Lupe Fiasco is sitting in the suite of London hotel room flicking through a Buyer’s Guider for Ferrari's. “Got a little collection of Ferrari’s,” he says casually, turning onto a new page.
It seems like an odd admission from the rapper. While he’s created some of the biggest hip-hop anthem of recent years - 2007’s ‘Superstar’ perhaps being the biggest - Fiasco isn’t someone you would associate with the more glamorous side of the profession. His songs, for example, are often fiercely political and always lyrically intelligent, rather than brash and boastful, and, he’s an active philanthropist.
As his record label Atlantic has also discovered in recent years, he also does things on his own terms. ‘Lasers’, his new album, arrives in stores this week four years after its predecessor ‘The Cool’ and at the end of a long-running saga, which culminated in his fans staging a protest outside the label’s offices in New York.
To mark its release, Fiasco sat down with Gigwise to discuss the record, his political interests and the future.
‘Lasers’ has been four years in the pipeline. It must be a huge sigh of relief to be finally putting the album out there?
“Yeah - simply. But that’s dishonest to say as well because this was an album that up until the protests and the petition we had all but moved away from. It was all about let us go to another record company; it got to that point. We’re already looking at the next one and moving on.”
You announced the comeback with ‘The Show Goes On’, which is a very uplifting and motivational track. Is it fair to view that as a statement of intent for the album as a whole?
“Yeah, it has that. It’s also very, on a non-musical level, it’s also very telling of the process because it was a record that was given to me by the record label. So it’s this little bit of label, some Lupe, some fans - everybody that was involved in the whole thing all coming to a head in ‘The Show Goes On’. So it’s funny that for the show to go on, we had to do ‘The Show Goes On’. On that level it’s pretty funky. But the song itself it was meant to be an uplifting, inspirational record that spoke on a lot of different subjects and gave you the premise of what the rest of the record was going to sound like. Big songs, big hooks and big verses - touching on big topics and naming names so to speak.”
Before we talk about the delays, can you just go back to when you actually started putting these songs together?
“I don’t know, man. It was over the course of a few years, and it was something that was start and stop. And literally stop and go start work on a completely different project and come back to it, and trash can a whole phase of it. I say there are four phases of it that I remember. There were songs that I made for ‘Lasers’ that didn’t make ‘Lasers’, then there were songs that I didn’t do for ‘Lasers’ that snuck their way on, so it was a pretty interesting process creatively…not even creatively, just from a production standpoint.”
Did you find that easy or difficult to have to cope with?
“It was easy because it was a break from…there was a creative misunderstanding between myself and the label, so it was great because you don’t just be recording for the sake of recording. At a certain level, you want to have a point to what you’re doing, and when you get this uncertainty from the label you feel like you’re wasting your time because you’ll make like nine songs and the label just want like any of them. And I’m saying nine songs given to me by the label. It’s like if somebody kept sending your food back the kitchen. You’re the chef and you’re like, ‘Well bring your own food to the restaurant and I’ll cook what you want me to cook’.”
Lupe Fiasco - 'The Show Goes On'.
As an artist who released ‘Food and Liquor’ in 2006 and ‘The Cool’ in 2007, was it frustrating to face such uncertainty?
“Yeah, very frustrating on a personal, emotional and spiritual level - it was very frustrating. The traditional relationship between a record company and an artist is not good, so with this one it’s even multiplied. The role reversal and paradigm shifts that took place were very taxing. The mental thing that I went through...I was very depressed at a certain point because I was told I was unsuccessful, I was told I was wack. You get all this stuff coming from your record company and you’re like, ‘Come on man.’ It was something where it felt like they’re tearing me down, so I had to completely disconnect myself from it. I’m not even doing music for that now, I’m doing music because I really like it and I love it, and if I love it I’m not going to do it.”
The delay culminated in a petition that your fans put together. That must have been quite humbling.
“It was very empowering; I was silently empowered. You’ve got 250 chanting and screaming kids, and beyond the number it’s a group of people - 17 and 19 year olds - who put that together and got permits and noise ordinates and car pools and plane tickets. To see people mobilised like that…it wasn’t something that I got behind or instigated - it was something that they did on their own. So it was very silently empowering, a vindication in some instances, but at the same time to, humbling. It was something that made me feel like it’s bigger than me.”
Had you at the point resigned yourself to the idea that the album just wasn’t going to come out?
“Yeah, I was done. For me it wasn’t even lets comprise and get the record out, it was let me go to another record company, let me go independently and we can just be done with this. I can move onto another phase and you can move onto another phase, and that will be that. But I’m still at the point now where the wounds between me and the record label - it’s not that it’s healed or unhealed, I’m just done with it. I’m very numb to the situation, but happy with the album in the same breath.”
You’ve always written lyrics that make people stop and think. ‘Words I Never Said’ is perhaps your most politically driven song on the new album. Do you find it easy to write songs like that?
“Yeah, very easy - I didn’t even write that down, because that’s my core. That’s the stuff that I can just sit back and speak on for hours, and for me it’s a collage of all these different ideas and events and themes that have a political undertone, a social undertone, a conspiracy theory undertone to it, and just putting it out there. It’s very similar to the song ‘American Terrorist’ that I did on my first record I guess it’s just the way that it’s put. Where this could be played on the radio, ‘American Terrorist’ would never get on the radio.”
Lupe Fiasco - 'Words I Never Said'.
I think one of the reasons why it might be seen as controversial is because of the lyrics about President Obama. It’s not something people would expect from a rapper.
“Traitorous even, or treasonous. I was never on the bandwagon of Obama like that, because I’m not on the bandwagon for the American Government, the Federal Government. It’s not all 100 per cent evil, but it does a whole lot to not make you think that. The economical policies that are instigated really makes you think that the American government is a bunch of evil bastards. So just because you’re black you’re still representing that government, and when Obama came into office he enacted the same policies that we would critique other presidents for. The people who are on your economic team and determine the economic polices for the rest of us are the same people who ran those financial institutions, the same people who were corrupt and could possibly face criminal charges, but he’s the head of your economic thing. Honestly, what the fu*ck is that? That’s what you call a WTF. So I think the critiques are poignant.
“I love Obama, and I love the fact that it’s a black president of the United States of America, but he’s not the first black president. Robert Mugabe is a black president too so lets not get to talking about precedents being set. The fact that he’s black and American, that’s different. But that it’s anything special beyond that, that just because of that everything’s going to be a utopia, then that’s not true.”
Where did your interest in politics come from?
“From my mother and my father, specifically my mother directly, my father kind of indirectly just watching him and the things that he was involved in, and the things that he would participate in doing. My mother was more direct, my mother was more specific events, specific places, specific people [and] names in the world. I’d be 11, 12, 13 talking to my mother about the seven day war or talking to her about different instances [and] engagements or American foreign policy in different parts of the world - in Africa or the Caribbean. When you get that education young that’s what you know about, and over time you learn more but that’s the foundation you build on.”
What do you think of the current condition of hip-hop that ‘Lasers’ will find itself in. How do you view the genre at the moment?
“It’s weird to say objectively, but put it the way it is: it’s negative. You still have your lights of positivity in there, you still have you Mos Defs and your Commons and your Talib Kweli - you still have that presence there - but the majority of it is negative. The actual messages are very negative.
“I have a certain level of celebrity, on par or even greater than some of my contemporaries, you know some of the quote-on-qoute, ‘conscious rappers’, but I have the ability to be on 106 & Park, where as maybe Dead Prez doesn’t. So it’s not taking anything away from Dead Prez, it’s just being the agent of change over here. Where as Talib Kweli is the agent of change in the underground arena, Lupe Fiasco is the agent of change who is that young rapper that everybody respects who walks the line between celebrity and underground, and this is where he fits. So looking at the terrain that I have and the weapons that I have, and fighting that war where I’m at. I’m almost like Trojan Horse so to speak. I can get on KISS FM, which is like the pinnacle of the hip-hop world in the US. They’re playing my record, and I’m talking about uplifting and all those positive imageries. But also at the same time those controversial thought provoking things, not just positive for the sake of utopia. I think it’s going to fit nicely. I don’t think it’s going to rock the boat, but I’m not about rocking the boat - I’m about balancing the boat.”
You touched on the fact that you’ve been doing side-projects while waiting for your feud with the label to end. One of the most exciting of those is Child Rebel Solider with Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. Can we expect an album?
“Honestly I don’t know, it’s all scheduling. We’re all three independent artists, all working. It’s not like we’re dormant, we’re all working, so it’s about finding that moment where we can all get together and sit down, and come up with the songs and the ideas. We just haven’t had the opportunity to do that as of late, enough to put an album, a serious album together, and even if we get to that point, the business of the album coming out is ridiculous because it’s three separate labels, three separate interests and that’s going to be a paperwork nightmare. So there’s elements to it - big hurdles that need to be jumped before we can proceed with it properly and give people what they want, which is an album.”
You mentioned that you were waiting for this album to come out you’ve been thinking about what will come next. Can you tell us anything more about that?
“Well there’s my punk band Japanese Cartoon - we’re trying to do another album this summer - but then there’s another Lupe record that I want to do before the end of the year. Because it’s been so long, it’s been four years, I think we have the opportunity to write almost, because it’s been so long. So I’m actively perusing getting the label to agree with that, and that will be it. More music and more music and more music, and touring, touring, touring. That’s the formula for me now so we’ll see if that pans out.”
'Lasers' is out now.