Showing disdain for your record company is one thing, especially when you’re an artist who’s been as royally screwed as Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco.
Evincing contempt for your audience is another issue, however, and it’s disconcerting that, rightly or not, people now are hurling that accusation at Lupe.
Trailing his debut album “Food & Liquor” (2006) and its follow-up “The Cool” (2007) by a delay of more than three years, the third album by the artist born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco was subject to endless commercial tinkering by his label, Atlantic Records, which, in the classic music-biz cliché, “just didn’t hear a hit.”
At one point, fans protested outside Atlantic’s corporate offices and produced a petition signed by 30,000 people urging the company to let the artist follow his own muse. Meanwhile, Lupe wasn’t shy in complaining about his ordeal—to Greg Kot at the Tribune, to Thomas Conner at the Sun-Times, and to pretty much anyone else willing to listen.
We could applaud Lupe’s frankness and feel his pain when he confessed to Kot, “I hate this record, the process of making this record.” On the other hand, when it finally was released on March 4, “Lasers” did score the rapper’s first No. 1 hit, debuting at the top of the Billboard albums chart and raking in first-week sales of more than 204,000—an impressive accomplishment in this digital era.
When we reviewed the album on “Sound Opinions,” my critical sparring partner gave it a “Burn It” while I went with an enthusiastic “Buy It.” Yes, there are problems on some of its dozen tracks: You can hear the influence of those commercially-pandering cooks in the audio kitchen, over-stepping their bounds by over-polishing and glossing-up club-bangers and pop ditties such as “The Show Goes On” (with its nod to “Float On” by Modest Mouse), “Coming Up,” and “Beautiful Lasers.” And, sure, some of the guest cameos are unnecessary—though for once John Legend actually is a welcome addition to the atmospheric “Never Forget You.” But this is hardly Black Eyed Peas-styled piece of fluffy pop product.
Lupe’s voice emerges loud and clear on the most striking tracks, which are some of the strongest musically and lyrically that he ever has given us. The political satire is sharp and the anger is righteous and unrelenting, even when it is unexpectedly directed toward another hometown hero, Barack Obama, as it is on “Words I Never Said.” And it’s all the more effective for being leavened with a heaping dose of humor and those much-maligned but sometimes subversive pop hooks.
Witness the stunning “All Black Everything,” which envisions an alternate universe where Bill O’Reilly reads the Koran, Somalia is a great vacation spot, the all-black Vegas Rat Pack inspires a young group of white brothers named the Jacksons, and the artist only drops the sledgehammer-serious point of this exercise at the very end: “And we ain’t get exploited/White man ain’t fear it, so he did not destroy it.”
Though his mixed feelings about the finished version of “Lasers” are a given, now that the disc is out and Lupe is free to present what he considers its best material in concert in whatever form he chooses, you’d think it was high time for him to be looking on the bright side and moving forward with every public appearance. But that’s not necessarily what’s been happening.
First the rapper canceled without explanation a high-profile show at South by Southwest that was one of the music conference’s most anticipated gigs. (Cracked one music-industry insider: “Now that he’s No. 1, he doesn’t need to come to Texas to play for the rock critics.”) Then his Chicago homecoming to the House of Blues on Saturday was nothing short of… well, a fiasco.
“This event was a total catastrophe on all fronts,” one correspondent wrote me via email. “Doors opened at 7:30, with Lupe set to perform at 9.” The opening acts started that that time and finished at about 10, but there was no sign of the headliner. “No DJ, no emcee, nothing.” About an hour later, the club started playing music again, but “the crowd became restless, booing and letting their frustration be known. Then they announced that Lupe was not even in the building but was on his way. Craziness ensued. Fans became restless, throwing beer cans (which I do not condone), one fan jumped on stage and grabbed a mic, asking where Lupe was, just a total mess… Lupe eventually came on stage, but not until well after midnight, then proceeded to do a set [that lasted] less than half an hour, and only snippets at that. It was a total waste of time and money. I mean, five hours of standing before Lupe even comes out, and then he does four and a half songs?”
Though this blogger wasn’t at the show, the details in the account quoted above are confirmed by more than 452 posts—many of them much harsher in their language and sentiments—posted on Lupe’s fan page on Facebook. (And yet another similar account can be found at ChicagoNow.com.)
Nearly as loquacious and new media-savvy as his mentor Kanye West, Lupe addressed the controversy on his Twitter account:
To be clear to everyone that attended the House Of Blues Laser release thing in Chicago. It was NEVER supposed to be a show...The promoters didn't stress to the public the fact that it was supposed to just be a party.As far as me being late I literally drove about 6 hours to get there and I ran out of gas around Springfield!!!! Shout to AAA 4 the save!!!I love my fans. I'm sorry u guys had to go thru some BS. Again me and my crew had NOTHING to do w/ how the event was ran or organized.Also all the money for the event from my side is and always was going to be donated to charity so at least for me it was a free event
The problem with Lupe’s apology is that the artist ultimately should control anything that happens under his name, and if things were not being done up to his standards, he has a duty to step forward on behalf of his fans.
In this case, neither the club nor the promoters were completely clear in advertising the House of Blues gig as a party, not a concert. “Buy Lupe Fiasco Record Release Party concert tickets for the show at House of Blues Chicago,” read the blurb above the link to purchase tickets on the House of Blues Website: $32.50 for general admission or $97.50 for V.I.P. seats, plus egregious service fees tacked on by the venue’s owners, Ticketmaster/Live Nation.
Just as misleading was a press release issued on March 18 by Chicago-based Christi With an Eye Public Relations, a firm hired to trumpet the event by promoters MPD Studios. In it, publicist Christi Harber wrote:
On Saturday March 26th Grammy Award winning superstar, Lupe Fiasco will return home to celebrate the release of his highly anticipated third studio album “LASERS” at the House of Blues Chicago along with a sold out crowd of his most dedicated fans. …Fans will have the opportunity to celebrate and hear all of Lupe’s latest hits at “The LASERS Official Celebration.” …Doors at the House of Blues will open at 7:30pm and show time will begin at 9pm. Prior to Lupe hitting the stage guest will be treated to opening acts In-Zo, Nakia, Melody Angel and Cap D. …
“We never promoted the event as a concert,” Harber wrote via email on Monday when asked about the marketing of the event. “It was always a celebration for his new album ‘Lasers.’”
Well, yes, the words “celebrate” and “celebration,” not “concert,” do figure in the release, as quoted above. But there also is that line about fans having “the opportunity to celebrate and hear all of Lupe’s latest hits.” How many fans could reasonably be expected to read that and discern that they were paying $32.50 for general admission or $97.50 for V.I.P. seats, plus egregious service fees, to listen to a recording of those songs, not live a performance?
The lion’s share of the fault here does seem to belong to the venue and the promoter, but Lupe shouldn’t entirely be let off the hook: As noted, at the very least, he shouldn’t be allowing his name to be used without approving all of the marketing. And despite his contention in his Tweets, there is no mention in the press release or the venue’s Web site of his share of the proceeds going to charity.
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