Growing up on Madison Street, on Chicago’s west side, was tough for Lupe Fiasco, born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco. “There used to be drive-bys here,” he says of the neighborhood outside the photography studio. “On the other side of Madison, you have Rockville Gardens, and that used to be the most terrible place on Earth.” He remembers the June 1991 night when Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls won their first NBA championship and rioters burned down a convenience store in Rockville Gardens.
As a child, Lupe was interested in martial arts, chess and guns. “When I was four years old, my father was teaching us how to shoot AK-47s and how to strip an M-16,” he says. “When we were little kids, it was all about weapons. My father used to sell guns.” Also an engineer and a martial-arts teacher, the senior Jaco, Gregory, died in February 2007 from diabetes.
Lupe got into hip-hop as a teenager, listening to Spice 1, 8 Ball & MJG, N.W.A and Nas, whose It Was Written was his favorite album. He joined the rap group Da Pak (not to be confused with the Bay Area quartet that spawned Lil B), which signed to Epic Records and disbanded after releasing their first single. He then linked with Arista Records as a solo artist, idling there until L.A. Reid’s firing in 2004, and eventually landed at Atlantic Records.
Lupe made a buzz with a trio of mixtapes, the Fahrenheit 1/15 series. And his nifty cameo on Kanye West’s 2005 single “Touch the Sky” paved the way for his critically acclaimed debut album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor, released in September 2006. His next effort, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, topped its predecessor in sales and scope. Its lead single, “Superstar,” reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the album sold more than 700,000 copies. Aside from “Superstar,” however, The Cool was a heady, nonconformist album with songs touching on such heavy topics as child soldiers in Africa (“Little Weapon”), rape (“Intruder, Alert”), the apocalypse (“Streets on Fire”) and his own artistic principals (“Dumb It Down”).
Heading into his third album, Atlantic executives told him the company wanted to see “growth,” which is a euphemism for “reaching a broader audience.” “The hardcore Lupe fan [loves] ‘Dumb It Down,’” says Darrale Jones, Atlantic VP of A&R. “But ‘Superstar’ was a smash. Any record company would see that and say, ‘We need to be there.’”
According to Jones, the first incarnation of Lasers baffled the Atlantic brass present at its unveiling. “All the top executives were in that meeting,” he says. “After the music stopped, it was kind of quiet. People looked around the room and were like, ‘Okay, this is Lasers.’ Lupe didn’t feel the excitement he was looking for.”
Lupe says he complied with his label after early buzz records “Shining Down” and “I’m Beaming” bombed at radio. “If you want me to do that, I’ll do that,” he says of making records aimed at the pop charts. “I’ll make it cheaper. I’ll make it conducive to all parties—publishing, royalties.”
Business concerns, as opposed to matters of artistic integrity, are what made Lupe feel blasé about “Nothin’ on You.” The song was written and produced by The Smeezingtons, an outfit led by Atlantic’s pop singer Bruno Mars. “I understand what you guys are doing with this stable of writers and producers that are specifically signed to the company,” he says. “That smells fishy.”
Lupe and Atlantic reached a compromise in October 2010, after, he says, he agreed to include “The Show Goes On” and “Never Forget You” on the album. “It was done at gunpoint,” he says. Lupe says the label insisted on the former because producer Kane Beatz is signed to Artists Publishing Group, a music-publishing company that is a joint venture with Atlantic Records and is administered by Warner/Chappell publishing. “I work with Atlantic a lot and with a lot of artists they produce,” says Kane Beatz. “You never know. It was a great record, and I think when it came, it definitely provided an opportunity for him to get his music out.”
Lupe insists the song wasn’t successful and has relentlessly bashed it in interviews. “‘Superstar’ charted way higher than ‘Show Goes On,’” he says. “They still can’t understand me. They still don’t get it. They still don’t understand that, even without a hit record, Lupe Fiasco will be just as relevant and just as successful as the dude with the hit record. They just don’t get that.”
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