lupenext.jpgIt was the leak heard round the hip-hop world. When Lupe Fiasco’s 1st & 15th/Atlantic Records debut, Food & Liquor, hit the Web two and a half months before its intended June 2006 release date, the 25-year-old Chicago MC quickly vented his frustration—via radio, the Internet, the pages of this magazine. Roughly 310,000 album sales later, he’s still a bit peeved. “I think it would’ve been more,” he says of his scant SoundScan figures. “It’s like, who really cares? Do the fans really care? But then you turn around and it’s the most critically acclaimed album of 2006.”

Lupe’s grumbling is certainly justified. After all, his initial hype was built on the ultimate co-signs—Kanye West granted him a guest verse on “Touch the Sky,” off 2005’s Late Registration, and Jay-Z served as co–executive producer of Food & Liquor. And while it wasn’t a smash, Lupe’s debut single, “Kick, Push”—an unexpectedly cool tune about skateboarding—amplified his buzz. Coupling conscious, pensive wordplay with rhymes about cartoons, robots and clothing brands that were largely obscure to hip-hop heads, he was labeled both a geek and a trendsetter. “That vanguard of people that really embrace something fresh? I think I got that audience,” he notes. “From reviewers, DJs and everybody on down.”

So when his album leaked, the embittered freshman MC sought to offset the faulty plumbing by re-entering the studio (a Pharrell-produced track here, a Jay verse there) to prep Food & Liquor 2.0. By the time it arrived, though, chatter about the cat’s being reminiscent of a young Hov (or Nas, depending on whom you asked) might have died down, but the impression Lupe made lasted. “The haters couldn’t even hate no more, like, ‘Yo, this nigga wears glasses,’ or, ‘This nigga’s a nerd.’ It’s like, ‘Dude is nice!’” says Lupe, who earned three Grammy nods off Food & Liquor. “Everybody’s coming out with the shoot ’em up, bang-bang, throw money and Champagne on somebody… I choose to talk about something else.”

This aversion to all the things commonly glamorized in hip-hop is dually rooted in his Islamic faith and his cultured upbringing on Chicago’s West Side. Simultaneously upset with and allured by early ’90s gangsta rap, the rapper born Wasalu Jaco developed a love/hate relationship with the genre and started rhyming. Before turning 21, he endured two failed record deals—one with Epic, as one-fourth of the rap group Da Pak, and a subsequent 2002 solo contract with Arista. So despite an offer from Jay-Z to join Roc-A-Fella, Lupe chose to cultivate his own imprint, 1st & 15th, a company he’d started in 2001 with childhood pal Charles “Chilly” Patton. The label latched onto Atlantic in 2004.

With his sophomore disc, The Cool, dropping in November (leak-protected, he insists), Lupe’s still pushing his creative license to the limit. “It’s a very dark album,” he says. “I’m killing my career, because I’ll never do the same thing twice. Fans see that, and it’s like, ‘Yo, this dude, he’s always coming with something new.’”