It seems like my theme this week is reviewing long overdue, classically delayed hip-hop releases. First, there was Saigon’s The Greatest Story Never Told, an album that took four years to release despite big names like Just Blaze and Jay-Z involved. Despite the massive gestation period, Saigon’s album proved to be a release worth waiting for, and disproved the notion that a delayed rap album is delayed for a reason. But on the other hand, there’s Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers. Much like Saigon, the process of releasing this album had Fiasco seriously contemplating retirement, so much so that he originally titled the album LupEND and hoped to use the sessions as an opportunity to bow out of the industry with his dignity intact. But as the months and years went by, it became apparent to Lupe and his fans that whatever he wanted to do wasn’t going to fly. Apparently, with the hype he’d garnered, it was time for him to deliver a bona fide hit.
When he declined those hits (“Airplanes” and “Nothin’ on You”, both of which went to B.o.B.‘s pseudo-rap debut) the shit began to hit the fan. Atlantic viewed Lupe as not only a monetary liability, but an artist who plainly refused to succumb to the will of their contract. Months of back and forth ensued before the fairly anticlimactic resolution that Lasers would indeed be released, if only Lupe Fiasco would bend to the label A&R’s wills and in return they would leave him alone when he started work on a sequel to Food & Liquor. Shortly after, the Kane Beatz produced “Show Goes On” hit MTV and radio with a gratuitously uncreative sample of Modest Mouse’s “Float On”, complete with disgustingly gaudy Kidz Bop-style re-singing of the original Modest Mouse vocal. Lupe Fiasco continued to spit his political lyrics, though slightly subdued, but it would take Herculean levels of consciousness and humanistic insight to overcome what amounts to the most bastardized sampling of a former hit since Eminem’s “No Love” or P. Diddy’s heyday.
So I suppose with the parameters of the album in plain view, it’s fairly easy to understand why Lasers is awful. There are many songs here, notably the first three four tracks, anything involving MDMA and the John Legend finale, that simply don’t feel like Lupe Fiasco tracks. He’s often put in this ridiculously uncomfortable position of trying to be and satisfy himself while trying to fit himself into the music he’s been, quite literally, handed by his label and told “rap on this or else”. “Words I Never Said” is particularly heinous. The track feels like Alex da Kid is punishing Lupe for deeming his previous megahits unacceptable. Lupe spits some of the hottest lyrics you’ll find on the album, but thanks to a four-minute runtime consisting mainly of Skylar Grey’s bland chorus it’s going to take a truly dedicated Lupe Fiasco fan to give his words their necessary burn. In a somewhat surprising turn, this is one of the few songs Lupe admits to having an open hand in, having discussed it with Alex for a couple years prior to its release.
What boggles my mind about Lasers the most, and what ultimately forces me to brand it so clearly as an awful record, is that in 2011 the idea of a label forcing an artist to do anything baffles me. We’ve seen upcoming artists like Wiz Khalifa, Stalley and G-Side release albums either for free or on a budget via Bandcamp on their own. We’ve seen crews like Gucci’s 1017 Bricksquad (fellow Atlantic signees, no less), Cash Money’s Young Money, and Dame Dash’s DD172/Creative Control collective essentially do whatever they want on the mixtape market while tailoring their albums to the positive feedback they receive on those projects. So for an artist as headstrong and seemingly intelligent as Lupe to get jerked around like a Dachshund on a leash is more than awkward, it’s very nearly a modern miracle. A last gasp from an industry that is trying as hard as they can to take the artists of America’s urban centers and make them arena performers in Europe, totally oblivious to the actual artistic desires of said performers.
A quote from Fiasco regarding the lead single and the closing number sums up Lasers fantastically: “‘The Show Goes On’ was a record I had to do ... I had to do it and it had to be the first single ... And then there’s ‘Never Forget You’—another record I had nothing to do with—which became another bargaining chip ... I know John Legend, he’s a cool dude, but it was just a record he [already] had sitting around.” A quote like that can send a listener’s mind spiraling in all sorts of directions, especially when you’re hearing Lupe essentially rap his ass off over beats that will never allow his message to be heard and the interview (which can be found on Complex.com) is titled Lupe Fiasco Hates His Own Album. I mean, even Ice Cube tried to tell us his post-2000 LPs were some of the best work he’s done in his career. Lasers is just a disgustingly awkward effort from everyone involved, and more than declining record sales speaks to the mercurial decline of the old record industry model. There is, apparently, an enormous scarcity of executives willing to let artists be artists and music be music. Messages, Lasers might have. Good intentions, Lupe definitely exhibits. But worthiness? Listenability? Credibility? These, Lasers is lacking in seismic qualities, on the sort of pre-manufactured level that brings the likes of Vanilla Ice to mind.
I want Lupe to know this score is not a reflection of an effort, it’s a reflection of his buckling and his label’s incompetence. I’ve never been a huge Lupe fan, but when he stormed out the gate on Kanye West’s Late Registration and followed it up with the slightly shaky but mostly dope and unique Food & Liquor, I had a lot of hope for him. Five years later, the man is posterchild, billboard and spokesperson for all that’s wrong with the major hip-hop industry. More than anything, I just feel bad for him and his fans. Good artists don’t deserve this. My jaw remains affixed to the ground, my main goal from this point onwards remains to never hear Lasers in its entirety again. Download Enemy of the State, a free mixtape released by Lupe last summer. It’s not only his best work lyrically, but it will help quell your desires to storm Atlantic’s offices and demand Julie Greenwald’s head.