Feature: Lupe Fiasco

by Steven J. Horowitz
Photography by Chad Griffith
Styling by Jason Rembert
Grooming by Jackie Sanchez/Dermalogica

Amid the controversy surrounding the recent release of his third studio album, Lasers, Lupe Fiasco shoots to No. 1 and finally tunes out all the drama to focus on what he does best.

Lupe Fiasco doesn’t want to dwell on negativity anymore. In the weeks leading up to the release of his delayed, protested and positive third album, Lasers, the Chicago rapper gave interviews fingering his imprint Atlantic Records for making decisions that rendered him “medium suicidal” and “a hostage.” Even after a highly publicized, fan-driven movement that brought label bigwigs to their knees and secured a release date, he still seemed more than willing to share his side of the story.

But not anymore. Less than a week before his much-anticipated LP landed in stores, Lupe was button-lipped when it came to answering questions about missing pieces of the puzzle. Why aren’t his frequent collaborators Matthew Santos and producer Soundtrakk, who was integral in shaping the sound of his first two albums, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor and The Cool, on Lasers? “Can’t answer that,” responds Lupe. Why was the album title changed from LupE.N.D.? “Can’t answer that either.” Could you have walked away from Atlantic with the album at any point? “I can’t answer that.”

He isn’t being spiteful or confrontational. In fact, Lupe is as his lyrics purport: sharp-witted, collected and intellectually sagacious. The traits power the hip-pop flow of Lasers, an album with one of the most publicly controversial back-stories in rap history. Touting production from The Future, Alex Da Kid, Needlz, Kane Beatz and more, the LP shows Lupe at his most diverse – intentional or not – spilling socio-political thoughts on the climactic “Words I Never Said,” later shaking his tongue at the ladies on “Out of My Head” featuring Trey Songz.

Its variety speaks to Lupe’s topical versatility – even though he’s claimed that the label elbowed him into speaking on certain subjects and to refrain from rapping “too deep.” But that didn’t stop him from doing him. His new single, the Alex Da Kid-produced “Words I Never Said” featuring Skylar Grey, is Lupe at his best: tempestuous, vocalizing the taboo thoughts racing through his mind. The gut-busting tune, a sequel of sorts to “American Terrorist” off of his 2006 debut Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, digs into his subconscious and emerges as a verbal collage of social and economic problems.

“We’re still living in the same situation and the same political and social climate that we’ve maybe been in for like a decade now,” he explains. “I don’t feel it’s too adventurous for me. I think it’s maybe adventurous for people who forgot that we still live in a really fucked up country. Fucked up world, so to speak, when it comes to the people who actually run it and the policies that run this place.”

The album’s lead single, the Kane Beatz-produced “The Show Goes On,” takes a less dynamic approach, but still managed to become one of the biggest hits of his career. By the end of February, the triumphant track had marched past the 500,000 sales mark, earning gold certification and becoming his second highest-selling track after the platinum “Superstar.” The single’s success no doubt pleased both Lupe and his label, but the 29-year-old is more concerned with what his fans take away from the inspirational anthem.

“For me, it’s always been about even if I complete a record 100 percent, it’s still only 50 percent done. The other 50 percent is what the people who buy it and the people who listen to it, what they think about it,” explains Lupe. So what exactly is it about this record that resonates on such a large scale? “The funny thing about music is that it’s subjective. There’s no real [reason] why people like it. Everybody has their own reasons, and for me, once I make a song and it’s done and recorded and it’s out, I’m kind of done with it.”

That doesn’t mean the criticisms just bounce off of him. At the top of March, he emoted on Twitter after his album prematurely leaked to the Internet, sharing his disappointment with the slew of strong listener reactions. “I never thought Lasers would inspire so much negativity. Reading the comments and reactions is crushing,” he tweeted. Understandable, since people weren’t just panning the album – they were saying he was finished.

“I don’t get ‘This album was wack, it’s garbage.’ I don’t get that. I get, ‘His career is over. I’m never checking for Lupe again’ kind of things,” he says. “The record is a really positive record. I never intended for it to be something that would just bring so much ugliness out of people. But I think that it’s something that’s always been. I guess it’s that human thing.”

Fortunately for him, not everyone prayed on his downfall. Last year, fans united after the album was put on hold. Following a petition with more than 32,000 signatures demanding its release, New Jersey teenagers Matt Morelli and Matt La Corte organized the peaceful protest “Fiasco Friday,” intended to take place in mid-October outside of Atlantic Records’ New York City headquarters. Only, a week before the scheduled showdown, Lupe tweeted a picture of him and Atlantic president Julie Greenwald to announce that the album would finally see the light of day. Fans still gathered, instead to voice their gratitude.

“They had the balls to come out and protest in front of AXA Financial, across the street from UBS, all these suits and people walking past,” he states. “Even after they got what they achieved, they still came out to show their physical support for something they believe in. It was dope.”

While his fans took a powerful stance against Lasers’ delay, Lupe spent his free time enjoying life outside of music, discovering how his celebrity can benefit listeners beyond the recorded word. The rapper, whose real name is Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, explored global issues in January 2010 by participating in Summit on the Summit, an expedition to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa’s United Republic of Tanzania. Invited by fellow musician and friend Kenna, Lupe joined actress Jessica Biel, artist Santigold and actor Emile Hirsch on the mountain trek, documenting his travels through social networking mediums to help raise awareness for the global water crisis.

“I got a chance to see exactly what the global clean water crisis means and who it affects, and the economic and educational ramifications that expand from that,” he says. “And also how close to home that actually is for myself, and how trying to turn around and articulate that via interview or via a song or what have you would be less powerful if I hadn’t went.”

The journey, which later aired on an MTV special, resonated with fans who hadn’t been put on to the serious water deficit. “It was something that people misunderstood or people had no understanding about whatsoever,” he continues. “It didn’t revolutionize the game, but it definitely brought some players together and made it a little more stronger in the public space and the pop culture space.”

Summit on the Summit got him thinking about living a green life and the different ways to reduce his carbon footprint. He’s made personal concessions, like being conscious of running water in his house and refraining from purchasing certain products, but he’s not yet ready to assume the responsibility of becoming the face of going green.

“It still has a ways to go as far as kind of explaining and implementing an example of saying things that you can do that would actually have an effect on what the every day person can actually do, where it actually feels like they have some effect,” he says. “So I think the weight is on the shoulders of the green people to kind of do more in that sense, as far as educating the masses. Because there are some things I don’t know.”

He is, however, passionate about teaching Chicago youth about nutrition, launching The Lupe Fiasco Foundation in March 2011 to touch minds with knowledge of healthy living. The hope is to educate those who may not have a community outreach program and help them understand the fundamentals of agriculture, farming and unprocessed foods.

For Lupe, the lack of education is two-pronged. “The world always comes back to money and food, and I think food supersedes that,” he explains, noting how the documentary The World According to Monsanto lifts the veil on big business and its connection to the food industry. “I’m just educating people as much as I possibly can on the process of food and process of agriculture and getting people back to the land.”

He intends to branch out by incorporating music education into the Foundation’s initiatives, but for now is zeroing his focus on food, encouraging Chicagoans to look to their own backyards as a potential place to derive produce. “It’s bigger than just going to Wal-Mart or to the grocery store and getting some food, because what happens if that store isn’t there?” he asks. “Food prices just increased two percent. It’s been the highest level ever, if I’m not mistaken, as far as basic necessities are for food. So it’s good to get people to kind of understand and be educated to that process.”

Lupe is even lessening his impact on the earth with his fashion label Trilly & Truly, attempting to reduce waste during production by recycling styles that don’t fly off shelves. While other brands lump leftover product into giant warehouses, he’s taking non-purchased items like pants and turning them into shorts. “There’s a lot of waste in the fashion industry as far as a lot of the stuff that comes out and doesn’t get sold,” he says, focusing on reinventing garments instead of incorporating more expensive organic materials. “It’s been a pretty interesting process, reconstructing and reworking different designs that may not have been too popular from one season.”

The initiatives keep him occupied, but it all circles back to music. Through 2011, Lupe plans on either a full-length or EP with his rock side project Japanese Cartoon, with hopes to put it out by the summer. Once Lasers runs its course and he wraps a tour for the album, he intends to revive and release his previously canceled mixtape Friend of the People. And after that, Food & Liquor 2, the sequel to his 2006 debut, will arrive in stores by Christmas – this time, hopefully, without all the drama.

“This year, for me, it’s all about music. Just put out music, put out as much music as you possibly can. With the label or without the label, free or for pay,” he says. “We’re going to do a ton of touring this year, so you know, it’s just about music. Performing music, releasing music – all of that good stuff.”

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