If hip-hop lyrics really are poetry, then why isn't Lupe Fiasco the biggest name in the game? The Chicago M.C., considered by many the best, most evocative wordsmith in rap today, was championed early on by Kanye West, who gave him a guest spot on 2006's "Touch the Sky," and no less an authority than Jay-Z has extolled Fiasco as a "genius writer." Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor, his 2006 debut album, showed that "he was a guy who wasn't afraid to discuss his vulnerabilities, his self-doubts, even his failures," says Adam Bradley, one of the editors of the 920-page Anthology of Rap (one of several recent titles to make the case for rap as literature). Fiasco's openness and sensitivity to the "other"—a child soldier, an immigrant, and, in one particularly high-concept song, a malicious cheeseburger—elevate him far above the average rapper. "I find it somewhat liberating to jump," Fiasco says, "to dive into things that are the opposite of me." His second album, 2007's Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, prompted the blog Rap Genius to call him the "Proust of rap." It earned four Grammy nominations, to go with the three (and one win for Best Urban/Alternative Performance) he'd picked up for Food & Liquor.
And then … nothing. On a recent afternoon in Brooklyn, Fiasco, 29, explains why his new album, Lasers, took so long. "I wanted to make a popular record," he says, looking every bit the inscrutable intellectual in black shades, black porkpie hat, and black leather jacket, "but by my definition of popular." That meant inciting "an uprising of the people," he says, with apparent sincerity—not surprising, perhaps, coming from a guy whose Black Panther father taught him how to fire assault rifles as a kid.
But when Fiasco submitted his first Lasers tracks two and a half years ago, his label, Atlantic, rejected them as not commercial enough, according to Darrale Jones, his A&R rep. "I don't know how to do what Kanye does," Fiasco says matter-of-factly. "I don't have that Midas touch." A creative clash ensued: Atlantic froze his production budget. Fiasco asked to be released from his contract. The label refused. By his own account, Fiasco descended into a deep funk. On "Beautiful Lasers," one of the album's standout songs, he raps over a reverberating gothic beat: "If you feel like you don't want to be alive, you feel just like I am." Did he really contemplate suicide? "To keep from killing somebody else," he says. "The creation of Lasers was a very painful, dark, fucked-up process."
But the album did spark rebellion, even as it languished in record-industry purgatory. Fans petitioned online for the album's release for months and planned a demonstration outside Atlantic's Manhattan headquarters. The threat of a protest helped push Atlantic to set a release date, but more than a hundred devotees gathered anyway for "Fiasco Friday" last October 15, blasting Fiasco's songs and chanting, "Lasers!" Finally, Lyor Cohen, an exec at Warner Music Group, Atlantic's parent company, arrived with a boom box and played the first single, "Go to Sleep," to raucous applause.
The irony of the entire saga is that Fiasco is the first to admit he's selling a product. "The purpose of art has always been commercial," he says. With its shimmering synths and soaring choruses, Lasers will likely play clubs better than Fiasco's first two albums, and there's more sing-along simplicity to go with the metaphor-packed word puzzles. But the smooth, dexterous vocal flow could be only his, and the writing remains bold and provocative: One song imagines a world in which Africa was never colonized, and another lambastes Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and—lest anyone question his radical credentials—Barack Obama. Looks like, once again, Lupe Fiasco got the last word.
Lupe Fiasco's Desert Island Discs
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, 1965 (top left)
Fela Kuti and Afrika 70, Zombie, 1977 (top center)
King Sunny Adé and His African Beats, Juju Music, 1982 (top right)
UNKLE, Psyence Fiction, 1988 (bottom left)
The Mars Volta, De-Loused in the Comatorium, 2003 (bottom center)
The Roots, How I Got Over, 2010 (bottom right)
Lupe Fiasco's Discography, in His Own Words
Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor, 2006 (left): "The beginning of something special."
Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, 2007 (center): A journey into the heart of darkness."
Lasers, 2011 (right): "The struggle to get the light out."