Back in 2009, when Lupe Fiasco was in the middle of recording his third album, at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, his label, Atlantic Records, froze his entire budget. Executives were unhappy with his version of “Nothin’ on You,” a no-brainer No. 1 smash the label had gift wrapped for Lupe, so they requested a meeting with him in New York. The summit took place on a Sunday night at Chin Chins, the Midtown Manhattan Chinese restaurant favored by Mafia wannabes and expense-account-brandishing power brokers. Atlantic Records Chairman and CEO Craig Kallman and Chairwoman and COO Julie Greenwald joined Lupe, his assistant and a cell phone that was placed in the middle of the table. On speaker was Lupe’s manager and business partner, Charles “Chilly” Patton, who is serving a 44-year prison sentence on drug charges.

Lupe set the tone by leaving on his coat. He also didn’t order food. From there, it unraveled. According to Lupe, Kallman took a personal swipe. “We talked to the producers, and they said your verses were wack,” Kallman said, as Lupe remembers it. “Yo, your verses were wack.” (Label reps were unavailable for comment.)

This is the kind of criticism that can shatter a sensitive artist, and the 29-year-old rapper from Chicago says he later contemplated suicide. “It follows you everywhere,” he tells of the depression that overtook him. “The way you rationalize things gets titled through that mentality.” In the song “Beautiful Lasers,” which would finally see the light of day early this year, Lupe mentions keeping a gun on his table. “That was literal.
I own a ton of them.” The album, mostly complete, but without a release date set, languished. Months passed.

Things started to turn around for Lupe in late 2010, even as “Nothin’ on You” slipped from his fingers and became the breakout hit for Atlantic rookie B.o.B. An online petition demanding the release of Lupe’s album collected more than 33,000 signatures, and in October, fans organized a rally outside of Atlantic Records’ New York offices. It was dubbed Fiasco Friday. The prospect of thousands of chanting, shouting Lupe loyalists helped convince the label to put more effort into working things out with its artist, and a solid release date was finally set. The album, Lasers, would come out March 8, 2011.

Not that everything was rainbows and unicorns. As recently as February 28, just a week before the album was due to hit stores, Lupe was venting to the press. “When I think about what it took to actually get the record together,” he said to Complex.com, “and everything that I went through on this record—which is something I can’t separate—I hate this album.” So it came as a major surprise to a lot of people when, come the week of March 8, Lasers arrived and sold more than 200,000 copies, far surpassing industry predictions, and debuting atop Billboard’s album charts. Lupe’s reaction? Borderline apathy. “I wasn’t completely overwhelmed, because now I have to go into the business meetings,” he says. “Now I’m waiting for, ‘If you didn’t say you hated the album in that interview, we would have done 300,000.’”

Lupe sits in a photo studio on the west side of Chicago, just six blocks from his childhood home. Despite a quick touch-up, his hair is unruly, and his mustache is boyishly wispy. Still, on this afternoon, Lupe is stern, weary, cautious, a little paranoid and all about his business. The only gasp of humor in the room is his T-shirt, which quotes a line from the 1966 Paul Newman film Harper: “Only cream and bastards rise to the top.”

Lupe’s proud that he repaid Lasers’ $700,000 budget. He then spouts numbers and calculates his earnings from preorders and sales of the first single, “The Show Goes On,” a song that was the latest sticking point between him and Atlantic, following the “Nothin’ on You” debacle. “For everything good there is something bad,” he says about the impending meetings. “Yin and yang. There are always two forces operating at the same time. Cool, I’m happy, but I’m still mad at my record company.” He flashes a mischievous smile. Lupe Fiasco isn’t going to let a No. 1 album wrest control of his narrative.

In hip-hop’s latest battle between art and commerce, consider this one a draw. Lasers garnered the highest-selling first-week numbers of Lupe’s career, but it came with some pretty terrible reviews. (“Forgettable,” said The Washington Post; “Chaotic, bored and unyieldingly abrasive,” Pitchfork; “A compromise,” Los Angeles Times. In all, Lasers scored a 57 out of 100 at the reviews-averaging site Metacritic.) Now, with this chapter of his career closing, Lupe Fiasco, one of the most talented, ambitious and polarizing artists in hip-hop, holds onto one goal: using his music to make the world a better place.