5:45 p.m. Friday, Congo Square Stage
Lasers, by their very nature, move at the speed of light. Appropriating the word highlights one of many confounding ironies surrounding Lupe Fiasco's third album, Lasers (1st & 15th/Atlantic), which was completed in late 2009 but arrived at last in March after what must be among the strangest two-year journeys ever taken by a major-label release. It started in 2008, with the Chicago-born MC — Wasalu Muhammad Jaco to those who knew him when — at the top of his game. Fiasco, 29, had staked out a prime position on his first two LPs, an admirable neutral ground between the opposing hip-hop extremes of overly conscious backpackers and conscience-deficient braggarts. His 2006 bow Food & Liquor and 2007 follow-up The Cool struck a rare rap balance of heart-pounding yin and chest-thumping yang: early skateboard love song "Kick, Push" flashed the easy skill of an Illmatic acolyte, costumed in dramatic strings by a onetime high-school theater production hand whose confidence didn't need guarding or boosting; storytelling album cuts "He Say She Say" and "The Cool" inspired the latter's expansion, an ambitious and abstract concept record about the push/pull of inner-city temptations.
A burgeoning mogul in 2008, with his own vanity label (Atlantic offshoot 1st and 15th Entertainment) and fashion/graphic design firm (Righteous Kung-Fu), Fiasco was eyeing an exit. His final album, announced at a show in his hometown, would be a triple-disc opus titled LupE.N.D., released in three parts starting in summer 2009. A contract squabble with Atlantic led to Fiasco pushing back that project, and he announced three new releases instead, each spaced six months apart. The first, The Great American Rap Album, became a message-board myth, replaced by yet another project, We Are Lasers (later shortened to Lasers). When this, too, never saw release — despite Fiasco revealing it was finished — fans cried foul, petitioning online and protesting outside Atlantic's Manhattan offices in October 2010. The "finished" product is a break from Fiasco's previously rock-solid output: fascinating bits like the Mos Def-influenced "All Black Everything," a revisionist history of race reversal ("The Rat Pack was a cool group of black men/ That inspired five white guys called The Jacksons"), butt up against overreaching, choppy club pop ("Break the Chain"). The ordeal seemed to sap the creativity from the rapper, who called himself "a hostage" in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times and admitted to Complex magazine, "I love and hate this album."
Included in the Sun-Times interview is a piece of related news: Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album is expected by the end of 2011.