Monday, March 7, 2011

pledge your allegiance to lasers.

Lupe Fiasco's Lasers comes out tomorrow. The story behind the record and whether it would ever come out at all has been long documented, and so has my love for Lupe, since he put out The Cool and the Enemy of the State mixtape. So, I was understandably excited for this album. On first listen, I was more than a little disappointed and I still there there is one big problem with it but, having arrived at my fourth listen in the space of three days, I can safely say this is better than a halfway decent album and it shows great promise for Lupe in the future.

The album starts off with "Letting Go" featuring Sarah Green, but Kanye's the real one who's a guest here, even though he's nowhere to be found on the album. This track really seems inspired by 808s as well as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in so far as the vocal distortions and the subject matter. It's a great way to open the album and if we'd had more tracks with Lupe being backed on the hook by a nice female voice, this album would have been an instant classic. The trend continues on the next track, second single "Words I Never Said" which features new It Girl Skylar Grey. (Seriously, where did this girl come from? She popped up so quick and is now in so many things that it's beyond impressive.) "Words I Never Said" has the best lines on the album, but that's not really a surprise, since this is where Lupe excels: he's a pissed-off political rapper who's doing his best to masquerade as a pop-rapper. Sometimes the record label gets upset with that (see the delay) and sometimes they let him do his thing (see: "Your child's future was the first to go with budget cuts/If you think that hurts then wait, here comes the uppercut/The school was garbage in the first place, that's on the up and up" and "Complain about the gloom, but when'd you pick a broom up/Just listening to Pac ain't gonna make it stop/A rebel in your thoughts ain't gonna make it halt/If you don't become an actor, you'll never be a factor"). When he gets to this level, it's hard to argue that he's not one of the greatest voices in the game. (And this isn't new.)

"Till I Get There" does a roundabout way of addressing the label situation and it continues the strong start of the album, mainly because it's just Lupe rapping over a nice enough beat. There's not much more to the song, and that's really the time when he's at his best. There's no guest stars (seriously, thanks for nothing Atlantic) and it's just Lupe talking directly to the people who have been supporting him all this time. If he's not doing politics, this is where he should be at.

The major problems start with track four, where we have our first guest appearance and, surprise, surprise, it's from MDMA! Lupe's verse seems to be about nothing, turning circles on itself just to pass the time (unless it's a shot at Kanye, what with all the references to lights and selling out, etc.) until we have MDMA making his voice felt on the hook, transforming this song (and, essentially, the album) from a Lupe affair to a Black Eyed Peas soundalike. This song sounds exactly like the 3/4 of the Billboard Top 40 that I deleted today after I had listened to approximately a minute of each song. Taio Cruz, Bruno Mars, BEP, etc. This production has no place on a project like Lupe's and, unfortunately, it's not the worst example. Trey Songz visits on the next song "Out of My Head" and we continue this vibe. Lupe's lines are a little better, we get some of the meta-conscious rapping that was en vogue four years ago in the first verse, but after that, it descends back into generic radio-rap song.

I feel like I've already expressed my feelings for "The Show Goes On" but let me say again that I love this song. Love it. ("Even if they turn the lights out, the show is going on!")

Halfway through the album, Lupe starts to get direct about his vision for his Lasers. It's some sort of combination of the politics that is clearly close to his heart, and living life passionately, and triumphing over old loves. I know that sounds weird for the direct vision that I just talked about, but it seems as though all the external projections at this point start to get turned inward. This, to me, is really the good turning point of the album. "Beautiful Lasers" is the first track to hit the central theme of the album right on its head. And that major theme is fear. There's a lot of it on Lasers. Sure, there's the fear we all know about, of the album not coming out at all, of it flopping when it does, etc. These, however, are the same old things that everyone stresses about. When it comes down to it, I think Lupe's hope for his Lasers trumps everything else that he's doing. And the most dominant thought in his head, it seems, especially during this song, is that maybe other people aren't going to live up to his visions of them. But even worse than that, maybe he won't live up to his own visions. There's no doubt that this song is about other people, in a relationship sense, but there's also no denying the fact that he hedges that with every line, reaffirming that, at the end of the day, it's a song about overcoming himself more than anything else.

"Coming Up" vetoes everything I just wrote by being just another generic rap song. It's a filler track that should have been cut, but "State Run Radio" pops up next and gets back to the political message from the beginning of the album. That being said, it's a pretty generic song, and it's nothing special. The best thing about the song is that it makes me think of former Dispatch band State Radio. Not bad company to keep, but he's not exactly living up to his own billing here. "Break the Chain" continues the trend by trying, but not very hard. It's filled with platitudes and great ideas but doesn't come close to matching the scope of vision of next track, "All Black Everything" - a great thought experiment, even if it's at least partially ripping off Dre and Snoop's "Imagine".

Album closer "Never Forget You" seems to summarize everything almost perfectly. Sweeping hook from a great singer, Lupe's rapping starting on the verses with grand statements like, "Let the record reflect..." and "Let the evidence show..." that, well, ultimately...lead to ho-hum accounts of what he thinks a rapper should say when they're telling an epic story.

All in all, Lupe's new album is an almost perfect reflection of him: uneven, fun at times, frustratingly poppy at others - when it seems like he doesn't want to be. He (and the album) want to do politics and want to be taken seriously above all. He's got the vision of his followers being his Lasers and he takes a few opportunities to talk about what that means. Ultimately, though, the vision is diluted and the rapping is just about par. It's certainly not bad. But it's nowhere near the level it could be. With Lupe's talent for putting words together and his passion for politics and his vision for people, he should be consistently mentioned as one of the greatest to ever do it. As it stands now, he's put out a decent intro album that generated a single that defined him as something he wasn't and a great concept album that promised bigger things. Whether this was really the album that he wanted to put out now or not, the fact remains that Lasers feels dry. There are moments of passion shining through, and there are some good pop choices, but too often, there's neither.

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