. Even so, it still boasts the rapper's socially-engaged imprint, in parts, as when Fiasco calls out (for various reasons) Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, President Barack Obama, and Muslim extremists during just one verse from “Words I Never Said,” a single off of Lasers.

The right-wing media giants take their knocks for playing to themes of racial resentment. The president is criticized for not responding critically to Israel's most recent bombing campaign in Gaza. And Islamic extremists get called out as "not observant" by the rapper, whose given name is Wasalu Muhammad Jaco—and who says he makes a concerted effort to pray at local mosques while on tour. And in conversation, Fiasco is ready to hit even more surprise notes. "I agree with some of what the Republicans say. They have really good values. You know, stand up for yourself and work hard. ... One thing I've learned watching Fox News and CNN and watching these pundits is: You have to see both sides."

About his future relationship with his record label, Fiasco said, “You’re not even allowed to tell me what to do at all.”

What's compelling about all that social nuance is how, in recent years, the commercial crown has tended to go to the unabashedly ambitious pop strivers as opposed to the prickly social critics. And you'd have to go back to Radiohead, and their album Kid A, to find an act as indifferent to the prospect of a No. 1 debut—even if Lasers can feel as much a work-for-hire effort as Kid A (which Fiasco says he admires) was uncompromising. "Some of it was actually fun," Fiasco now says about the seemingly endless re-writing process. "You know, I could go either way. I could be a commercial artist and do what you tell me to do—as long as I know what the premise is, and as long as you not on no bullshit with it. Or I can be the abstract dude."

Spend some time with Fiasco and you can watch him straddle that line all day long. A recent whirlwind day in New York kicked off with a taping for MTV in the morning (for their show When I Was 17, in which pop notables reminisce for the teenage set about their own adolescent years) before Fiasco's crew dashed over to the Blue Note jazz club for his soundcheck ahead of that evening's performances with the Robert Glasper Experiment, a sophisticated (but also street-wise) modern ensemble that often incorporates hip-hop moves into its swing. In the afternoon, between that soundcheck and his two sets at the Blue Note in the evening, there was a live-streaming chat online with fans who had logged on to Fiasco's Facebook page, mediated by the audio-video team at Atlantic Records HQ. And then there was a Maxim phoner. No one else in pop runs quite this cultural gamut at the moment—and certainly not while holding down the top spot on the Billboard chart with rhymes about the politics of Gaza.

Fiasco does, for the record, remain ambivalent about being so often represented in the media as a "Muslim rapper"—an identity he doesn't shy away from, but which he feels is sometimes lobbed about carelessly. "I never wanted to be ‘the Muslim rapper’; I never wanted that title. People like to put that on for whatever political coloring they wanna use. ... But you know: Muhammad wouldn't go into a building with a bomb strapped to his chest. He wouldn't do that. I hope he wouldn't do that. And if he did, I don't wanna be Muslim, to be honest!"

Perhaps one constant, then, in Fiasco's life is that he reserves the prerogative to quit something once it no longer feels right. Before his Facebook chat with fans began, an assistant reminded him that at an upcoming show sponsored by Walmart, the vibe was meant to be "family-friendly." Fiasco asked for some more clarity—did that mean he could swear or not? The assistant demurred, and just repeated the phrase "family-friendly" a few more times, like the euphemism it was. Fiasco then morphed from seeming somewhat bored to assuming a mischievous quality, as he boldly joked-slash-proclaimed to the room: "We have a banner that says: 'Fuck That!'" After his morning taping at MTV had run late, Fiasco decided to cancel an appearance for Best Buy, in order to protect his rehearsal time with Glasper's band. "It’s gonna be two sets tonight," Lupe told his Atlantic handler. "I'm not gonna half-ass this shit for the sake of Best Buy. And I like Best Buy!"

Fiasco's choice turned out to be the right call. His first set that evening at the Blue Note did not feel half-assed in the slightest, even when Fiasco and Glasper traded between-song "your mama so fat" banter. The slightly abstracted versions of Fiasco's songs—both familiar (like "Kick, Push") and less so ("I'm Beamin'")—took on a new kind of vitality at the storied jazz haunt. And the rapper seemed to know this, even during rehearsal.

Afterward, when walking out to a waiting SUV, he reminded everyone in his crew that he and Glasper could release the live versions of those songs without Atlantic Records having anything to say about it, if they wanted. "I own the publishing," he said, and added that the performance came off live all the way, without any reliance on the master tracks (which Atlantic does have rights over). "They don't have a choice on the next one," Fiasco told The Daily Beast later that night, back up on the 27th floor of his record company's office. "The way I'm putting it out now is: What some of you guys sent me through, you'll never have a say-so on a project of mine ever again. That conversation between us is done. You're not even allowed to tell me what to do at all." A record with Glasper, if it ever materializes, would most certainly not be a lock to top anything but the jazz chart. But after a three-year corporate fight that results in a smash hit, one thing you earn, it seems, is the freedom not to care.

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Seth Colter Walls has been a senior reporter in "The Culture" section of Newsweek magazine since 2009. Previously, he worked as a writer and editor at The Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon, and as a reporter in The Huffington Post's DC bureau. He regularly contributes essays to The Awl, and is a graduate of both NYU and Columbia University.