Lupe’s Lasers: The Death Sentence for Major Record Labels

“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 WrittenI 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:


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  • behind da barz

    --------the chemicals R identical, we're one & the same / with 7 letters in all 3 of my government names / walked on water, nah, neither did jesus / its a parable to make followers & readers believers--------i gave her my honorable discharge & she took it like a soldier--------what's a black beetle anyway, a fuckin roach-------she told the director she tryna get in a school-he said "take them glasses off and get in the pool"---------what ya'll call swag to me is faggotry-------my outfit so disrespectful / u go 'head n sneeze let my presence bless u--------its quite amazing that u rhyme like u do / & how u shine like u grew up in a shrine in peru-------its hard fuckin with niggaz u hope u can trust / ure a fool if ure main bitch is easy to fuck--------beyond the walls of intelligence life is divine / i think of crime when im in a new york state of mind - ------THE WAY SOME ACT IN RAP IS KINDA WACK / IT LACKS CREATIVITY & INTELLIGENCE / BUT THEY DON'T CARE BECAUSE THEIR COMPANY IS SELLING IT / ITS MY PHILOSOPHY ON THE INDUSTRY--------From days I wasn't "Abel/able", there was always "Cain/caine-------know how to leave anything in 30 seconds / when you feel the heat coming & flee with the murder weapon--------ayo my silent moments' loud as the crack of thunder / my hunger like the crocodile that attacked the hunter-------i'm something between platinum & flop, underground & mainstream / conscious, backpack, scratch dat; same thing---------this phiscal year im'a stay hot, buzzin / wit dudes that help me shoot like a-rod's cousin-------i fight chicks who bite dicks / give 'em lock-jaw then make 'em fight pits ------all we see is terrorism on telievision ------i'm da illest nigga alive watch me prove it / i'll snatch your crown with your head still attatched to it ------slap your face till your head ache your neck break / the next day slash your throat thru the neckbrace ------ I'm ahead of the game, ahead of these lames / I'm a head case, the head nurse gets me better with brain ------ure now dealin with da kid who heat-holds & reloads / like god gave him a gta ammunition cheat-code ------once upon a time i used to grind all night / with dat coke residue that was ipod white ------ --i took trips with so much shit in the whip / that if the cops pulled us over the dogs would get sick (sniff) ------ i put my lifetime in between the paper's lines / i'm da quiet storm nigga who fight rhyme ------brain cells are lit ideas start to hit / next the formation of words dat fit / at da table i sit making it legit / when my pen hits da paper...aah shit -------i save money while u spendin ure doe / i must stash like da hair between your lip & your nose ------age don't count in the booth / when your flow stayed submerged in the fountain of youth -------when i'm writing i'm trapped in between the lines / i escape when i finish da rhyme - ------if we can't eat together then u aint my mans / so when u see me in da streets dont shake my hand- -----money is da root of all evil / dats why u always gotta now where u stand with your people--------i can show u how to gamble your money, handle a gun / & be a family man & go home to your sun- -------black diamonds in my jesus-piece / MY GOD-------its like da ball be over the plate & they dont call it a strike- ------i'm a gangsta & a gentleman, show you both sides of the coin / knife at your throat-gun at your groin- --------my testimonial be "death to a phony mc / you wanna impress me, show me a ki--------lord knows what homey would do if i showed him da 9 / a one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind--------on da road to riches & diamond rings / in the land of the blind a man with one eye is the king--------you lack the minerals & vitamins, iron & the niacin--------stares get exchanged then the 5th come out / the tough guy disappears then the bitch come out--------if you got a bith you dont argue with dat bitch / you dont listen to dat bitch all you do is fuck dat bitch-------know da bitch b4 you call yourself lovin it / nogga wit a benz fuckin it------went from $20Gs for blow to $30gs a show / to orgies wit hoes i never seen befo'-------i'm intelectual; passed more essays / than police motorcade parades thru east l.a.-------DEAD IN THE MIDDLE OF LITTLE ITALY LITTLE DID WE KNOW / WE RIDDLED SOME MIDDLE-MAN WHO DIDN'T DO DIDDLY-------visualizing the realism of life in actuality / fuck who's da baddest; a person's status depends on salary-------mechanical movement, understandable smooth shit / that murderers move with-the thief's theme--------DEEP LIKE "THE SHINING" SPARKLE LIKE A DIAMOND / SNEAK AN UZI ON DA ISLAND IN MY ARMY JACKET LINING / HIT THE EARTH LIKE A COMET - INVASION / NAS IS LIKE THE AFRO-CENTRIC ASIAN; ½ MAN, ½ AMAZING-------& why certainly i'm squirtin / bust a nut then get up & wipe my dick on your curtain-------walk by your casket & spit in your face--------i know how to get my peers off me / make 'em cry & die from high blood-pressure cuz tears are salty-------i'm not trying to give you love & affection / i'm tryna give you 60 seconds of erection / then im'a give you cab fare & directions / get your independent ass outta here - question?---------black cat is bad luck; bad guys wear black / must've been a white guy who started all that--------either you're slinging crack-rocks or you got a wicked jumpshot--------all us blacks got is sports & entertainment--------2 many athletes, actors & rappers / but not enough niggaz at nasa - ------why did bush knock down the towers?--------I REACT LIKE MIKE / ANY ONE TY-SON, JOR-DAN, JACK-SON / action, pack gunz, ridiculous--------all the teachers couldn't reach me & my mom couldn't beat me / hard enough to make up for my pop not seeing me---------kings from queens, from queens comes kings / we're raising hell like a class when the lunch bell rings---------excuse me miss, can i give you a minute? / may i buy you a glass of ice with liquor in it?--------what goes around comes around i figure / now we got white kids calling themselves nigga / the tables turn as the crosses burn...---------YOU LOVE TO HEAR THE STORY AGAIN & AGAIN / OF HOW IT ALL GOT STARTED WAY BACK WHEN--------i guess they got a grudge cause i won't budge / playin tough, staring down the judge with my hands cuffed---------A CHILD IS BORN WITH NO STATE OF MIND / BLIND TO THE WAYS OF MANKIND--------who shot biggie smalls? if we don't get them they gon' get us all / i'm down to run up pn them crackers in their city hall----------its kinda hard to be optimistic / when your homey is laying dead in a casket----------they say the blacker the berry; the sweeter the juice / i say the darker the flesh; then the deeper the roots---------i took your breath away then we'd perform cpr---------there's no real way it can be explained / i guess its just the way i smile when i hear your name--------CASH RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME / C.R.E.A.M. GET THE MONEY, DOLLAR DOLLAR BILL Y'AAAAALL------------see I’m a poet to some, a regular modern day shakespeare / jesus christ the king of these latter day saints here / To shatter the picture in which of that as they paint me as / a monger of hate and satan a scatter-brained atheist--------i remember marvin gaye used to sing to me / he had me feeling like black was the thing to be------------this be that put-you-out-your-misery song / that makes you ask your man 'is this the joint he's dissin me on?'---------foul all your life now ure 90 / on ure death bed u regret being grimey---------INDUSTRY RULE #4080, RECORD COMPANY PEOPLE ARE SHAAADYYYY / so kids watch your back cause i think they smoke crack---------society's a weak excuse for a man-----------planet earth my place of birth / born to be the sole controller of the universe---------the mic had my prints, on on it was a body---------a squealer tells, but the dealer still sells---------some young male put in jail / lawyer so good his bail was on sale----------i'm just takin a piss......unless you're gonna do it----------fuck street clothes, we thug it out in tuxedos / stomp niggaz with hard bottoms in casinos--------people higher up have the lowest self-esteem / & the prettiest people do the ugliest things-----------IF YOU ADMIRE SOMEONE YOU SHOULD GO 'HEAD & TELL 'EM / PEOPLE NEVER GET THE ROSES WHILE THEY CAN STILL SMELL 'EM-----------goddamn, what a nigga gotta do to make a million / without the fbi catching feelings--------i got a story to tell / in these streets we got drugs & guns for sale---------we keep the nine tucked chop dimes up rap about it / wild out fuck niggaz up laugh about it---------- read between tha lines of ya eyes and ya brows / ya handshake aint matchin ya smile---------what the fuck i rap for? to push a fuckin rav-4?-------fuck all the glamour & glitz, i plan to get rich / i'm from new york & never was a fan of the knicks----------the white boy blossomed after dre endorsed him / his flow on renegade-fuckin awesome...applaud him-------before i start you know i gotta / pay homage & respects to afrika bambaata---------DRUGS IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS / MONEY IS THE KEY TO SEX------i pimped my crib so i must exhibit------- I - WILL - NOT - LOSE !
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