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Lupe Fiasco: Hit the Lights [May 2011 Cover Story]

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.”

Lasers experiments with European dance music, R&B and synth pop and
incorporates gobs of strained choruses and radio-friendly production. It’s a perplexing mishmash and sounds little like Lupe’s first two albums. “It’s Lupe’s attempt at making a pop album,” Lupe quips. He frequently slips into the third person. “I don’t know how to make pop music, if you haven’t noticed.”

Still, over those garish beats, he raps about corporate monopoly (“State Run Radio”), a world without slavery (“All Black Everything”) and his disgust with President Obama (“Words I Never Said”). “Make no mistake about it, this is a pop album,” Darrale Jones says. “But it’s Lupe’s voice and message. That is really all he cares about, that Lasers didn’t lose that message.”

In this world of unrelenting sarcasm, snarky blogs and Internet “failz,” Lupe’s positive message—and that of “conscious rap” as a whole—might strike some people as a little corny. The zealousness of his petition-signing, street-protesting fan base tells a different story. “His message really changed my life,” says Dan Winchester, a freelance TV producer from Milwaukee who organized Fiasco Friday in Chicago. “I saw that you can explore positivity in your life, instead of focusing on drugs, alcohol, gangs and all the other things that rappers talk about.”

Hours after the photo shoot, Lupe is in his hotel room, preparing for a late-night flight. Junk food and clothes litter the space. There’s a book on the night stand: The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism in the Twenty-First Century, by Grace Lee Boggs. It’s like finding a copy of High Times on Wiz Khalifa’s coffee table.

Lupe also organizes a book club via Twitter. This month’s selection is John Brown, by W.E.B. DuBois.

“We live in a heartless, violent society,” he says, packing clothes into a bag. “Somebody’s got to give a fuck.

“I like being the rebel,” he continues. “In this society, being the rebel is being the guy who gives a fuck. I try to make that shit so cool.” He grabs a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky. “To me, that’s the coolest shit ever.”

Last summer, Lupe paraded his rigid principles on “B.M.F. (Building Minds Faster),” his freestyle over Rick Ross’s ode to the streets “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast).”

Instead of glorifying famed drug dealers Larry Hoover and Big Meech on the chorus, Lupe praised Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. And in the verse, he rapped, “They say I try too hard, verses overwhelm/I learned most of this from niggas sittin’ in jail/Where you think I’m from? I’m from the streets, nigga/Triple-OGs told me to teach, nigga.”

Lupe feels conflicted about the original “B.M.F.” “I will do a DJ set, drop that, and throw up the forks and throw up G.D. and all the gang signs. It’s cool for a while, until you go to jail for 150 years,” he says. “There are parts about Big Meech and Larry Hoover that are cool—the money, the cars, the clothes—but when you go to jail for 150 years, there is nothing cool about that. When I see little kids singing, ‘I want to be Big Meech, I want to be Larry Hoover,’ that shit scares me, because you are creating tyrants. They probably don’t know who the fuck Larry Hoover is. They probably don’t even know who Rick Ross is. I’m not talking about the rapper; I’m talking about the real Rick Ross, the guy who fucked Los Angeles up single-handedly—the inventor of crack cocaine. You want to be like the dude who invented crack cocaine? Do you know what crack cocaine is? Do you know what
that shit does to people? I’ll put, ‘Yo, I want to be Malcolm X,’ because Malcolm X was a cool muthafucka, and he was a gangsta. He probably killed muthafuckas, definitely robbed muthafuckas, definitely was a pimp, was everything that them dudes was, and was cool with it. But then he became this phenomenal fuckin’ ridiculous intellectual who went around the world just decimating muthafuckas with knowledge and went toe to toe with the system.”

He doesn’t mind if his stance is perceived as preachy or self-righteous. “The street niggas don’t think that,” Lupe says. “The niggas who want to be like the street niggas think that. The people who are entertained by the street niggas think that. But the niggas who are actually doing it know that I’m right.”

Lupe’s good friend, Houston rapper Trae the Truth agrees. “A lot of stuff he says is stuff that needed to be said,” says Trae. “Regardless if it’s something you don’t want to hear. It’s real out here. Some of these entertainers never been in the street, so they wouldn’t understand street code. He did the right thing by doing what he does with his music.”

Lupe Fiasco has personal reasons for doing what he does with his music. In March 2007, his partner (and also manager) in 1st & 15th Entertainment, Charles “Chilly” Patton, was convicted of possessing six kilos of heroin and later sentenced to 44 years in prison. Lupe was not implicated in the case, but he testified for the defense.

According to Chicago magazine, Lupe also wrote a letter to the court saying, “I love Charles… I am deeply saddened by his circumstances and will stand by him and his family no matter what occurs.” Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Patton’s appeal. “It was a raw deal,” Lupe says upon being asked of Patton’s guilt.

He claims they speak approximately nine times a month. “It was really seeing the system conspire to get one person. It was real fucked up.”

In addition to losing a close friend and mentor, Lupe had to take over the full responsibilities for 1st & 15th Entertainment, the record label he and Patton founded together. Over the years, Patton tutored Lupe in the business, telling him to act like a boss. It’s a lesson that may have hindered his career. “I would be so ahead of the game if I just had an artist’s mentality. But since I have this business mentality, too, I see through the bullshit. Some artists will take the bullshit because it’s simply about progressing as an artist. With me, it’s like, No. Progressing as an artist will hurt me on the business side.”

Tentatively due in December, Lupe’s next album, Food and Liquor II, should steer the conversation away from label differences and business affairs—Lupe says that it’s developed into a “harder record.” But isn’t he naive to think his label won’t meddle? “Oh, no,” he says. “It’s like chess. I lost those pieces, and now, by the nature of the game, you will lose these two, three pieces… They already want to do it.”

Working on the back-to-basics project has also ignited Lupe’s competitiveness. “I can actually make the argument, seriously, that, Yo, I’m better than all y’all. All of y’all,” he says. “You have people who can say that. Jay-Z can say that. Eminem can say that. Canibus can say that—if we are going line for line. If you want to relate me to the newer cats, let’s go. Let’s go line for line and bar for bar. If it’s all about spitting and metaphors and MCing and lyrics and entendres, I will eat 99 percent of you dudes up.”

This sounds a far cry from the beaten-down artist who contemplated taking his life during the recording of Lasers. Still, not all is well. Lupe has always been a bit of a loner, a fact that his career has exacerbated. “You don’t see anyone here, do you?” he asks, motioning to his empty hotel room. “It’s hard, man. My creative space beckons me to be alone and in my weird area feeling comfortable to create. It’s not conducive to other people.” (He expects the obligatory follow-up questions about how that’s affected romantic relationships, and smirks while delivering his curt “no comment”: “I like to keep my private life private.”)

He’s also still reeling from the September 2010 murder of his friend, the Sean John model Jubar “Esco” Croswell. Esco’s remains were found in a wooded area in Edison, New Jersey, days after he was reported missing. Lupe is his son’s godfather. At times like this, the man most in need of hearing Lupe Fiasco’s positive message is the artist himself. “You have to have that confidence to know that you can have an effect in this world and that you actually stand up for something righteous and [that you don’t] get caught up in wickedness,” he says. “Sometimes you succumb to it. I’m not a saint. At the same time, I try and act as much as I possibly can in the manner of a saint. Why not? And that’s my question that no one answers. Why not? Why fuckin’ not? Why can’t I be the dude from the hood, and all my friends are gangstas, and I make the most-positive rap music that I possibly can.

Why not?

“At the end of the day, it’s human duality. We are all in conflict. We are all in contradiction. Because that’s what the world is. We always change. We always grow. We’re not going to be young forever. We’re not going to be old forever. In the end, we fuckin’ die.” — Thomas Golianopoulos

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