Lupe Fiasco’s third studio album hits shelves with a lot of heavy baggage. As the Chicago rapper tried out new concepts (a triple album, for instance) and new titles (We Are Lasers, for instance), Atlantic shelved it for nearly two years, looking for a hit and waiting as Lupe passed up songs that became smashes for B.O.B. It took an impressive grassroots effort to persuade the label to finally release the album, with 28,000 fans signing a petition to free Lupe.
To anyone who remembers the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot debacle of ’02, Lupe’s saga will seem at once familiar and valiant, with the greedy major label serving as a particularly useful enemy with its commercial cautions and with the individual artist playing the hero who fights steadfastly for the purity of his vision. That might play as myth if the resulting album were better—or even defensible—but listening to the mess that is Lasers, it might be more realistic to cast Atlantic as the protective parent looking out for Lupe’s best interests.
It’s a pretty sad development for the promising rapper, who came out of the Windy City backpack scene marrying dance production, R&B beats, and deftly articulate lyrics. On his debut, Food & Liquor, he came across as a thoughtful presence with a unique perspective and an overeager message. Sounding like a less egocentric—and therefore much less interesting—Kanye West, Lupe may perhaps be responsible for the current trend of hipster rappers like Theopholus London and Lil B, which is something he’ll just have to live with.
Still, that’s a respectable track record and certainly enough to grant Lasers the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, it sounds like a splatter painting of distorted vocals, weak-chinned beats, and tin-canny production. It’s so compressed and compacted that listening becomes a chore, paying real attention a hardship. When a moment stands out, it’s usually because it hits your gag reflex as well as your ears. First single “The Show Goes On” samples Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” simultaneously rendering that band’s shimmer of guitar as little more than Edge-y noodling and besting both Diddy and this song [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s40TUBATIjQ] for hammer-to-the-skull sampling.
Throughout Lasers, Lupe indulges a rigid formula of rapped verses and sung hooks, which is nothing unusual, but he adheres to its so strictly that it becomes his default setting. The songs consequently bleed into one another, reinforcing the monolithic quality of the production and distinguished only by who’s singing. Sarah Green is unrecognizable on the opener “Letting Go,” and good for her. But fresh off the success of Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” songwriter Skylar Grey provides another Hop Topic hook on the dismal “Words I Never Said,” as if her ambition is to be the Evanescence of the hip-hop world. How long till a rapper breaks down and brings Amy Lee out of retirement?
Musically, Lasers might be tolerable if Lupe sounded as charismatic as he did on his first, which balanced street-level realism with steely optimism. Twenty years ago, he might have been labeled positivity rap and filed alongside A Tribe Called Quest and Arrested Development, but in 2011, any sparkle of optimism has curdled into condescension and complaint. Lasers oozes an unctuous pessimism, from the why-I-don’t-vote screed of “Words I Never Said” to the racial flip-flopping of “All Black Everything” (which seemingly big-ups Ahmadinejad, but I hope I’m hearing wrong). There’s contempt in his voice, yet it’s not only directed toward the forces of oppressive or corrupt authority. He vents outwards, at the listener and therefore at the fans who liberated this album from its major-label dungeon.
Lasers is already developing a reputation as an epic fail—this year’s Chinese Democracy. Perhaps it’ll be enough to make Atlantic drop Lupe, which would be a win-win for both sides. The label could concentrate on relevant artists like B.O.B. and Wiz Khalifa, and Lupe can sign to an indie and pat himself on the back for sticking to his guns.
Even if they were loaded with blanks.