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Lupe falters on ‘Lasers’

Chris Collum | Wednesday, March 9, 2011

After over three years of silence following his critically acclaimed sophomore album “Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool” — a loose concept album following the inner-city exploits of a character named “The Cool” — Lupe Fiasco returns this week with “Lasers.”

But in those three intervening years, Lupe has hardly been sitting still.

He fought (and lost) a not-so-private battle of wills with his label, Atlantic, over contractual issues that resulted in the delaying of “Lasers” and the scrapping of his three-album “LupE.N.D.” concept. Lupe also had an original song featured on the “Twilight: New Moon” soundtrack — one of the few hip-hop artists on the soundtrack.

These events, not surprisingly, baffled some of his longtime fans who still thought of Lupe as an “underground” rapper not embroiled in major label shenanigans and blockbuster movie soundtracks. Naturally, anticipation was high for “Lasers,” with many fans fearing a contract-fulfilling corporate byproduct. Unfortunately, a large portion of “Lasers” fits that description quite well.

However, Lupe apparently still thinks of himself as a less mainstream musician as well — Atlantic Records thinks otherwise. In an interview with the entertainment website Boxden.com last week, he went on the record about “Lasers.”

“One thing I try to stress about [Lasers] is, I love and hate this album,” Lupe said. “I listen to it and I’ll like some of the songs. But when I think about what it took to actually get the record together … I hate this album. A lot of the songs that are on the album, I’m kinda neutral to … I know the sneaky business deal that went down behind this song, or the artist or singer or songwriter who wrote this hook and didn’t want to give me this song in the first place.”

It is not often that an artist comes out so publicly against his or her own album before it is even released. Needless to say, this is far from a glowing recommendation for “Lasers.”

On the opener, “Letting Go,” Lupe echoes these sentiments, sounding frustrated, even caged as he raps “My self-portrait / Shows a man that the wealth tortured / Self-absorbed with his own self” in the opening bars before repeating “I’m getting out of control” in the hook.

This kind of back-against-the-wall desperateness fits very well given Lupe’s recent struggles, and it seems like it would be a natural progression for someone cast so abruptly out of the underground into the limelight.

However, it’s hard for Lupe to try capture that sort of lightning in a bottle when paired with artists like Trey Songz over beats that he didn’t even choose. For any other mid-level hip-hop star, this album would work perfectly well, but for Lupe it just sounds awkward.

Tense political verses have no place coupled with a Skylar Green hook, such as in second single “Words I Never Said.” That track is saved by some of Lupe’s best rapping to date (see: one-liners such as “And this ain’t Jersey Shore / Homie it’s the news), but just seems strange. The lyrics of the hook seem unrelated to the rest of the song.

There is still room for some classic Lupe on “Lasers” though. “Till I Get There” sounds like a throwback to his debut album. “All Black Everything” shows the same kind of social consciousness we have come to expect from Lupe.

Even on songs that Lupe has come out against, saying that he was practically forced into recording over the track, he still kills it usually. Smash hit Modest Mouse-sampling of the first single, “The Show Goes On,” is a stellar effort, and album closer “Never Forget You,” while certainly different for Lupe, is great as well, featuring a beautiful chorus from John Legend.

But then there are the painful-to-listen-to tracks, such as “State Run Radio,” which might have the most irritating hook heard in quite a while, or “Break the Chain,” a spacey number that just drags on and on.

Beyond that, there are about half a dozen so-so tracks that would shine on most other emcee’s albums, but coming from Lupe sound forced and somewhat distant.

Blaming Lupe for any of this seems unfair though, given his statements about “Lasers.” Let’s just hope that next time around he’s working by his own rules, so that maybe we can get the instant classic he still has in him.