Lupe Fiasco, Lasers and Artistic Freedom

Categories: pondering
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Lupe Fiasco's Lasers, one of the most embattled albums in recent hip-hop history, finally finds its way to shelves and digital downloads today. It took a fan-organized protest dubbed "Fiasco Friday" back in October to force Atlantic Records to preemptively announce a release date for the rapper's third studio album. Without it, the 12-track collection might have never seen the light of day.

In recent interviews promoting the new release, Fiasco hasn't held back in speaking about the numerous issues that fueled the drama with his label, creating a creative stalemate. The Chi-town MC says Atlantic had deemed his 2007 effort, The Cool, to have been unsuccessful despite moving hundreds of thousands of copies, receiving critical acclaim, and breaking onto corporate radio stations with the single '"Superstar." He went on to tell the Chicago Sun Times that he felt like a hostage in the ensuing disagreements over the direction of his new album and that the whole fiasco, so to speak, drove him into a suicide-contemplating depression spell.

In another interview, this time with Music Connection magazine, Fiasco railed against the 360 deal Atlantic wanted to subject him to. "I think it's ridiculous bullshit," he told writer Daniel Siwek after explaining that such a financial agreement would have given the label access to a percentage of profits garnered from live performances, merchandise sales and other associated sources of income outside album sales.

Given this context, Lasers is an album of acute contradictions--perhaps the most glaring of the genre's history, if you listen close enough. Fiasco is a conscious, ultra-creative force in hip-hop employed by a corporate label and its systemic biases. Warner Music Group CEO Lyor Cohen, who holds Atlantic as a subsidiary, greeted Fiasco Friday protestors holding a boom box blaring the new song "The Show Goes On" from their hip-hop hero. The music mogul engaged with a woman who asked, "I feel that, but why we gotta wait for the CD, then? Cohen responded in the filmed-for-YouTube exchange, "Don't you want it real good?" adding later, "It's about getting right."


For his part, Fiasco has described Lasers' first single, "The Show Goes On," as "My words, their music." A sped-up sample of Modest Mouse's hit "Float On" eschews the beats of The Cool and 2006's Food & Liquor before it in favor of making radio-friendly music, as the rapper's first verse still manages to rip into his record company. And that's just the first single! In the hostage negotiation that Lasers turned out to be, Fiasco wrote the song "Words I Never Said" after a Fiasco Friday that stands out as a searing soapbox diatribe, rhyming, "Limbaugh is a racist/Glenn Beck is a racist/Gaza Strip was getting bombed/Obama didn't say shit" in between a chorus by Skylar Grey originally pitched for a potential love song.

The rest of the album plays out much the same way. "Letting Go," "State Run Radio" and "Beautiful Lasers" are strong displays of an impassioned, intelligent wordsmith. "I Don't Wanna Care Right Now," "The Show Goes On" and "Out of My Head" are largely forgetable club-hop sonic compromises. Thankfully, the inclusion of "All Black Everything" is a saving grace. A boom-bap beat backs a simple yet profound lyrical dream about the history of the United States alleviated of the nightmares of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the racism that fueled it all. It's Fiasco at his freest and finest.

Considering Lasers was apparently doomed to purgatory, the release of "All Black Everything" and every other standout track on the album is welcomed, even if the overall effort bears the imprint of artistic acquiescence. Lasers was a long-, hard-fought battle that brings Fiasco two albums closer to fulfilling his contractual obligations with Atlantic Records. A sequel to Food & Liquor is slated to come next. The integrity of his future work will spell whether or not Fiasco and his fans--who together have won a skirmish, even if previously leaked tracks such as "Shining Down" featuring Matthew Santos and "I'm Beamin'" were purged from Lasers--will prevail in the protracted war.

In the meantime, another petition has already started arising from the Save Lupe Fiasco Appeal Facebook page asking for the label to grant more creative freedom to the rapper. Make no mistake, if they succeed once more, Fiasco fans are the Lasers, and Atlantic Records are the losers.

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