Thursday, July 21, 2011

Electric Relaxation: Lupe Fiasco - Lasers (Album Review)

I should've had this album earlier this year. I've been a Lupe Fiasco fan since I heard murmurings of him when I was about to graduate college. I downloaded several mixtapes in 2006 for the most-talked about MC in ages. I've written this blog saying Lupe's the most complete/versatile MC I've heard since Eminem. I've said The Cool is one of the best hip-hop albums of the last five years and it's still flying over people's heads how deep a metaphor that was and how relevant it is.

So why did I delay listening to Lasers? Why have I kept it in my Amazon wishlist all year without feeling the urge to buy it? Maybe because I heard too much press that this was Lupe's Nastradamus or Encore. Maybe because Lupe himself told people this album was a compromise and punishment for getting the public to protest Atlantic Records not releasing it sooner. Maybe I saw that it was 12 tracks, way shorter than either of his last 2 works.

Despite the brilliance of hearing "Words I Never Said", I also heard "The Show Must Go On" and thought it was "Superstar" Part 2 and Atlantic forcing his hand. I heard "All Black Everything" and I heard him break down what Lasers meant on his Enemy of the State mixtape. But I still waited because of that warning. After reading the XXL feature, I said why support it if Lupe hates it.

Well the wait is over. Thanks to joining Spotify, I finally listened to Lasers risk free. My thoughts are as follows. I blame Atlantic Records for trying to turn the best MC of the last 5 years into B.O.B. (and that's not a diss to Bobby Ray, that's Atlantic being short-sighted in the name of hits).

Four years after The Cool blew my mind and went gold thanks to a pop single in "Superstar", Lupe has an album that's pretty much left-field pop rap. By that I mean, it fits in perfectly with today's climate without totally sounding like Drake or Wayne or anybody else in the mainstream. At the same time, it's not what you expect from a guy who made "Kick, Push", "American Terrorist","Dumb It Down" or "Hip Hop Saved My Life".

The biggest flaw with this album is production. Too much techno, not enough soul to match the fire of Lupe's lyrics. It also wasn't cohesive. "Food and Liquor" and "The Cool" were great listens because the production was consistent and pleasing to the ear. Lasers is the classic case of hip hop's failure in grabbing hot producers to make hits without thinking about a solid sound.

The hooks on some of these are downright awful. The album opener makes me wish B.O.B. took that beat instead of Lupe. "Break the Chain" has some powerful lyrics but that beat sounds like it should be played in a club instead of a sonic force like "Little Weapon" on The Cool. It may grow on me but it's not a perfect fit.

"Out Of My Head" with Trey Songz isn't bad ---- that is, it would be dope if you replaced Trey with a female singer and had another hook/different lyrics. Instead, you just say "yep, Atlantic made him do it" and press next. The always cliche song for the ladies that just doesn't fit.

The worst case is "State-Run Radio", which has a title you'd expect from him but a silly hard-rock beat and a terrible hook that waters down Lupe's rant about Top 40 radio. I dang near cringed when I heard this on Pandora last month and I cringed hearing it again.

(Then again, maybe that's Lupe's point - make an overly pop song with a crappy, anthemic hook to prove how bad Top 40 radio. Yet it doesn't exactly work like DJ Premier making that same statement with Gang Starr's "Mass Appeal" or Radiohead's "My Iron Lung")

At least lyrically, Lupe still shows why he's an elite MC. "The Show Must Go On" grows on you because of the inspiration in his lyrics. The first verse walks you into his shoes and then sets you up for the double-timed 2nd verse before he picks up your spirits in Verse 3. He successfully flows to every beat and rides it as well as a technically gifted lyricist should.

There are two absolute gems on here that are some the best songs of the year. "Words I Never Said" matches a powerful Alex da Kid beat, a haunting chorus from Skylar Grey and some politically charged lyrics to create a sonic, lyrical masterpiece. It's everything I expect from Lupe and you may nitpick the facts, but you can't deny the passion and it fits with his past political songs questioning the government. The video is amazing too.

The second gem is "All Black Everything", one of the best written songs in any genre this year. Lupe reimagines Black history/American history if slaves were never taken from Africa. It's creative and a great story that makes you really wonder. The dream-like beat only reminds you that it's not real and it's a perfect accompaniment.

"Til I Get There" is a decent song that sounds like older Lupe and I liked "Beautiful Lasers." The album closer with John Legend also surprisingly works well.

Earlier, I compared this album to Nas' Nastradamus and Eminem's Encore. Both albums are terrible failures except for a track or two. Come to think of it Lupe's "Out of My Head" might as well be Nas "You Owe Me" and as much as Lupe admires Mr. Jones, he'd be better off studying how Nas rebounded the same way he's trying to by revisiting his classic debut.

Let's consider Lasers a pop compromise despite Lupe winning to put it out. The terrible production/desperate search for singles/bad hooks overshadows his solid lyrics and once again, let's blame Atlantic Records following Industry Rule No. 4,080. I'm honestly disappointed yet resigned to the fact that it may be for the better good.

Am I happy it debuted at No. 1 and has sold 440,000 copies so far? Yes, but only because it means we're getting another album that hopefully will show Lupe returning to form with minimal interference. So while I'm happy for his success, I'm disappointed he had to sell out to hopefully make the music he wants. Doesn't change my views on him, but this album is at best a 6 or 7.

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