The Unclassifiable Lupe Fiasco
"'LupEND' -- that's going to be my last album's title. When you play a videogame, you can only put in three letters for your name and when the game's over, those three letters and 'END' pop up. My nex"'LupEND' -- that's going to be my last album's title. When you play a videogame, you can only put in three letters for your name and when the game's over, those three letters and 'END' pop up. My next record might be my last one."
We're supposed to be talking with Lupe Fiasco about his sophomore album, "The Cool," due Dec. 18 via Atlantic. But instead, the Chicago rapper is already forecasting how his career will end -- he's not sure when it will happen, but it sure seems like it'll be more sooner than later.
Fiasco has never been a typical artist, and that's part of his charm. On one hand, he's a slightly defensive know-it-all; on the other, he's an endearing, introverted nerd. Hip-hop consumers either get him or they don't.
Add to the equation that during the last several years, he's collaborated with Jay-Z, Pharrell and Kanye West; scored a Reebok shoe deal before his debut album dropped; and dealt with several family deaths and the imprisonment of his co-manager.
So it's only natural that Fiasco's a bit more weathered than your average 25-year-old.
"I don't define myself by this industry's standards," says Fiasco, sporting a slim army fatigue Gortex rain hoodie, black jeans and his signature thin glasses, as he looks out the rain-beaded window of a Navigator. "I have a core fan base of about 200,000 people, so I'm fairly comfortable that I can sell 200,000 if it takes me a year-and-a-half." Clearly, Fiasco has realized that there's more to life than hip-hop and isn't shy about saying so. Still, he's got "The Cool" to promote, and Atlantic won't have an easy time marketing a concept record whose creative songs don't easily fit onto urban radio playlists.
BEFORE THE STORM
In 2005, Fiasco was bubbling underneath the hip-hop mainstream as the next MC to watch. He peppered the Internet with mixtapes long before the practice was popular, earning international fans in the process, and kept an eye on street wear marketing by performing at sneaker and clothing shows and launching his own clothing design company, Righteous Kung Fu.
Drawing on such influences as Spice 1 to 8Ball & MJG, Fiasco carved a niche with fun yet intricate lyrics over beats that leaned more backpacker than gangster.
It wasn't long before Jay-Z declared himself a fan, fellow Chicago native West added him to his single "Touch the Sky" and Pharrell hopped on Fiasco's "Kick Push Remix." A deal with Reebok's RBK line before his first album, "Food & Liquor," was even ready furthered the notion that Fiasco could be hip-hop's next breakout star.
But the album leaked several months ahead of the intended August 2006 street date, with the music spreading across the same Web sites that had previously devoured his mixtapes. Bloggers championed Fiasco's artistry, and once released on Sept. 19, 2006, "Food & Liquor" went on to sell a respectable 81,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. To date, it has shifted more than 320,000.
Songs like "Kick Push" did connect with braver radio programmers like Ebro Darden at rhythmic WQHT (Hot 97) New York. But despite a Grammy Award nomination for best rap solo performance, "Kick Push" failed to rise higher than No. 56 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. His current single, "Superstar," was No. 82 after five weeks on the Nov. 24 tally.
"We've had success with Lupe here at Hot 97, and that's why we continue to support him," Darden says. "I don't think he fits into a familiar mold that many radio programmers associate with what they think is hip-hop. They may not get Lupe because he's not a traditional rapper." Riding the line of creativity and commercial success, Fiasco almost begs the question, Why not work with big-name producers in hopes of creating a radio hit?
"It's too expensive," Fiasco says, noting that a prior Pharrell production, "I Gotcha," "didn't even do anything at radio." All of this is par for the course in the eyes of Atlantic president Craig Kallman, who sees the sales of "Food & Liquor" as a natural step toward building a new artist.
"It's been an overall sales decline in hip-hop," Kallman says. "If we can surpass his last album's sales, I'd be thrilled because I'll know that we're growing his audience." THE PLOT thickens "The Cool" will certainly separate his true fans from the onlookers. Fiasco created an interior world strung together with several mixtape songs, including "The Pills," along with variations on two songs that were also on his debut, "The Cool" and "He Say/She Say." "It's about a hustler who dies and comes back to life, only to get robbed by two little kids with the same gun that killed him," Fiasco says of the new "Cool." "I expanded that story by connecting different songs and characters in those songs." "The Pills" introduces the characters the Streets and the Game, at a funeral for the Cool, whom several other songs are related to. Each character has defining attributes: The Game has dice for eyes and blunts for arms. The Streets is a temptress with dollar signs for eyes and tattoos of ex-boyfriends like Al Capone and Alexander the Great.
Fiasco explains that the Cool "is actually the little boy from 'He Say/She Say' who grew up without a father. And the people that step in to raise him are the Streets and the Game, like how people also say, 'The streets raised me.' It's an answer to that." Before anyone gets too confused, Fiasco clarifies that the entire album doesn't adhere to the concept. Outside of the aforementioned four songs, "The Cool" is another helping of left-of-center hip-hop, often with a melodic, jazzy vibe.
In-house producers from Fiasco's 1st & 15th Records like Soundtrakk crafted the bulk of the album, although there are contributions from Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, Snoop Dogg and UNKLE.
Songs like "Little Weapon," a tale of African child soldiers set to a deep bass and stripped-down battle drum sample, are reminders of Fiasco's socially conscious leanings ("I killed another man today/Five more and we can get a soccer ball is what my captain say," he raps).
Elsewhere, the viral single "Dumb It Down," distributed via a YouTube clip, addresses the creative predicament in which Fiasco finds himself.
"That speaks to his conundrum," Kallman says of the song. "The industry doesn't really want to step out of the norm, but Lupe still inspires risk-taking in the music. It's more challenging to market Lupe for certain, but it pushes all of us to be more creative in our approach."
Fiasco plans to expand the new album's characters into a Vincent Price-esque vintage radio show via a currently unspecified satellite radio company for release alongside his album. In addition, he is creating character-inspired toys and is working with Converse, Levi's, street wear brand Maharishi and Japanese clothing line Swagger to craft custom Righteous Kung Fu designs.
Each clothing line will release their pieces at different times throughout next year, to keep the brand top of mind with consumers.
Mobile is a key part of Atlantic's marketing campaign. The company has partnered with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint for ringtones and downloads, and Boost Mobile, which was an early Fiasco supporter, will prominently display stand-up advertisements for "The Cool" in 8,000 stores beginning in January.
Online, additional viral videos are planned in an attempt to capitalize on the crossover of "Dumb It Down," which became so popular on YouTube that it landed on BET and MTV. In addition, Atlantic product manager Veronica Alvericci says Fiasco might blog on a to-be-announced site for the remainder of his 22-market promo tour.
An online in-store is in the works, where Atlantic will "partner with a major retailer, who'd air the in-store across their Web sites nationally, and distribute it amongst all of their chains," Alvericci says, and MTV.com's "The Leak" initiative will begin streaming "The Cool" Dec. 11, a week ahead of street date.
TV placements include a "Monday Night Football" commitment from ESPN for "Superstar," while several other album tracks are due to be used on the sports network's Sunday program, "Ultimate Highlight." You can't blame Fiasco for having a few things other than marketing plans on his mind these days. During the last year, his father, aunt and friend Stack Bundles passed away, and his longtime friend and manager Charles "Chill" Patterson was arrested and sentenced to 44 years in prison for a 2003 drug charge.
In October, Fiasco flubbed the lyrics to A Tribe Called Quest's "Electric Relaxation" at the VH1 Hip-Hop Awards in New York, then incited an online riot by saying he wasn't that into Tribe's "Midnight Marauders" album growing up. Ironically, his fan base skews more Q-Tip than Spice 1, which Fiasco hails as his inspiration. But instead of letting the storm pass, Fiasco argued with fans, pushing the controversy onto radio and further into the blogosphere.
"Ninety percent of the people saying something about that probably downloaded my first album," Fiasco says. "Besides, the people at my shows don't care about that shit." In the same way that West has basically forced people to form an opinion about him, Fiasco is not biting his tongue. And with "The Cool" nearing release, only time well tell if his fans do indeed care.
"I don't know how to make a No. 1 record, so I don't even try," he says.
"The reason behind the whole 'The Cool' concept is because I miss my father, Stack Bundles, my auntie and Chill. I found solace in the miracle in itself and it came out in 'The Cool.' I wish the shit was true."