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Lupe Fiasco on Lasers, Lame Rap, and His Battles With the Music Industry

In October 2010, nearly 200 Lupe Fiasco fans stood outside the New York offices of Atlantic Records to protest the delay of Fiasco’s third studio album. Fiasco and Warner Music Group CEO Lyor Cohen came out carrying a boom box and gave the crowd a listen to what they’d been waiting for: Lasers. The album has since leaked online to some negative reviews, but on March 8, those rallying fans can finally take a legal listen and decide for themselves what they think of Fiasco’s latest. We spoke with the artist about ho-hum hip-hop (Justin Bieber included), his beef with President Obama, and his tumultuous relationship with the industry.

So what was the reason for the Lasers hold up?
Lasers came in phases. Some of it was honest and some of it was dishonest. When I say dishonest, I mean the label coming in and sort of messing things up. And the honest part, we’d record a phase of Lasers and this guy puts out an album, and it's like, we got to compete with that. Then you get up to the last month, everybody is happy, and you get a call from the publishing company. Shit, now we need to cut three records ... I was coming off a very successful second album. Then when you come in with the same formula on this next record, all of a sudden The Cool and “Superstar” become unsuccessful. So it's like, Oh shit, now what? Now everything I do on this record is going to be unsuccessful?

Were you expecting more freedom because of the success of The Cool?
No. I trust people to be human. Sometimes you do things that make amazing amounts of sense; sometimes you do things that don't make any sense whatsoever. 360 deals are the new things of the industry. It's not about selling records; it's about selling T-shirts, getting a piece of your publishing, getting a piece of your touring, and all these other kind of properties. I didn't have my hopes too high. But when you have things like that on paper: when you have nine weeks at No. 1, when you have these Grammy nominations, when you have this platinum single, and when you have these kind of record sales in excess of 700 [thousand], when you look at things like that, that's success.

What are you hoping will happen with Lasers?
To be blunt, I don't really give a fuck. I've grown very distant from the business, very numb to it. Before, I'd just kind of be a ninja. Just kind of keep it moving. When I first got into the music business, it was like, "You need to do this interview and all this promotion even if it kills you, because it means your record is going to do this and if you don't do it you're not going to get this and you're not going to get that." Now those same kind of things don't have that effect on me, because I don't really care about the success anymore. I don't really care about the fame. Three, four years later, I look at my bank account statements, and I haven't made any money with my record label. You start to think a little bit differently about your motivations and why you're doing what you're doing.

How has the fan support for Lasers made you feel?
It was amazing, humbling, and inspiring, to the point where I went back in the studio and did more records … it made everything real, that your music is actually something that people want. And it's something that is successful, not in selling records, but the way it moves people and inspires them to do better for themselves. That was what they were saying, when they were doing interviews with Village Voice, MTV. The interviewers were a little crass with them, kind of saying, "Why don't you protest something that's really worth it? Child hunger, poverty, or whatever." The response from the fans was, "You listen to Lupe Fiasco’s music, that's what he talks about. He addresses that." It's pretty dope.

Did it play a big part in Atlantic finally releasing the album?
To a certain extent, yes; to a certain extent, no. I didn't want “The Show Goes On” to be the single. It kind of brought us back to the table. We were ready to go. My whole team, it wasn't about putting the album out, it was about getting off the record company and going independent or going to another label. To the point we were like, listen, just take Lasers. You can have whatever percentage off the next ten records I do for the rest of my life. I just do not want to be here anymore. It was actually [Atlantic Records President] Julie Greenwald, who was kind of on the sidelines a little bit during the process, when she saw that she came in and made everybody shut up. It was kind of like, "Look, Lupe, what do we need to do to get this record out?"

Why didn’t you want “The Show Goes On” to be the first single?
Because I didn't. When you're an artist, for sink or swim, you're like, I want “Beautiful Lasers” to be the single. I want a record that is super meaningful to me. I don't want to put out music with the intention of getting it on the radio, because I don't really care about the radio. And I don't really care if MTV plays it. You, as an artist, want to express yourself as meaningfully as you possibly can at every step.

How are things between you and the label now?
I don't like the music business. I've always said that. I've been on Sony, BMG; I've been in every system. It’s something that I've always looked at with a certain level of disdain about the way the business was carried out. The relationship that I have with Atlantic, right now, it's copacetic. Hopefully we'll get through the rest of our contract without too many big hiccups.

Your previous albums tell a story or are structured around a character. Why don’t you speak more from a personal basis?
The story of Lasers is my story. I didn’t have to look too far to get subject matter for this record; it was stuff that was happening to me. I wrestled with suicide. [I wanted to] document that in a song, explain to people what the fight of it is. There’s this wrestling with fame and success: How much is enough? How much of this money can I blow on Ferraris? What level of fame [shows] that I made it? Is it when the paparazzi are chasing me down the streets? Then I’m famous? Or am I famous now?

You’ve said there’s a lack of creativity in hip-hop. What’s the problem?
I’m guilty of it, too. Hip-hop today — talking solely about the commercial space — it’s the same producers, sound, over and over again. The artist with that particularly poppy song is given the first look as opposed to that ethereal, weird artist with the brand-new music. I think that’s why you see things like you saw at the Grammys, where you have these massive acts, humungous records, crazy talent — and the person who wins Best New Artist is this really abstract left bass player. Because it’s about who’s making music, who’s making something different. Justin Bieber sounds just like everybody else, to be honest. He’s the homie; he’s dope. But he’s no different than Sean Kingston, Usher.

On “Words I Never Said,” you voice some criticism of Obama. Some have taken that as disrespect.
Was I disrespectful to Obama for saying that he didn’t say anything when the Israeli military bombed Gaza for seven days and killed 900 innocent civilians? 'Cause he didn’t. So that’s not disrespectful. To say I didn’t vote for him, that’s not disrespectful either — that’s exercising my right to not cast a ballot for a system that I don’t necessarily believe in. It’s more of a corrective critique as opposed to me just trying to be an asshole. I didn’t believe that he had the power to change the system, which is what needs to happen. I don’t look at the color and I don’t look at the historical significance. Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you’re going to save the world. There are no superhuman qualities about us; we’re all human, able to make mistakes and be hypocrites, [and] also at the same time do great things.

Note: This Q&A was compiled from two separate interviews.

Photo: Jeff Fusco/Getty Images