The word ‘hype’ is very often misapplied to music, especially hip-hop and rap. However, Lupe Fiasco’s new album, his third studio release after Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor and the superb Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, was certainly deserving of the word. Lupe’s second record showed a mature, clever, politically astute side of the young Chicago native’s music, a darker and more challenging counterpoint to the upbeat charms of tracks like the ebullient ‘Kick, Push’ from his début.
Another term which is often misused would be ‘development hell’, but again this is a phrase which Lasers wears well; the album was completed some time ago, and it was only after a multitude of protests and petitions to Lupe’s label Atlantic Records that it finally saw the light of day. The release date was put back and put back, but finally we got to hear what the young rapper had come up with the third time around.
Should we be happy that we finally got to hear this record? Certainly. But does it live up to the huge expectations thrust upon it? No.
Lupe’s best work – most of which came on that excellent second album – juggles difficult subject matter in a communicative and interesting way, able to make the most maudlin subjects – child soldiers in ‘Little Weapon’, rape in ‘Intruder Alert’ – listenable without exploiting them, and skilfully telling stories in his hooks. What Lasers really lacks is the same universality and conviction that made The Cool so good, and the tracks feel a lot more contrived and scarily pretentious at points. Much like Kanye West did with the generally forgettable 808s and Heartbreak, Fiasco takes himself a bit too seriously, the rhymes about racial strife on ‘All Black Everything’ or aspiration on ‘Till I Get There’ sounding portentous rather than poignant.
Additionally, there’s a certain sparkle missing from the record’s beats. Where on his two previous records the interplay of drums, melody and vocals gelled together brilliantly, here each part feels disconnected from the others. The choruses, in general, simply fail to materialise and don’t grip you in the same way that tracks like ‘Hi Definition’ or ‘Superstar’ did. Lupe’s commitment to creating wholly original tracks is praiseworthy, especially in an age where lazy sampling has become the standard, but there’s a noticeable lack of punch in choruses when they drop, and many of them feel like half-landed punches which never really follow through.
Of course, this isn’t to say Lupe’s third outing is totally without merit, far from it. He continues to churn out some fantastic hooks, interweaving the political with the playful as well as any rapper out there today, and when he goes for the jugular he can still spit some serious fire: “Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist/Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit” (‘Words I Never Said’). Lupe’s flow is never really in doubt, and he remains one of the most inventive and fluid MCs currently working, but some of the best stuff gets buried underneath overly loud beats which distract your attention from the lyrics rather than forcing your ears toward them.
What Lasers is really missing is hits. Lupe’s never really been one who’s played a lot on mainstream radio – and that’s unlikely to change given the attack he launches on it in ‘State Run Radio’ – but his songs usually had a hook to grab you or a smooth beat to draw you in. Of the 12 tracks on the album, it’s only ‘The Show Goes On’ which really has either of these things: its Modest Mouse-sampling beat is deftly composed and the chorus offers singalong potential, whereas most of the rest of the record lacks the catchiness that made his other records so enjoyable and re-listenable.
Overall, then, it’s not the insta-classic many of us were hoping for, and feels like a bit of a step back from The Cool. Lupe’s third record has got some fantastic ideas and a couple of really good tracks, but never really manages to combine them, and thus the whole experience feels more background than foreground. All in all, it’s just too uneven to ever really take off, and it looks like we’ll have to wait ’til album 4 until we hear the full extent of Lupe’s manifest gifts.
Best tracks: ‘The Show Goes On’, ‘Letting Go’, ‘Break The Chain’.
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