Lupe Fiasco: ‘I am a hostage’ -- struggles through difficult creative process for new ‘Lasers’ album

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UPDATED 7:52 p.m.: With Atlantic’s one-sentence statement …

Lupe Fiasco‘s “Lasers” album finally will be released to the public this Tuesday. It’s been a long time coming — his last record was “The Cool” in 2007 — but it’s not at all the album the Chicago rapper wanted to make. His valiant attempts to buck up and promote it are downbeat and disheartening.

When I first chatted with Fiasco during some down time last week in New York City, I congratulated him on the album’s first single, “The Show Goes On,” which had just gone gold (selling 500,000 singles). He huffed, his whole attitude was “whatever” as he responded: “It’s their 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.”

He’s referring to Atlantic Records, the once historic label (founded by Ahmet Ertegun) now a subsidiary of the Warner Music Group. According to Fiasco, various players at Atlantic thwarted his artistic mission on this, his third album for the label — a process that dragged on for three years and ended only when several hundred fans scheduled a protest last October in downtown Chicago and outside the label’s New York City offices.

Ahead of the protests, Fiasco tweeted, “Victory!” and Atlantic suddenly announced a March 8 release date for the album. Fans gathered anyway, and eventually were greeted by a Warner exec brandishing a boom box. He played the song “The Show Must Go On,” and the fans applauded.

Now here comes “Lasers,” at long last. Songs include “Letting Go” and “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now.” On “Words I Never Said,” his sharp tongue attacks both sides, from right-wing commentators to President Obama. The music is lively, flexible, full of cool synthesizers. It doesn’t sound like a compromise.

But Fiasco said he’s just happy, if you can call it that, to see the record out there — mostly because it means he’s two albums closer to the end of his contract with Atlantic.

“‘Lasers’ is a great album. I’m actually happy with the record. I feel I got to say what I wanted even with –” He pauses, maybe frustrated, maybe choosing his words diplomatically. “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.”

From creative high to dangerous low

“The Cool” was released Dec. 18, 2007, and by Jan. 9, 2008, it had sold 198,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It eventually went gold. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s rap chart and stayed there for nine weeks. At the next Grammys, “The Cool” was up for best rap album, along with best rap/sung collaboration and best rap song (“Superstar” with local singer Matthew Santos) and best rap solo performance (“Paris, Tokyo”).

The successes capped a steady crescendo of acclaim. Fiasco — born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, raised around the South Side’s Madison Terrace housing projects, a devout Muslim who abstains from alcohol and drugs — had been signed to another major (Epic Records) at age 19 as a member of a gangsta rap group called Da Pak. With the assistance of Jay-Z (who calls Fiasco a “genius writer”), Fiasco moved to Atlantic, debuting with “Food & Liquor” in 2006, which featured production by friend and champion Kanye West and received critical raves for its bold sounds and intelligent wordplay.

So when Fiasco met with Atlantic to talk terms for his third album, he felt he was on pretty great footing.

“If ‘The Cool’ was a success, I was supposed to get a bump in the budget for my next record,” Fiasco said. “When I went in to cash in on that, I was told ‘The Cool’ wasn’t a success. I said, ‘Well, how do you gauge that? Even if you leave off the multiple Grammys, the accolades up the ass, the platinum singles, take out the subjective stuff. How many records actually sold?’ They said it wasn’t a success and we’re changing the game, we don’t go by that anymore. So I said, ‘Let’s not have any more meetings until we figure out what rules we’re playing by.'”

A stalemate began, and Fiasco started to squirm. At a 2008 performance in Chicago, he suggested he would retire, promising one final record to be titled “LupE.N.D.” — a three-CD concept album, with discs representing “everywhere,” “nowhere” and “down here.” He told Billboard that year: “My next record might be my last one.” By June 2009, he promised an audience at the Chicago Theatre that a single disc, now called “The Great American Rap Album,” would be out by December.

Meanwhile, Atlantic had frozen his budget, and Fiasco was asking to be let go. The label refused. Jay-Z was offering to mediate negotiations. Darrale Jones, Fiasco’s A&R rep at Atlantic and the man who’d signed him, has told other publications that the music Fiasco continued to deliver “wasn’t commercial enough.” (Jones and other label execs were asked to comment for this story. After much deliberation, Atlantic Records on Wednesday released a prepared statement instead. It reads, in its entirety: “We fully support Lupe and the release of ‘Lasers.'”)

“I was specifically told” — Fiasco chuckled — “‘Don’t rap too deep on this record.'” He laughed some more. “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.”

Fiasco said he spiraled into real depression, even contemplating suicide — but he kept writing. He documents his struggles, in a general way, throughout the song “Beautiful Lasers”: “Sometimes livin’ in a word like this / it’s pretty hard not to go insane,” he raps, later considering bailing back to the South Side (“Go home, sh–‘s far too gone“) and then peering into the abyss while hearing contradicting internal voices:

All you see is all my rights

All I see is all my wrongs

Door keep telling me to fight

Gun on my table telling me to come home

Telling me to to put him inside my hand

Then put it up right next to my dome

Door keep telling me to find a reason

Anything to keep me from squeezing

Simplest things, yeah, you really like summer

You really like music, you really like reading, love

I can’t win if it’s me against me

One of us ain’t gonna survive

“He started doing that record on stage, and I was shocked,” said Jason Evans, a k a JROC, Fiasco’s cousin who works A&R for Fiasco’s Chicago-based independent label, First & 15th Productions. “He would introduce it, he’d say, ‘I wrote this record when I was at a real down point in my life.’ It was like a confession. That’s how I found out, and we talked throughout that tour. It was shocking that he’d come so low because he’s so mentally strong. … He’s 100 percent Muslim, very religious, and his father instilled all kinds of moral strength into his upbringing. It had to be bad if it came to that.”

Doing his duty

Fiasco’s fans tried to have his back. When summer of 2010 rolled around and still no news of the new album, two protest marches were scheduled in New York and Chicago. Dan Winchester, a local video producer, organized the Oct. 15 (“Fiasco Friday”) event here. Even though the release date was announced a few days before, about 200 fans still showed up at Buckingham Fountain that afternoon and marched north along Michigan Avenue, carrying signs of support.

“Instead of an outright protest, it became a statement march,” Winchester said. “We definitely made a statement — that we support positive music, that we’re not going to stand for corporations watering down music to be all pop and all sound the same. Once you sign a contract like that, they control everything about it. That’s what they’ve been doing with Lupe, and we wanted to stand with him and against that corporate meddling.”

Fiasco heard about the planned protest online. “Somebody kept spamming my Twitter page about it, the same guy, over and over,” he said. “I was like, all right, chill out. But they really meant it. It was a full-on, full-blown angry protest. Then we had the meeting with Atlantic and they set a date, so it became a celebration. They still had 250 kids out there [in New York]. … I went. I had to see it with my own two eyes.”

Fiasco said the confluence of collective action and movement at Atlantic helped bring him around.

“I’m OK now. I’m happy, I’m stable,” he said. “I’ve distanced myself from the situation emotionally and spiritually. It doesn’t affect me. I found a nice balance to navigate through it without it leading to me killing myself, literally.”

The process of finishing “Lasers” he described with words one hates to hear from a creative artist. He “hunkered down” and “got through it.” He “went along,” he “acquiesced.” He “found some emotional distance from the music.” He “lost those aspirations.”

“I am a hostage,” Fiasco said. “I gave them what they wanted. If I didn’t, at the end of the day the album wasn’t coming out.”

“The Great American Rap Album” was recorded simultaneously with “Lasers.” It’s a “different sound” and should be released by the end of this year, he said. After that, maybe a greatest hits.

Meanwhile, Fiasco talks like a bored cubicle worker watching the clock, waiting for quitting time.

“There are certain expectations I don’t have anymore. There are certain things I’ll keep for myself now until they can be received the way I want them to be received. You’ll still get albums, and they’ll be good.”

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