INTERVIEW

Lupe Fiasco isn’t retiring, but the making of his third album, ‘Lasers’, almost made him wish that he were.

Photography by Phil Sharp

Photography by Phil Sharp

LUPE FIASCO ISN’T RETIRING, BUT THE MAKING OF HIS THIRD ALBUM, ‘LASERS’, ALMOST MADE HIM WISH THAT HE WERE

“Are we still rolling?” asks Lupe Fiasco. We are. “I will always say that I hate this album.” It’s Valentine’s Day, two days before Lupe turns 29, twenty-two before the release of new album ‘Lasers’, and that is not what we were expecting to hear from a rapper on the promo trail.

Born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, in Chicago, Illinois, Lupe has challenged every hip hop cliché going since Jay Z got him a record deal and he released debut album ‘Food & Liquor’ in 2006. Now, it seems, he won’t even allow himself to talk up his latest release. It must be ironic, I think. “That’s modesty,” I say. Lupe lifts his chin again to check the tape is still spinning. “It’s anger.”

What follows is sixty minutes of Fiasco face-time where ‘that is not what we were expecting to hear’ could gleefully follow almost everything he says.

Having followed ‘Food & Liquor’ with the supremely sophisticated ‘The Cool’ in 2008 (a concept record that questioned every superficial bell and whistle attached to the aspirational world of hip hop), ‘Lasers’ (which stands for Love Always Shines, Every time Remember to Smile) is Lupe going over ground: swinging at the mainstream and trying to hit a Bieber. But it wasn’t his decision; it was his record label’s. And Lupe Fiasco, right now, is not their biggest fan.

“They said that ‘The Cool’ wasn’t successful,” he exclaims, “and I was like, ‘How the fuck did that happen? What map are you using?’ We got four Grammy nominations, we got 700,000 records sold, we got a single that went platinum; like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about!?’

“What I wholeheartedly believe is that they thought, we’ve had nothing to do with your success since we signed you. Like, ‘everything you’ve accumulated so far has nothing to do with us, and that has to change, or your records are not coming out! Ha Hah, take that, you little bastard!’ So it was that and just the traditional relationship between the record company and the artist, which has been worse through certain periods of time, and at the moment we have cookie-cutter acts, and also these 360 deals that are taking over the industry, where they want to be involved in everything you have, and that creates this immediate bias where you have the artists who aren’t 360 artists put on the back-burner because they’re not going to sell as many t-shirts as this guy who they have a t-shirt deal with.”

I remind Lupe that he still has three more records to make for Atlantic Records before they will release him from his six-album deal.

“I’m learning to deal with that,” he says, “I don’t give a fuck. I’ve said this in a couple of other interviews so it’s nothing groundbreaking or fresh, but while trying to figure out how to stay alive and keep my scruples and testicles in tact I realised that the only way to do it was to not give a fuck – to not care.”

That – and perhaps the jetlag from having flown to London from LA this morning – explains something. It explains why Lupe’s frustration at ‘Lasers’ is so calmly expressed. He never lets his rage excite him; he definitely never raises his voice. He’s cool like only a beaten man can be: comfortably numb in his acceptance. But he’s still pissed.

“It wasn’t about buying a bunch of cars to get over it,” he says. “It wasn’t flying here or going there or throwing your phone in the ocean and running away. It’s better to throw away your attachment to the situation, because the situation doesn’t really care about you, to be honest.

“There’s a certain section of your fanbase who don’t really care about you either,” he continues, “they care about the image of you. They’ll go away tomorrow. I could say some shit on the radio or in this interview that’ll piss off ten percent of my fanbase so much that they’d never buy my records again. So I have to stop caring, because I have always really cared about what these people think, and what these magazines think, and if I get this Grammy or not. I care about this shit too much. The goal now is to stay alive; the goal is to stay with your wits.”

From his horizontal position on a couch, Lupe then says something wholly shocking.

“I’m talking with a smile on my face, but I contemplated suicide,” he says. “I had deep, deep depression, y’know? In the midst of this record I had people dying – all of this extra stuff and then I’d go up to the record label and it was like sitting in an office with Lucifer’s minions. So when I look at this record there’s a certain level of, ‘I’ve achieved it!’, because I’m still here and this record is coming out and the music is positive, but it’s bitter sweet, and the bitter bit came first. This shit hurt. There was a part of me where I hated myself, to the point where I didn’t go to the record label for a solid year; I wouldn’t step foot in the building.”

Today, Lupe has graced Atlantic Records with his size nine biker boots, jewel-incrusted timepiece, indoor shades and obligatory low-slung jeans. We find him in the label’s velvety artists’ lounge, high above Kensington High Street, west London. And while he is lying on a sofa rather than in a Jacuzzi, alone and unarmed rather than surrounded by string bikinied girls and semi automatic weapons, he looks unquestionably like an international rap star. He’ll not stand for the glorification of pimps, pistols and shiny things, but he clearly enjoys some of the materialistic perks that come with being Lupe Fiasco.

His gun collection is easily explained – Lupe’s father was a military man who taught his son to shoot at an early age. “It wasn’t for the sake of robbing someone else or defending your turf in a drive-by,” he insists, “my father introduced me to guns by means of defending your family, but also by means of sport.” As for the Ferrari collection, that might take a little more explaining.

“I do have the things that a ‘conscious rapper’ shouldn’t have,” he admits. “My cheapest Ferrari cost me $13,000 dollars and it’s a piece of trash, but at the end of the day it’s still a Ferrari.”

And because it’s still a Ferrari that must fuck some people off.

“Certainly,” he nods. “It funny because I walk this line. There are some things that I’m challenging and there are some people who are on my side when challenging these things that would be adverse to what I have. Like, ‘you shouldn’t have that because you’re conscious of it…’

“It’s weird because there’s a duality in it all because there’s some things that I relate to, because I come from the streets; I come from the ghetto; I come from the have-nots. And I’ve been at the have-somewhat-more, AND I’m part of the haves! So when you put that scale on it there’s some things you aspire to and want that are grossly material, just for the sake of saying you have it and driving up in your car and saying, ‘Heeey, look at me!’ But there’s a difference between that and it being something that consumes you and takes over your whole life. Because there are some things that people can’t afford, and there’s a certain kind of injustice that is being done by dangling that in front of peoples’ faces, because some people will do anything to get that.”

Lupe admits “there’s a hypocrisy with me” but also notes that it’s a trait that lives in all human beings from all walks of life, not just in young, earnest rappers who then make enough money to buy the things they’ve always wanted. “Part of my responsibility is to say, ‘Look, I’ve got this and it’s not worth it,’” he says. And he points to his biggest single yet as an example of what it is he’s trying to achieve with his bitch-less lyrics.

“The stories I like to tell are about the non glamorous side of the glamorous things,” he explains. “Take ‘Superstar’, where, yeah, it is about fame and fortune and blah blah blah, but it’s also the black, dark side of it that they don’t tell you on the videos. You see the video girls but you don’t see the heartache and pain and the destruction and the drug abuse and alcoholism.”

At five or six Lupe was first introduced to NWA (again, by his father), which he hated. As ‘Hurt Me Soul’ from ‘Food & Liquor’ attests, it was “because the women were degraded.” He much preferred his dad’s curse-free Queen and Foreigner records, and Ravi Shankar. But by the time he was in Junior High, the group Lupe mimicked was none other than that of Dre’s and Ice Cube’s, so much so that he rapped under the name MC Ren, his rap partner called himself Easy-E and they even called themselves NWA. “We had a DJ Yella,” he says. “We had the whole click.”

But it wasn’t the lyrics and themes on ‘Straight Outta Compton’ that Lupe was paying most attention to – it was how they put the songs together. The same went for prolific gangsta rapper Spice 1, who Lupe says unwittingly taught him how to make a concept record when he released ‘187 Proof’ – a track through which bottles of alcohol were turned into characters in the street.

“I was like, ‘Wow! You can do that?!’” Lupe remembers. “I lived across the street from the liquor store so I knew all of these names he was saying. It was inspiring. It taught me how to tell a story. Without Spice 1 and ‘187 Proof’, you could argue that I would have never made [debut single] ‘Kick Push’.”

This love/hate relationship with aggressive hip hop is something that remains with Lupe to this day. He thinks that Rick Ross – “the most gansta of gangsta rappers” – is “dope.” But that didn’t stop him from following Ross’ track ‘B.M.F. (Blowing Money Fast)’ with his own version called ‘Building Minds Faster’.

“Gangsta rap is entertaining,” says Lupe, “and I come from that, so I can relate to what Rick Ross is saying. Do I combat it? Yes. When he made ‘Blowing Money Fast’ did I make ‘Building Minds Faster’? Yes I did. Because I don’t want my son saying that he wants to be [Detroit drug lord] Big Meech or [Chicago gangster] Larry Hoover, and I don’t want your son saying that. I want him to have the opportunity to say, ‘I wanna be Malcolm X or Martin Luther.’ Let’s give them both options to choose from, because if kids only want to be Larry Hoover he’s serving a 150 year prison sentence!”

‘Building Minds Faster’ was more than a smart reply to a track that made heroes of infamous gang bosses, though. It also served as a thank you to Lupe’s fans who had petitioned Atlantic Records to finally release ‘Lasers’ – an album that they were first told would be released in late 2009.

“At first people would ask me when ‘Lasers’ was coming out and I’d say, ‘It’s coming soon,’” says Lupe, “but then it got to a point where I had to say, ‘I don’t know’. And then I’d say, ‘Look man, ask Atlantic Records.’”

People did and the response they got was one they’d already heard – ‘Lasers’ will be coming soon. Well, that wasn’t good enough anymore, so an online petition was started by two teens from New Jersey and within six hours 5,000 people had signed it. CNN, MTV and VillageVoice all reported the story as the signature count rapidly rose (at last count it had garnered over 32,000 names) and message boards started to talk of a protest outside the label’s headquarters in New York City.

“You could watch it happening,” remembers Lupe. “Some dude posted on a message board, ‘Yo, we should protest!’ Next post: ‘What do we need to protest?’ Next post from another kid: ‘I know we need a permit.’ Then: ‘Ok, where do we get that?’ Then, up pops an address. Then: ‘We need a lawyer…’ And it just snowballs into a website and a thousand people are suddenly planning on flying to New York, and car pools are being organised…”

Lupe laughs. What became known as Fiasco Friday (when fans did protest at Atlantic Records on October 15th 2010) is clearly a proud moment for him; proof that his music has instilled a sense of activism in young music fans, just like he’s always wanted. But he believes that it wasn’t a song or album that did this – it was a manifesto he posted online a couple of years ago.

The fourteen-point ‘Laser Manifesto’ is what inspired his third album. It’s ‘Lasers’’ concept, and includes points like We want an end to the glamorization of negativity in the media and We want clarity and truth from our elected officials or they shall move aside. “The album was supposed to insight social activism and get people out there doing things in the real world,” explains Lupe, “but they did that without hearing it; because they couldn’t hear it! It was all because of the manifesto, which has been looping online for two years.”

What’s more, the petition had worked, and way before Fiasco Friday took place. Atlantic took note of the petition and announced a release date of March 8th, but that didn’t stop the demo on their doorstep – “It became a celebration/protest,” says Lupe, “and they still wanted to do it because they felt that a social injustice had been done.”

We entered this interview sure that the topic of the day would be Lupe Fiasco’s retirement at the grand old age of 29. After all, as ‘The Cool’ wrapped in 2008 he did announce that the next record would most likely be his last. It was even going to be called ‘LupE.N.D.’.

It was the first thing cleared up as we walked through the door; our grand plans for a ‘This Was Your Life’ skip down memory fame obliterated. Yes, by ‘Lasers’. Send home the forgotten voices of the past; scratch that killer ‘Now that you’re on the dole…’ question.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” Lupe had said. “And even when there was talk of it being the last record, it was more so… like, I had four more records with Atlantic Records, and my thing was that I was gonna do an album that was three records released over a period of time, but all under the same title, like Star Wars. This was ‘LupE.N.D.’ – Everywhere, Nowhere, Down Here, was going to be the thing. It’s something that got canned, but it was going to fulfil a majority of my contract, and then I could have done a greatest hits record or whatever, and then I’d become Lupe Fiasco 2 or something like that. So it was never that it was going to be no more records, just that I would be out of my agreement with the record company.”

Isn’t that a bit like saying, ‘This next burger will be my last… at Burger King… after three more’? Anyway. Then Lupe told us that he hated his new album, seemingly due to pressures from his label to give it a radio-friendly slant.

“The music is good,” he’d said. “Some of it is great, even. There’s a song on there called ‘All Black Everything’ that is one of my favourite songs of all time, and I didn’t have that with ‘The Cool’. On this record I’ve made a masterpiece. But apart from that…”

But while Lupe wasn’t purposefully being modest or ironic, he was still selling ‘Lasers’ short. It’s unquestionably his most commercial album to date – all party bangers that are heavy on synths, like Tinie Tempah’s ‘Discovery’ and even guesting Eric Turner on ‘Break The Chain’ – and in many ways his self-criticism that it sounds “like everything else on the radio, only Lupe Fiasco’d” kinda rings true. It’s a little mad on the auto tune and ends on a couple of slowies, one of which features John Legend, of course. But it’s worth remembering that the radio – especially in terms of hip hop and urban tracks booming out of the wireless these days – is no bad place to be. From Rihanna to Drake to Tinie Tempah, hip hop is as mainstream as it’s always wanted to be, and an artist as challenging as Lupe Fiasco deserves a piece of that. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t want a piece. Because ‘Lasers’ is going to be a hit and those fans that have waited four years and picketed Atlantic Records are not going to have to kid themselves that it’s been worth the wait. Even Lupe is coming round to the idea. Kinda.

“I’m comfortable with having ‘Words I Never Said’, ‘All Black Everything’, ‘Coming Up’ and ‘Beautiful Lasers’, on there,” he says. “Those are songs that I know are my best efforts and that I know people are going to love. I don’t know what it’s going to sell, and I don’t give a fuck. I gave them what they wanted from me and I’m happy with my pure editions to the record and there’s nothing else that I can really do except for move on to another record. People are going to like it… or they’re going to hate it.”

By Stuart Stubbs

Originally published in issue 25 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. February 2011

« Previous Interview
Next Interview »