Wednesday, September 26, 2018

album review: 'DROGAS wave' by lupe fiasco

I wish I could say I was hyped for this.

Seriously, I do - I might have a complicated relationship with Lupe Fiasco's mixtapes and albums and the wild turns his career has taken, but to this day I'm still a fan. I'll still go back to Food & Liquor and to a lesser extent The Cool, and there are cuts even on Lasers I'll stick up for to this day! And if you saw my year-end lists in 2015, you'll see a number of Lupe Fiasco songs that made those lists and for damn good reason! And when I heard that he was going independent after Tetsuo & Youth I was excited for some high concept, ambitious hip-hop...

Which we didn't get with DROGAS Light. Let's not mince words, as much I really liked the song 'Jump' off that album, it could have been pitched to any major label willing to take a stab with Lupe's brand of pop rap and he'd have been mostly fine - and yet even on that basis it's a sloppy, overlong project seriously let down by its production and even Lupe's rapping. But more critically, it compromised my faith that Lupe Fiasco, outside of major label restrictions, might not make the best judgement calls when it came to his work, and I'll admit some big reservations stepping up to DROGAS Wave. Not only was it running an hour and a half, it was a concept album telling the story of a slave ship that had sank in the Atlantic and where the slaves had adapted to live underwater. And while I was inclined to say that Mick Jenkins kind of beat him to the punch with analogous metaphors as another Chicago MC, this did seem to be more like what I wanted to hear from an independent Lupe Fiasco, and I wanted to give this a chance, so what did we get from DROGAS Wave?

Honestly... I really wish I could like this more than I do. I was really trying to like this album a lot, because Lupe Fiasco is a great rapper in terms of constructing bars and he's certainly more creative than so many in his field... but man alive, everything else about DROGAS Wave is making it a hard album to recommend. There's a part of me that wants to put Lupe in a similar category of rappers who can flow for miles but lack the ability to construct a solid song, but that's never really been the case, because there are shining moments of genuine pathos and brilliance on this album. The problem is that when you consider this as an album, it's an overlong, self-indulgent pile-up of good ideas lacking thorough execution and questionable ideas that should never have been executed in the first place, and winds up as a lot less than the sum of its parts.

And man alive, that's frustrating for me to say, because again, there are moments of brilliance on this project and while I was cautious to approach the central concept, for the first nine or so songs I was trying to get on-board with the story Lupe Fiasco was telling, drenched in symbolism and allegory around black culture and systemic racism with a impressive amount of interconnected metaphors tied to water and the slave trade, to say nothing of production and rapping choices that showed Lupe Fiasco taking real risks, from the title track having him rap in Spanish with a distinctive Latin flavour to the production to 'Gold vs. The Right Thing To Do' having him pick up patois and rapping really convincingly in that lane. But after what the album packaging calls 'part one' after the standout 'Alan Forever', the whole underwater slave story and themes get pitched out the window entirely in production and content, which leads to what feels like an entirely different album. And here's my first major point: I could roll with this more if there was greater connective tissue linking the first and second parts together, maybe through callbacks or similarities in language - hell, the big reason why 'Jonylah Forever' works so well is how it feels like the twin sister to 'Alan Forever'. But what it feels a lot more like is Lupe Fiasco created a really interesting world and idea and started churning out songs... but then discovered he didn't have a story to tell in that underwater kingdom - and hey, as someone who used to be a Dungeon Master in a lot of campaigns and who loves creating universes for short stories and novels, I've done this myself many times! But instead of mining that potential in that world, he just tacked on a second, very different project with only tenuous links to the first part, which does a serious number on the album's cohesion and only makes the project feel more diffuse and messy.

And yet more to the point, it reflects a major issue with Lupe Fiasco that I've hinted on before: for as a great of a wordsmith as he is, he takes a lot of shelter in obfuscation and abstract wordplay that's admittedly extremely well-constructed to avoid actually hitting a solid point. Oh, the wordplay and vocabulary is impressive, nobody can deny that, and there's often so many punchlines that you wind up thinking that in some mystical way it all should coalesce... and yet the more listens I've given to Lupe Fiasco in the past decade, it shows ideas of where this can go, but not the follow-through beyond snippets or individual songs. Now to be fair, Lupe Fiasco is not alone in this approach - Aesop Rock has been accused of this, as have Uncommon Nasa, billy woods, MF Doom, and even some of the Mello Music Group camp like Open Mike Eagle and milo. And while I could argue that the list of MCs I just mentioned do provide some greater threads of connectivity to bigger ideas - or in the case of Doom or billy woods just don't care and are deliberately using abstraction to disorient the audience - I think the larger point is that Lupe Fiasco's more direct storytelling is a much stronger lane for him in drawing forth emotive pathos from the audience. And while some of this does come back to content - of which we'll get into more in a moment - I think a larger factor is production, because in comparison with all the underground MCs I mentioned who pick up more challenging, textured, layered instrumentals that match that style, even when DROGAS Wave goes into uncharted territory, it's still extremely polished with any trace of grit or texture sanded off. And honestly, that's not always a bad thing - I've always been someone who'll stand up for Lupe Fiasco's uncanny ability to structure a melodic hook, and even if he doesn't buy it I'd argue his pop sensibility is one of his greatest assets in hip-hop - but it leads to songs on DROGAS Wave where the production just doesn't have the body, texture or depth of tone to match his lyricism. And in comparison to a record like Tetsuo & Youth, it doesn't even have the attempts at hard-hitting bangers like 'Prisoner 1 & 2' or 'Deliver', leading to a midtempo vibe that rarely switches up and makes an already long album drag that much harder.

Now that, I do like a fair amount of this production regardless: the elegant slide towards bassy darkness on 'Gold vs. The Right Thing To Do' with rougher drums was pretty impressive even if I'd have gotten rid of the spacey effects - indicative of the weird issue on the first half of this record that despite being set in the past Lupe Fiasco still features very modern references - and even if I do think Lupe Fiasco is a little too heavily reliant on some very clean, pop-friendly singers for his hooks, he still has good chemistry with Nikki Jean on songs like 'Down' and 'Stack That Cheese'. And songs like 'WAV Files', and 'Sun God Sam & The California Drug Deals' show that Lupe Fiasco can still lean into his uncanny ability to have pretty but warping, slightly off-kilter melodies still wind up surprisingly catchy. And when Lupe Fiasco focused on more Chicago-rooted soul sampling and slightly grittier beats, more often than not these are some of the best moments on the album, with the rich organs of 'Alan Forever' later darkened into the thicker beat and pianos of 'Jonylah Forever', and when you follow it with the touches of guitar around 'Imagine', the horn-inflected bass grooves of 'King Nas' and what I could swear sound like live drums on 'Stack That Cheese', I'm onboard, even if it does feel like very much of a direct sequel to 'Hip-hop Saved My Life'... not the first time that chunks of this record feel like sequels or continuations from what Lupe has released in the past, especially from Tetsuo & Youth in the most obvious case with 'Mural Jr.' which might be just be a lot more digestible than the original. And here's the funny thing: when it's transparent that Lupe Fiasco is stringing through punchline after punchline that's skeptical but clever and heartfelt, or he's speaking from another perspective looking to tell a fully thought out story like on the two 'forever' songs, it's effective - mostly because there's clear connective tissue or in the case of 'Mural Jr.' aiming for a broader tableau where the real wonder comes in the wordplay. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that Lupe Fiasco still has hangups especially around his former record label that distract from better ideas. For instance, in the middle of the concept portion of the album he includes 'Haile Selassie', a song originally released on a 2014 mixtape specifically as a protest against Atlantic, symbolized by Poseidon on the song - so not only do we have a weaker cut tacked on to an overlong album, but it raises the question whether or not previous references to Poseidon fit within the larger quasi-benevolent context mentioned on earlier songs, or whether Lupe is still raging at Atlantic... which I wouldn't even consider if it doesn't explicitly come up again multiple times in the final third of the project! And I'll say it: it feels really tired when Lupe brings up the conflict with Atlantic and conflates it with the slave trade, when he's no longer signed to them! 

But more than that, we have to talk about the thematic choices that don't work, or the increasingly uneasy feeling that there's just incoherence in ideology altogether. On the one hand you have the skeptical Lupe Fiasco referencing Anonymous and questioning the impact of global warming on hurricanes and a shift towards socialism in the face of people selling out their own race in the face of female temptations that for Lupe never seem to cease... a bit of an awkward juxtaposition against the avalanche of samples from religious leaders strewn across the final third of the album that brush against respectability politics in their path to preserve the innocence of the youth. And while I will definitely question how often Lupe frames women as temptresses unless they get the stern guiding hand of their fathers or God, songs like 'King Nas' do show it's more rooted out of a desire to help ease the violence in Chicago by confronting systemic issues and poverty and education. But then you get songs like 'Stronger' with lines like 'All my brothers I would love to paint them Jewish / Reinfiltrate the movement and assassinate the music', and while I wouldn't call it anti-Semitic the same way Lupe was on that N.E.R.D. remix, it does reflect the same sort of sentiments that I didn't like on Jay-Z's 'The Story Of O.J.' and if he wanted to make his anti-capitalism scatter painting, he didn't have to go to this place again. And then there's 'Cripple' - again, I get what Lupe is trying to do in painting how black people are placed in stereotyped boxes and that black empowerment movements can be branded or manipulated, but if you're going to drop homophobic slurs and racist stereotypes on your second verse full of sloppy dick jokes... look, indulging in cheap stereotypes just because you might be stereotyped yourself doesn't help your cause and it really cheapens the message!

And that's what makes this album so damn hard to talk about, because I truly think it could have been great - hell, there's a solid six or seven songs out of twenty-four I think are genuinely excellent standouts. But we're still dealing with a project that's in dire need of an editor, or a naysayer to ask Lupe if he's really sure, and it raises that question of judgement again, because this could have been a lot more listenable if it had been trimmed down or refined, if the project didn't feel like two messy ideas crashing into each other with gleaming moments of treasure amidst the debris. And I don't think we're going to see that again, especially with Lupe now being independent and not having to answer to the major label who will ask a lot of the same questions I do. And that's hard for me to say because, again, Lupe Fiasco is one of the most creative minds adjacent to mainstream hip-hop, and while I can see the tenuous thematic connections and risks being taken... it just doesn't come together as well as it should, and projects built like this won't grab people outside of the diehard fanbase, which is a damn shame because that brilliance is still here. So for me... extremely light 7/10, recommended for the fans and for the non-fans... there are some really choice cuts, but this album will not make it easy on anyone, despite the fact that Lupe might be selling himself short by not at least embracing a bit more accessibility, especially with this production. But hey, if you want a heavy wave to really pull you under, DROGAS Wave definitely will satisfy.... just don't wind up drowning in it.

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