Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers is a classic case of artist versus record company—the tug of war between artistic integrity and commercial viability. Unfortunately in this case, the artist either lost the battle or simply gave up the fight. Lasers is an over-synthesized, annoyingly “pop,” hit and miss effort, that simply lacks the style or substance to be an artistic success.
There is certainly nothing wrong with making commercial music—and if it’s done right, people may actually like it because it’s good, rather than as a result of some lowest common denominator of radio friendly hooks or simplistic lyrics. But the artist’s heart has to be in it, and clearly Lupe’s was not. The album was delayed for three years as he struggled with Atlantic to maintain his vision, which we should point out may not have been any better than the finished product.
Nonetheless, we have a batch of songs that fall into some unappealing category you might call space age club disco rap. “Out of My Head” featuring Trey Songz (produced by Mikyal Snoddy) sounds like it belongs on a Ne-Yo album, or maybe one of Trey Songz’, with Lupe spitting generic love lyrics that would have been better suited for a guest spot. “Coming Up” featuring MDMA (produced by The Future) has a sound reminiscent of Blackstreet circa 1996, and while the R&B group’s Another Level album was dope, it doesn’t work here.
Then there is all this tiresome propaganda about “State Run Radio” featuring Matt Mahaffrey (produced by The Future), with Lupe complaining about how they play the same songs over and over again. They won’t even remix Lil’ Wayne’s latest, those oppressive totalitarian program directors. Lupe should realize, first of all, that it’s okay not to be played on the radio, because so much of what is on there is utterly useless to anyone who cares about good music. It’s also a rather obvious and really boring revelation that, yes, they keep playing those same songs, considering it’s only been like that since the invention of the medium.
It’s particularly disappointing to this reviewer, because Lupe’s first album, Food & Liquor, was an example of the absolute finest hip-hop has to offer. It was also the perfect mix of accessibility and intricate lyrical wizardry. The follow-up, The Cool, was overly long and dense, but it still offered at least half an album’s worth of some astoundingly good music from one of the most talented MCs in the world.
There just is nothing that good here, though there are flashes of the high-level lyricism we’ve heard in the past. “All Black Everything” (produced by Wizzo Buchanan) is an imaginative speculative fantasy about a world in which racial differences don’t exist. “Complexion’s not a contest/cause racism has no context…Somalia’s a great place to relax in/Fred Astaire was the first to do a back spin/The Rat Pack was a cool group of black men/That inspired five white guys called the Jacksons.”
Lupe is also thought-provoking and engaging on “Words I Never Said” featuring Skylar Grey (produced by Alex Da Kid), aggressively opening the track with lines like, “I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit/just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets…”
However, over the course of the same song, he spoils it with wacky conspiracy theories about 9/11 and expressing his penchant for not voting, which he has discussed in interviews and is his prerogative. But when he goes on to make a call to action from the listener, it’s a little hard to be inspired by someone who doesn’t even cast a ballot. Not that political disenchantment isn’t understandable, but really, Lupe, is there no one on the political spectrum you can vote for?
We long for MCs to be “conscious” and “political,” but when they do their ideas are not always necessarily helpful, which brings us to a bit more of the back story behind Lasers. Last October, a group of fans staged a “protest” outside the Atlantic offices in Manhattan. It was dubbed “Fiasco Friday.” The obvious point has already been made that there are quite a few causes more worthy of our attention, which ironically, is part of the message Lupe tries to get across in his more politically charged music.
In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, Lupe talks about being so depressed over his squabbles with the record company that “the idea of suicide was real.” This feeling is reflected on “Beautiful Lasers (2Ways) featuring MDMA (produced by The Future): “Don’t say that you feel like dying/Life’s hard and it feels like diamonds/Going home’s just far too gone/Much too late to even feel like trying/Can’t understand what I’m saying, can’t figure out what I’m implying/If you feel like you don’t want to be alive/You feel just how I am.”
It’s heavy and haunting stuff, and one wishes Lupe had been given more space musically to explore the dark place he was in. He certainly has a capacity for emotional depth and vulnerability not many rappers can manage.
Fortunately, the album closes on a hopeful note with some syrup from John Legend on “Never Forget You.” We can only hope the best for Lupe’s mental health, that the album does well, and that the next go-around isn’t nearly this much of a struggle.
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