"This remote, public, and, as it were, principled, bondage is the indispensable justification of their own: when the prisoner is free, the jailer faces the void of himself."
—James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work
Speaking last Tuesday at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, on the night of his fifth solo release, Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, legendary artist Raekwon listed a few pillars under which “real Hip-Hop” must fall—wittiness, slang, real-life value, lyrical worth, and a non-commercial edge. In case the concert audience had slumbered through the last item, he repeated with emphasis: “It’s got to be non-commercial!” On the same day, another prominent artist was living the reality of a music industry whose iron fist often tightens around the necks of those who refuse to submit and do as told. Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers dropped, following a tumultuous three-year delay no one saw coming.
After two superb albums released in the winter months of 2006 and 2007, all eyes fell upon the Chicago native to invade a territory only few have ever trudged; and for most fans, this represented less a demand and more an expectation. The last ten years had produced in Rap no fresher voice, no wittier mind, and it just seemed inevitable—that time would do him justice, and the ladder of quality would stretch higher on his behalf (especially since the sophomore curse had so eluded him in an age of ephemerality), and that with a third album he might possibly accomplish in ways a predecessor had tragically failed (Illmatic, It Was Written… I Am), successfully dodging the deadly commercial darts flying his way: darts which pierce with determination, rendering great artists casualties of early success; more importantly, repeated success which upset the logic of cemented probability, which undo tried and true equations record labels have built castles upon: Street Consciousness + Social Courage + Lyricism = Billboard Disaster.
Fans, it turns out, were wrong; and just like his predecessor, Lupe is now staring at an impasse, unable to reconcile his third effort with the two classics of a not too distant past. And his fingers have for the last few weeks been pointing in one direction—the record label, Atlantic Records, which signed him in 2004 to a rumored six-album deal. This is the label’s album, Lupe has been chanting to music websites for a few days now. Even when the success of his first official single, “The Show Goes On,” is raised, Lupe seems hardly moved, explaining to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Thomas Conner: “It’s their record. My words, their music. They forced this song to be a No. 1 single, and that's what they got. I can't take any credit for it.”
Conner spoke with him earlier this month, and extracted some painfully brutal remarks from an artist half-ashamed of his work, which he says is “very abstract. I had to create this commercial art that appeases the corporate side. I had to acquiesce to certain forces. Hopefully within that I snuck in some things I actually wanted to say any way I can.” Lupe explained with the commercial success of his first two records an inebriating confidence overwhelmed him, so he walked into the boardrooms expecting a bump in the budget, to replicate on a grander scale the formula which had defied odds and proved viable twice in a row.
Soon enough, however, he wised up to the chicanery at hand and canceled all other futile meetings. Atlantic one-upped and froze his budget, then began taunting his dignity, telling him not to “rap too deep on this record,” to play it safe. “That was a specific order from the top. ‘You're rapping too fast or too slow, or it's too complex’.” Atlantic also wanted the superstar, whose light was brightening each passing day, to sign a 360 deal, which would stick the label’s fingers into his pockets on any commercial venture. When he budged, the overlords, not used to unservile artists, struck harder: “I was told, ‘Because you didn't sign this 360 deal, we may or may not push your record’.”
Sometimes, living in a world like this
It’s pretty hard not to go insane
Not pretty if you don’t comply
Pretty easy if you don’t complain
What a strange creature Lupe must have seemed—a young, Black artist who didn’t sign every dotted line put before him. The dregs of Atlantic dragged out this years-long process, as fans kept chasing down fleeting rumors about completed albums which might never see the light of day.
I still recall being confronted two years back at a library by a friend with news that Lupe was planning a highly conceptual three-disc album which would mark his exit from mainstream music; and I recall muttering, “He’s getting desperate. The brother’s fighting for his life.” It was clear, even back then, nefarious forces were pushing his hand, and the only solution he could conjure was to satisfy all contractual obligations in one fell swoop. Only if he knew Pharaoh’s business model is built on bondage, and for as long as possible his overlords planned to keep him till all the milk is drained, till he becomes irrelevant or, better yet, redundant enough to dispose of. Only then would the gates open, and he allowed to walk free—however battered, bruised, and broken, bearing no resemblance to the brilliant mind who had consistently shattered conventional binarism standards that suggested “commercial” artists can’t be smart and “conscious” artists can’t be mass appealing.
Atlantic Records, Lupe says, took sadism one step further: sending him songs, telling him what and how to record. The label had come to see him like any other of the mindless bots stocked on its roster, whose names would never legitimately appear next to the word “artist.” Atlantic had no problem de-skilling one of its most celebrated artists, renowned for storming the scene, as Jay-Z began chiming circa 2005, with a “breath of fresh air.”
Well, the strain of dehumanization seemed to be draining him, so he “hunkered down” and “got through it,” recording their songs as they wanted, finding “some emotional distance from the music.” Today, he would rather be acknowledged as “a hostage” in a corporate heist. “I gave them what they wanted. If I didn't, at the end of the day the album wasn't coming out.”
It is also true that the hundreds of fans who gathered outside Atlantic’s offices in New York on Oct. 15, 2010, the hundreds others who marched in Chicago the same day (“Fiasco Friday”), and the thirty thousand who signed a petition demanding a release date for Lasers helped wring from the throats of death Lupe’s career—which the label’s brass, petty and autocratic as they love to be, had no problem seeing gulped down for eternity.
Burdens on my shoulders now
Burning all my motives down
Inspiration drying up
Motivation slowing down
The fans that day got their desires christened; Lasers would be released March 8, 2011. As the days drew nearer, however, Lupe felt forced to defend the concerns fans might be inspired toward when the speakers turn up. “I love and hate this album,” he told Complex magazine late last month. “I listen to it and I’ll like some of the songs. But when I think about what it took to actually get the record together and everything that I went through on this record—which is something I can’t separate—I hate this album. A lot of the songs that are on the album, I’m kinda neutral to.” Even songs fans had come to know every word of on tours were rejected by the label, for the age when labels entertained illusions that fan satisfaction ranks higher than commerce potential is dead. But being held hostage can compel the soul of even the toughest war general: “For me, it’s the fans and for them to get a victory and for us to get a release date. That’s all we really wanted the whole time like, ‘Either give us a release date or let us go.’ And they were like, ‘No, we’re not giving you either one of those’.”
The sadists at the label must have felt secure these secrets would never leak to the public—many years of sustained repression have silenced the tongues of artists who’ve multiple times suffered the fate Lupe was introduced to. Only now, truth crushed to earth is rising up, and labels are finding it harder to muzzle the tongues of their abused artists.
Lupe’s fans believed no artist should ever be punished with such hell—especially a hell whose flames he didn't start. They demanded the release of an album long-awaited, but now find the product too ghastly to behold, for some wishes do come true, and the line from imagination to reality can prove wavy.
Lasers should, for any fan, prove the final salvo into the heart of one major myth which has survived too long into the 21st century: that major record labels are still remotely interested in quality music, and only incessantly pump out the commercial, redundant garbage because no alternative exists. If this is the label’s album, no wonder, for Lasers sounds more like a TRL-themed package than a serious record speaking to the very precarious and dark times we live in. Yes, Lupe manages to sneak in gems like “Words I Never Said” and “All Black Everything,” but the dominance of pop tunes betrays an anxious label frantic on the hunt for “radio play.”
Anyone who passes through “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now” without catching the giggles has little taste for music; it is Gaga-esque, the sort of rubbish that pounds the Top 20 airwaves for weeks and is thereafter dumped into the dustbin of forgotten history. And even when flickers of a brilliant past twitch momentarily, the dominance of “compromise” swallows any chances for greatness. Minor flashes of wisdom lose out to a ubiquitous absence of signature wittiness. Yet, from the depths of desperation, he delivers haunting bars like the 2nd verse of “Beautiful Lasers (2 Ways),” on which he reveals suicidal considerations. (What did Madvillain say? “That’s like making a soldier drop his weapon / Shooting him, and telling him to get to steppin’…”)
On song after song, lyrics seems terribly—irony alert—dumbed down; just as Atlantic wanted, Lupe lectures his fans on the facts of life in a tone as annoying as pitiful; most fans, he seems to think, couldn't buy their way out of the first round on the FOX Television hit show, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? The master of metaphor seemed to be on vacation: those compelling references from two albums back—helicopters swinging against bowties, walking project buildings, oil-drenched fish at the beach (BP?)—take bows to rhymes dressed up for simpletons.
Few artists appreciate fans who fetishize the past, but with all the evil and banality in our world today, Lupe seems terribly out of touch with his past. About as radical as it gets on Lasers: “Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist / Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn't say shit / ... Crooked banks around the world would gladly give a loan today / So if you ever miss a payment, they can take your home away.” On Food & Liquor: “Don't give the Black man food, give Red man liquor / Red man: fool, Black man: **** / Give Yellow man tool, make him railroad builder / Also give him pan, make him pull gold from river / Give Black man crack, glocks and things / Give Red man craps, slot machines / Now bring it back…” Absent is the meticulous storyteller who once sewed up a powerful narrative of a dead man returning to the ruins of his old neighborhood, finding it no different than how he left.
Here, Lupe sounds like an artist one step from checking out—two sips from chugging the hemlock. Songs seem destined for a generation yet unborn; very didactic; “We are the World”-like. Bland and clichéd themes are recycled endlessly, and as the album trails, it leaves the listener somewhat sad, watching a precious flower fail to blossom in its third spring.
Most fans, however, are likely to still chalk this one up as a precedent-setting prize—as well they should. Only now, greater action is required. Let not the felicity of a pyrrhic victory lull the masses to slumber or, worse yet, to interest grand delusions that the labels have learned their lesson and are ready to tread the straight and narrow from here onward.
Frederick Douglass was right about Power and Demand; and more than ever before it seems painfully evident that everyday people—fans and supporters—truly have the power to weaken the knees of corporate giants who need them far more than they care to admit, for without the hard-earned dollars of the multitude, which carelessly disperse their scraps on CDs, ringtones, concert tickets, and merchandise, the bottom line checks out. Regrettably, the great gods of illiteracy have so systematically humbled the masses that, these days, most blindly and gleefully accept s**tfor breakfast—gouging on recycled waste without a thought. Responsibility, then, falls upon the conscious to ratchet up the momentum, never letting up until all demands are met; only then would the scales fall from the eyes of the blind, and a true revolution of values sweep through the industry, setting free our many captive artists.
Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and a former AHH editorial columnist. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.