Can Rap Be Saved? Part 1 of 3: Lupe's Fiasco

You remember Lupe Fiasco, right?  The Chicago-born rapper was once the darling of alternative rap fans the world over. Boasting a subdued, cool persona on his debut full-length, Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor, the quick-rising star received help from the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West before The Cool turned him into something more.  Critics hailed The Cool, released in 2007, as a new face and a new direction for rap.  Lupe declared the record a concept album, and while the sci-fi story line of prog-rock “concept” albums wasn’t there, an ear for divergent beats and forays into the unpredictable garnered the album rave reviews.  Whether it was a smooth-jazz backbeat or raps about video game violence, Lupe was so successful because he did what he fancied, and along the way, he abandoned pre-conceived notions of what a rap album should be. Lupe announced his next album, a three-disc record that would, puzzlingly, be his last.  The Lup E.N.D., he dubbed it in 2008, when his plan was unveiled.  Yet almost immediately, the story changed.  Lupe announced the final project would be postponed indefinitely, replaced by albums released in 2009 and 2010. Lasers, the first of these new records, was announced in July of 2009, for fourth quarter release in the same year. The first single from the record dropped on July 7.

But then, something happened. Atlantic Records delayed the release of the record, pushing back the date to the spring of 2010 - then even further. During the entire stretch, Lupe toured extensively, including bringing us an energy-packed performance at our own Claremont Colleges. Lupe’s knack for entertainment was bolstered by a larger-than-life stage performance. Students lucky enough to attend the show at the Big Bridges Auditorium were treated to a live-band set-up (Guitar, Drums, and DJ) and a great opening act in the form of Atlanta’s now-famous B.o.B (but more on him later). While Lupe’s life act was turning heads, things with the record label gradually broke down. Fans protested in an online petition for the album’s release, while Lupe found other projects, which included playing in a punk band called Japanese Cartoon. On October 15, 2010, Lupe and his fans staged a protest outside the New York City headquarters of Atlantic Records, who finally agreed to release the album on March 8, 2011.

Yet even before this, Lupe Fiasco sat down with a reporter from Complex, an online music magazine, for one of the most puzzling interviews of the year. Titled “Interview: Lupe Fiasco Hates His Own Album,” the resulting article stunned fans and music critics alike. Lupe bemoaned the interminable recording sessions that went into Lasers. Record executives refused to release the album entirely if he didn’t complete several songs written by Atlantic’s producers. These songs included “Show Goes On,” the new first single from the record, and a duet with John Legend (another performance alumnus of the Claremont Colleges). These sessions, part of Lupe’s contractual obligations to Atlantic, were demanded by the record executives in a process that exhausted and jaded the rapper. “At that point, I was just drained. I was like, ‘Whatever. Another song, another day, another dollar,’” he told Complex. And this was the record his loyal fans finally received.

It’s a story that’s been oft-repeated in the halls of the rap industry. Up-and-comers like B.o.B and Bruno Mars found themselves similarly cornered by the executives who saw dollar signs when the young men presented radio-friendly sounds to their record supervisors. Sure, Jay-Z called for the “Death of Auto-Tune” on his most recent album, but the clichéd recording device has become a staple of the major pop radio radio.

A single listen to the DJ’s playlist at a Claremont Colleges party reveals, in part, the growing divide in rap music. Rap is a genre that thrives off of mainstream success, with little room for “indie” artists to find the same audience as their big-league counterparts. A successful rap artist can be one of the best money-making devices for a record label. No genre allows for guest-spots and the all-too-common “featuring” tag more easily, both things that rake in extra royalties. Hell, Snoop Dog even appeared on a Katy Perry track. If a rap artist wants to be successful and to get their music to a large audience, this means surrendering artistic control to corporate producers and label executives. In the same interview mentioned above, Lupe stated he was offered the instrumental tracks to B.o.B’s “Airplanes” single by Atlantic to be a part of “Lasers.” The songs that gain notoriety (and thus plays at a TNC) are the songs with aggressive radio campaigns behind them.

With no choice but to “sell-out” to make it big, rap now suffers an identity crisis. A handful of established artists continue to draw sales numbers from their efforts, but the continued search for “the next big thing” has resulted in a diluted version of rap music that gets spun by radio stations and student DJs alike. At the same time, “indie” rap has begun to formulate much in the way underground rock music came to fruition in the 1990s. If names like Eminem, Lil' Wayne, and Kanye West make you nod your head in appreciation, or if names like Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Em All, Pharoahe Monch, and Akir intrigue you, stay tuned for two more articles on the current status of rap music.