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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

TMW reviews Lupe Fiasco's latest album 'Lasers'

By Mark Thomson

If you walked into a group of ten hip-hop fans and asked them who the greatest rapper alive is, you’d probably get five or six different answers. For me, the answer is relatively straightforward: Lupe Fiasco. His debut album, 2006’s “Food & Liquor,” was what introduced me to rap. Prior to listening to this classic, I thought that the genre was music that merely gave me an excuse to curse and for girls to dance suggestively. Lil Jon. The Ying Yang Twins. J-Kwon. I remember thinking that I was such a rebel to the private school educated and cul-de-sac residing life that I lived when I listened to their music. These rappers talked about the objectification of women, drug usage, and gluttony of the American lifestyle. I admit, I listened to them and made sure that I didn’t let adults see me entranced to songs like “Get Low”. Rappers weren’t people that I could relate to, but people I could live vicariously through. I didn’t have to worry about a biology exam if I was accumulating money at a fast enough rate to “make it rain”. But Lupe opened my eyes to storytelling and the poetry of rap. “Kick, Push”, “Hurt Me Soul”, and “Daydreamin'” were the standouts of the album, but I listened to the whole thing non-stop when I bought it off of a recommendation from a friend. Almost five years since its initial release, Food & Liquor is still my go-to album when I’m scanning my iPod.

The very next year, Lupe came out with another outstanding album, “The Cool”. Although I don’t consider it to be as great as his first effort, I still loved it. The fact that it was darker in tone was fine with me, as it came out at a time when I was trying to find a place in a grown-up world. “Hip-Hop Saved My Life” and “Little Weapon” were just as good as the best songs off of “Food & Liquor”. Lupe was clearly on the top of his game.

Since then, he’s flirted with retirement, came out with my favorite mixtape of 2009 (Enemy of the State), and argued with his label about releasing his next album, “Lasers”. They wanted him to take Lasers in a more pop friendly direction; he wanted control over the music that he was putting out. It got so bad that fans created an online petition demanding the album’s release. Just when I thought it was going to be shelved indefinitely, both Lupe and Atlantic Records announced a release date: Mar. 8, 2011. I instantly put that date down in my iCalendar.

After buying the CD (yes, actually physically purchasing the album) I immediately sat down and listened to it from beginning to end. And I was fairly disappointed.

It’s not so much that the songs are bad; it’s that they’re a massive waste of his talents. For someone who is the biggest poet in rap, Lupe sure sounds a lot like everyone else on most of these songs. I could easily picture a lot of other rappers on these beats, telling these stories (or lack thereof).

I’ll start off with the album’s first single, “The Show Goes On”. This Modest Mouse sampling track is incredibly catchy and is a song that definitely gets people excited for the weekend. Lupe’s rapping is above par and the chorus is the type that you get stuck in your head for days on end. Kane Beatz has an ear for producing these types of radio friendly songs, having been responsible for Lil Wayne’s “Right Above It” and Trey Songz’ “Bottoms Up”.

That being said, this track captures everything good and bad about “Lasers”. It’s a solid, chorus driven song. But this song didn’t need Lupe Fiasco. His rapping is lost amidst the song’s production, which is a shame considering that his verses are quite sharp: “Say hip-hop only destroy/Tell ’em look at me, boy/I hope your son don’t have a gun and never be a D-boy”.

Many rappers could hop on that beat and come up with a similar result. That couldn’t be said about the majority of tracks off of “Food & Liquor”. (Imagine Drake trying to rap over or add a verse to “He Say, She Say”. It would be laughable.) These songs were distinctively his; anyone else rapping on those instrumentals or attempting to form a similar narrative would sound forced.

Much of the rest of the album is the exact same thing. Lupe is lyrically on point during “Break the Chain”: “Freedom, we can use some of that especially where we from/Where we grew up like a green thumb/It’s like a criminal is the only thing you can become”. Yet the song sounds like it’s going to break into dubstep at any point. I was so distracted by how overpowering the chorus and beat were that I forgot who was rapping.

The collaboration with Trey Songz, “Out of my Head”, was the low point on the album for me. The very fact that he’s enlisted the talents of a singer whose credits include “Sticky Face” (which unfortunately isn’t about eating cotton candy) and singing the chorus of Ludacris’ “Sex Room” bothers me to no end. Plus, it’s like Lupe isn’t even trying on his verses: “The only thing that matters is that the feeling’s there/Your smile’s so bright like a grill’s in here/High off life don’t need a pill in there/You’re killing me I think I need a will in here”. I can’t remember Lupe ever recording a song this bad.

“I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now” is probably the best song on the album that uses the “dope hook, synth-based instrumental/ignore Lupe” formula. The hook is well executed and I really like his delivery on the track. It’s by far the most radio friendly song on the album. But is “The flow tight, skinny jeans skinny jeans/Hit you like Pacquiao, Philippines Philippines” anything more than a punch line rap in the manner of Lil Wayne? And since when did Lupe rap about a “Big ass tour bus that’s jammed full of girls”? It’s a stupid song, but I can’t stop listening to it.

That being said, not all of the songs are so rigidly conforming to Atlantic’s demands of a pop-driven album. If you can get past the annoying electric guitar and repetitive chorus, “State Run Radio” is a great song about the problems associated with the politics and radio industry. Lupe actually takes shots at his past success (his hit 2007 single “Superstar”): “Hi you’re on the air now what you want to hear?/Well we ain’t got the truth but how about a remix/Different is never good, good is only what we pick/you ain’t got a hit unless it sounds like these did/Not too smart you will be a superstar/And if you dumb or something maybe you could be number one.” Lines like this remind me why he truly is one of a kind. Who mocks their own work, especially a song as successful as “Superstar”? Only Lupe.

As good as “State Run Radio” was, my favorite song on the album was definitely “All Black Everything”. In this song, Lupe raps about what would happen if in a fantasy world where race conventions were completely reversed. In his vision, where: “Extra Extra, on the newsstands/Black woman voted head of Ku Klux Klan/Malcolm Little dies as a old man/Martin Luther King read the eulogy for him/Followed by Bill O’Reilly who read from the Quran/President Bush sends condolences from Iran/Where FOX News reports live/That Ahmadinejad wins the Mandela peace prize”, we see Lupe at his very best. I can’t think of a rapper alive that could come up with a song as complex and innovative. After listening to this song a few times, I instantly place it up there with Lupe’s best. Songs like these remind me of why I’m such a big fan. This song is never going to go platinum, nor is it ever going to be a song you’ll play on a Friday or Saturday night, but it doesn’t need to be. Lupe is not a Wiz Khalifa or a Waka Flocka Flame and that’s perfectly fine by me.

Another one of my favorite songs was “Words I Never Said”. Produced by Alex Da Kid and featuring Skylar Grey, it’s written in the same fashion as B.o.B.’s “Airplanes”, Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie”, and Dirty Money’s “Coming Home”. In theory, it should be extremely commercially viable and the type of song my 13 year-old cousins would love. But Lupe’s political acumen is probably going to prevent it from being a hit, as he doesn’t shy away from talking about Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and President Barack Ob
ama. That being said, his consciousness about politics is why I love the track: “I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit/Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets/… 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”. On this song, he doesn’t let the promise of mainstream success hinder the creative process. Most likely, he missed out on a top-10 hit by choosing to be controversial, but he gains a lot of respect from his biggest fans.

In addition to the generic aspects of the production, two of my biggest gripes with the album were the omissions of “Shining Down” and “I’m Beaming”. These tracks leaked illegally over a year ago, and for whatever reason Atlantic decided to release them as iTunes bonuses rather than as a part of the physical album. Considering that I bought a hard copy of Lasers, I was essentially left with an incomplete product. Both tracks would have been welcome additions to the album.

On “Shining Down”, Lupe pairs razor sharp wordplay with his “Superstar” collaborator and Springfest 2010 performer Matthew Santos. He makes fun of autotune while rapping a bar using the technology (somewhat ironically, given the overall sound of Lasers). The producer of the song, Soundtrakk, was also responsible for the majority of the production of “The Cool” and five tracks off of “Food & Liquor”. Even though their combination is clearly a winning one, for whatever reason Soundtrakk was left off of the physical copy of “Lasers” completely. The album needed more of his production, and this song would have been an excellent place to start.

The Neptunes-produced “I’m Beaming” would have helped the album as well. Featuring one of the best instrumentals Lupe has ever been graced with, the song’s quite outstanding. There’s not much storytelling going on, but some of the lines are memorable: “And baby girl, what does it matter where your purse from?/Your hair done, your nails did, your ass fat, but you’re dumb/Mix Melyssa Ford with Maya Angelou/Become a top model and Sojourner too”. A later remix of the song emerged online a couple of months ago featuring the All City Chess Club, consisting of rappers such as Asher Roth, Charles Hamilton, Blu, and B.o.B. I would have been completely fine if Atlantic had chosen for that remix to have been the iTunes bonus and kept this original song on the hard copy of “Lasers”.

As a whole, the main problem that I have with the album is its general direction. Lyrically, I don’t think Lupe’s dropped off at all but the label’s influences are clearly to the album’s detriment. In the past, the hooks to his songs added to his overall narrative. In the quest to create a more pop-friendly sound, storytelling was lost. I look at past examples of songs such as “Hurt Me Soul” and “Dumb It Down” where the chorus was just as much a part of lyrical content as Lupe’s verses themselves. By and large, there are very few examples of songs on Lasers doing this. For an album that was once reported to be named “The Great American Rap Album”, it sure sounded a lot like “The Generic American Rap Album”.

No matter how disappointed I was in “Lasers”, it’s not enough to discourage me from purchasing his next effort. He’s already said that he’s not going to let Atlantic interfere with “Food & Liquor II” and I’m extremely excited for that. Is Lupe still my favorite rapper? No question. Does this album prove that not everything he touches is golden? Yes.

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