HipHopDX’s The Breakdown is one of my favorite things on the internet. Every Saturday, Justin Hunte breaks down a news item or debate topic or forgotten event from hip-hop history (like Tupac and De La Soul’s beef), and he never fails to enlighten. That’s especially true of the most recent episode of The Breakdown, which sheds new light on Lupe Fiasco’s long-running label drama with Atlantic Records.
Hunte recently jumped on the phone with Charles “Chilly” Patton, Lupe’s mentor and business partner, who has close ties with the likes of Jay Z, Kanye West and Pharrell (and who’s also currently serving 42 years on heroin charges). In the interview, Chilly reveals how, in 2004, Jay Z told him he was going to become the president of Atlantic and wanted Lupe—who impressed Hov during his early stint on Arista Records—on the label.
This is how it went. I’ll never forget it. Jay Z hit me like, ‘Yo, I’m coming to Atlantic Records. I’m going to to be the president of Atlantic Records.’ LA Reid was my man. I introduced LA Reid to Jay Z. That’s how they got tight. So Jay’s like, ‘I’m coming to Atlantic. I need you and Lupe over at Atlantic with me.’ I’m like, ‘cool.’ I’m thinking Jay’s coming to Atlantic so I do the deal.
In other words, Jay Z is partly to blame for stifling Lupe Fiasco’s career. Had he not told Chilly he was taking over the label, Lupe may have never signed to Atlantic, and therefore would have never had to deal with all the bullshit he went through. After all, as Hunte says, Lupe is a “one-of-one artist” and Atlantic is a label that “openly prides itself on its ability to craft hit records through a formula.”
Tensions between Lupe and Atlantic made headlines with the long-delayed Lasers, but the partnership was in fact doomed from the very beginning. In his interview with Hunte, Chilly reveals how Atlantic didn’t even like Lupe’s “classic” debut album. “We play Food & Liquor for [Atlantic Chairman] Craig [Kallman]. Craig did not like one record on Food & Liquor. I’m like, ‘yo, this dude crazy.’”
What’s more, Chilly took out $100,000 of his own money to promote “Kick, Push,” arguably Lupe's finest song, due to the lack of support from Atlantic.
Ultimately, Jay Z was forced to break his promise to Chilly and Lupe after getting an offer he couldn’t refuse: the presidency of Def Jam. However, Chilly says he doesn’t harbor any ill will towards Hov for not keeping his word.
When I get out [of jail], Jay hit me — I’ll never forget it — at two in the morning like, ‘yo, LA [Reid] hit me [and offered me the presidency of Def Jam]. I’ll give you your masters, I’ll give you this, I’ll give you this.’ It was a courtesy call on some brother shit, but really he was telling me he wasn’t coming to Atlantic. I’m like, ‘n*gga, you’d be stupid not to fuck with LA. This n*gga is giving you your masters back. This n*gga’s making you president.’
The whole shit with him and Dame was crumbling. I’m like, ‘yo, n*gga, you finna be that n*gga. I’m not salty.’ We cool because I could’ve went with anybody.
You can’t help but wonder: what would Lupe Fiasco’s career look like had he not signed with Atlantic Records? Would he have continued his excellent run after The Cool and added more classic albums to his catalog? Would he have fully realized his potential and rightfully cemented his legacy as one of the greatest rappers of all time? Or would he be living in Africa making rock music?
And what about if Jay Z had become the president of Atlantic Records? Would he have turned the label into a hip-hop/R&B powerhouse by signing Lupe, alongside the likes of Nas, Young Jeezy and a little-known Barbadian singer named Rihanna (like he did at Def Jam)? Or would Lupe have suffered the J. Cole/Jay Electronica treatment and been pressured for hit singles from Hov?
2015’s Tetsuo & Youth—ironically, his best album in years—marked the end of Lupe Fiasco’s turbulent marriage with Atlantic Records. Right now, Lupe is getting ready to release three albums in 2017 before hanging up his mic. However, his latest singles, “Pick Up the Phone” and “Made In the USA,” sound less like an artist with renewed freedom and more like a man suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
Whoever he's signed to, it’s hard being a Lupe fan.
By Andy James. Follow him on Twitter.