Tuesday, February 21, 2017

album review: 'DROGAS light' by lupe fiasco

Anyone else get the feeling that Lupe Fiasco is trolling all of us?

Look, I've made my complicated feelings on this Chicago MC public before: an imaginative and fearlessly ambitious MC who never felt comfortable with the mainstream due to his tendencies to indulge in all manner of twisty, cerebral weirdness. And the key word is 'indulge': he has the same penchant for extravagant ambition that can make for incredible moments and songs like 'Prisoner 1 & 2'... but can also lead you to the impression that despite good flows or beats his material is more clever than outright insightful. Which is frustrating, because when Lupe could focus on smaller subjects he made songs like 'Kick Push' and 'Deliver' which allowed him to channel his underappreciated pop sensibility, he made phenomenal tracks. But at the same time, he's also got more than fair share of big idea duds that don't have the intellectual heft to back their pretensions - and sometimes he doesn't even have the big ideas!

Yeah, if I had major concerns going into DROGAS Light, Lupe Fiasco's first fully-independent hip-hop album, it was coming in the buzz that this was a 'refinement' of his infamously contentious and very mainstream-focused LASERS from 2011, not aiming to be as cerebral or progressive. The problem is that I've heard Lupe do this sort of satire of mainstream hip-hop before back in 2014, and his commentary has never really impressed me - especially in comparison with artists who brought more real bite to that sort of satire and especially in 2014. So if we were looking at a full hour's worth of that, which many critics have condemned and Lupe himself has only given a 7/10... well yeah, I was worried. But hey, if I was to give LASERS credit, for a radio-friendly record Lupe does know his way around a good hook and even if the content wasn't up to snuff maybe he could bring a couple great bangers here, right?

Look, I've gone through this project more than a few times trying to get a handle on what Lupe wanted to do with DROGAS Light, and yet my general first impression hasn't changed much: I have no idea why Lupe felt the need to stir up so much label drama and go independent to release this. Because in terms of content and tones, this would be an easy sell to a major label - or at least it would if it didn't feel like it was careening through a half-dozen different styles that barely mesh together across the past several years of mainstream hip-hop. Now that said, for as messy as this is, does it at least have a few good songs? Well, sure, but you have to wade through a lot to get to them, and for Lupe skeptics, I'm not sure the effort will be worth it - and at this point, not sure I can blame them.

And really, it's not like they don't have a point, because Lupe wasn't kidding when he said this project was looking to be an extension of LASERS. Because if you're comparing to the grand experimentation and layered writing of Tetsuo & Youth, this is very much a step into simpler, borderline pop rap territory while still using the fact Lupe's a far sharper and more versatile lyricist to beat out the mainstream competition. And I don't think anyone's going to argue that in terms of interesting flows and wordplay, Lupe is indeed more interesting, even if especially on the back half of this record he has a penchant for slipping towards corniness, or at least the feeling that the bars are not nearly as layered or sharp as they could be. Granted, as some have already said Lupe not trying is still often more interesting than so many rappers could ever dream to be, but I'm not also not really inclined to make excuses given that the guy can be conceptual and creative, and he showcases it on this album! Sure, he can go bar-for-bar and cram in references to Lord Of The Rings on the opener 'Dopamine Lit', but 'NGF' has the sort of blunt commentary on the self-destructive behavior in the trap that shows the sort of hard-edged insight that Lupe could deliver. Similar case for the extended metaphor of 'Jump' where Lupe tells the story of being offered new success if he can cater his material to the trap... only then after a harrowing chase he gets abducted by aliens only to find that actual bars and rhyming are nowhere appreciated as much and he just wants to return home. It's conceptual, it's decidedly unique, it even ties into some of the underlying satirical jabs at mainstream hip-hop that Lupe loves...

But then we start hitting snags, and the first big one is 'Promise'. Yes, I get that Lupe is rapping about being sober and peaceful on the Migos flow, but you'd think he'd strengthen his point by actually bringing enthusiasm... which doesn't happen. I could get a little more behind the crunk-esque banger of 'Made In America', where he shouts out all the violent and destructive things US cities have contributed to hip-hop culture... but then he repeats the same sort of commentary on 'City Of The Year'. And beyond the repetition of ideas that makes an already long album stretch even further, especially on the back half, we then get pieces that just feel undercooked, like on 'Tranquillo'. I can appreciate trying to subvert the opulence anthem to speak about self-care, and both Rick Ross and Big K.R.I.T. are game for it - especially Big K.R.I.T., who just goes off on a great verse - but even Ross can't avoid throwing in luxury rap references and his very presence kind of undercuts the satire. And yet after the stripper/church juxtaposition on 'Kill' - that Killer Mike did better in four bars on RTJ3 than Lupe does in seven droning Ty Dolla $ign-driven minutes - it seems like any attempt at satire goes out the window in a series of bright, seemingly earnest, borderline pop rap love songs, including a pretty damn schmaltzy tribute to his mother to close the record out. I get trying to subvert mainstream hip-hop to spread a more positive vibe and idea, but it can't help but feel increasingly disconnected from the reality of the situation as the record continues, not helped by the space symbolism that makes less sense the more you think about it. And some of the hooks really don't help - Ty Dolla $ign is tolerable on 'NGF', but his delivery really does feel overdone on 'Kill', and he's handily shown up by Salim who comes the spacey dance-funk vibes of 'It's Not Design'. And yes, I'll admit for a pop rap song I kind of really dug Jake Torrey's delivery on the hook of 'Wild Child', but Sebastian Lundberg's hook on 'Pick Up The Phone' just does not work at all - it's too thin, boyish, and it can't back up a closing line of 'pick up the fucking phone', especially said hook also features the line 'my tears run off your shoes/ like waters from a goose'.

But that overall lack of weight also plays in a big way into the production. Now I'll always give Lupe credit for knowing his way around a good melodic hook and groove, and a fair few more of these songs are saved by that than I was expecting. And when this record gets a little darker, like the thicker trap vibe of 'NGF', the squealing gothic synths of 'Made In America', the vocal sample anchoring 'Jump', even some of the faded ebbing synth layers that bring in the bells to hold down 'Tranquillo' work for the sort of opulence Lupe's trying to subvert. But he's always had a problem bringing more texture and grit to his production blends, and nowhere is it more apparent than here, where the majority of the synth tones have the sort of buzzy tones that wouldn't be out of place between 2008 and 2010. And sure, they carry melody, but they also feel lacking in the low-end thickness to match the thudding bass hits and sharper snares, which leads to a mix that's not quite as cohesive as it could be. This is especially the case on the back end of the album - especially on 'Pick Up The Phone', which with the chiptune and acoustic hook is way too sanitized and poorly blended to work. And that's not counting the steps towards a spacey brand of funk that reminded a little of Kaytranada on 'It's Not Design', but again, it's nowhere near as textured or full, and with the choppier electric guitar it gets even more poppy on the chill vibes of 'Wild Child'. I know that Lupe likes rock music, but his taste for guitar tones has more sizzle than actual bite, and it leads to elements like the vocal distortion surrounding RondoNumbaNine's verse on 'City Of The Year' sound all the more clumsy. And that's before we get production choices like the abuse of the chipmunk voice on 'High' from Simon Sayz... and really, Lupe, given that you give this guy two hooks, if you want to hire Trey Songz he's not doing much right now, the option is available!

But really, the more I think about this project the more I wonder why I'm giving it more consideration than it really deserves. Maybe part of it is because I'm a fan of Lupe Fiasco - I admire his creativity, his desire to take big swings, his penchant for bombast - but this is a record of leftovers and cast-offs that were repackaged as a 'prequel' for an album that might drop this year as part of some trilogy. And really, it's not like these problems are just on this record: Lupe's production has always felt underweight and not quite as well-mixed as it should be, his records all run long, and you get the impression he's always a little too self-conscious of his own lane to drive into the really far out territory. So in a way I found myself asking why he didn't just stick to Atlantic if he wanted this sort of sound, but there's also an undercurrent of earnestness even to the leftovers - to say nothing of the back half of this record which many would brand as out-of-date - that makes me understand exactly why the label wouldn't love this. In other words, I know I shouldn't be disappointed, but a part of me kind of still is - 6/10, recommendation only for hardcore Lupe fans, and let's pray that DROGAS gives us some real heft. There are snippets here that prove Lupe Fiasco is capable of it, I want to see it happen.

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