Bishop G, they thought I should come down cousin/but I flatly refuse/I ain’t dumb down nothin’ — Lupe Fiasco, “Dumb it Down”, from his sophomore album The Cool
Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers was one of the most anticipated albums of 2011, partially because it was supposed to be released during the summer of 2010. Atlantic Records unceremoniously placed the album in post-production purgatory, and by fall it seemed that the album would never see the light of day. A massive petition of over 32,000 signatures and a planned protest outside of the New York headquarters of Atlantic Records on October 7, 2010, tipped the scale in the opposite direction. All seemed right with the world. The underdog triumphed, and the emcee known for refusing to dumb down his lyrics would release yet another insightful, lyrical opus.
If only it were that simple.
Several interviews have been conducted regarding Lupe’s lack of creative control, detailing conversations with label executives instructing him “don’t rap too smart”. His original vision for the album was altered via ultimatums. He had a choice – record material as ordered, or the album would never be released. Unfortunately for listeners, Lupe swallowed his pride and created a mediocre album that does not live up to its hype, expectations, or the high lyrical bar he set for himself.
Lasers is not one cohesive album; it is two EPs scrambled together into a mess. One portion is Lupe’s, and the other belongs to Atlantic Records. Conceptually, the fragmentation is due to two contradictory album concepts: Lupe’s We are not Losers… we are Lasers, vs. Atlantic Records’ truncated Lasers. The former concept was made public by Lupe’s “L.A.S.E.R.S. Manifesto”, which was released in video format via his fan club:
We will not compromise who we are to be accepted by the crowd. We want substance in the place of popularity. We want to think our own thoughts. We want love, not lies. We want knowledge, understanding, and peace. We will not lose, because we are not losers. We are LASERS.
In contrast, Atlantic Records envisioned an album that would have massive record sales by adhering to current popular sonic pop music trends, with little to no regard for Lupe’s artistic vision. Lasers became the soundtrack to Lupe’s frustration with his label, a chronicle of his woes with the record industry, and the impact of such on an artistic process. It is for these reasons that he has constantly distanced himself from the project in interviews, indicating that it is the label’s album, and he can care less about sales. While Lupe’s ire is understandable, it is disappointing that he was unable to channel his rage to release a more consistent project. The listener receives an inferior creation as a result of his reactions to pressures from his label.
Appropriately, the album opens with “Letting Go”, with the following verse, collected in excerpts:
My self-portrait shows a man that the wealth tortured/self-absorbed with his own self-forfeit… where I see my old self and wonder if we see alike… now I see my demons and barely even sleep at night… burdens on my shoulders now burning all my motives now motivation drying up inspiration slowing down
The album begins on a note of artistic exhaustion and frustration. Despite such tribulations, Lupe is able to deliver on the format with which he is most adept: songs with a clear purpose and message, as displayed on “Words I Never Said”:
It’s so loud inside my head with words that I should’ve said
as I drown in my regrets, I can’t take back the words I never said
Lupe opens the first verse with “I really think the war on terror is a bunch of BULLSHIT“. Line for line “Words I Never Said” is Fiasco close to his lyrical apex. He excels at opinionated songs as much as conceptual works, with previous joints like “American Terrorist”, “Conflict Diamonds”, and “Dumb it Down” as substantial precursors. One point of note is that Lupe blasts conservative radio/news personalities while reiterating his lack of enthusiasm for President Obama due to foreign policies that appear hypocritical:
If you turn on TV all you see is a bunch of what-the-fucks
dude is dating so-and-so, blabbering about such and such
And that ain’t Jersey Shore – homie that’s the news!
and these the same people supposedly telling us the truth
Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist
Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit
That’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one either
I’ma part of the problem, my problem is I’m peaceful
And I believe in the people.
Additionally, the critiques fundamental Islam: “Jihad is not ‘holy war’, where’s that in the worship/murdering is not Islam and you are not observant/you are not a Muslim”. The housing crisis is addressed as well: “crooked banks around the world would gladly give a loan today/so if you miss a payment they can take your home away.”
Frustratingly, “Words I Never Said” is followed by “Till I Get There”, a lament about how he is reluctantly accepting direction from his label – “album on hold, whole world on hold”. Production on this song is filled with drowsy repetitive piano chords, and is a sonic low point in comparison to the rock infused, high octane sound of the previous track. The chorus displays resigned acceptance of compromise made in the composition of this album: “Imma keep it cool, and Imma do me/it is how it is and that’s how its gonna be/till I get there, till I get there/yeah I got flaws, I know I’m not perfect/but all the ups and downs will soon be worth it/where I get there”. He speaks of his prescribed therapy is to go on tour and to do video shoots, and what he’ll do when he “makes it”. The third track of this album critiques the difficulties of creating art in a commercial environment, rejection, and how sometimes, a musician’s best isn’t good enough. While the exposé is appreciated, the song inspires the use of the “skip” button due to the production and his vocal tone. Lu sounds like he is suffering though his studio session. And when Lupe’s not authentically enthusiastic, I’m bored too.
The subsequent song, “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now”, still seems to speak to alteration of his fight with his label, however it is sonically interesting. While he does use his exceptional double-time flow over a bouncy energetic synth track as well as a few witty punchlines, substance is lacking from this song, which actually may be the point. Is not caring the sound of compromise? The song is a fun dance track, but isn’t notable for much else.
The Trey Songz collaboration “Out of My Head” is an ultra-radio friendly superficial poppy track. As commercial as this song is, lyrically Lupe does show some wit, energy, and playfulness, despite the verbal composition being nowhere near the quality of his established capability. Lupe has a history of recording nerdy love songs, but this track is all celebrity swag. The first verse opens with “everything hooks, everything works/ you’re a real good chorus, I’m a real good verse/ freestyle unrehearsed, so clean – no curse/ when the song’s done and everything hurts so I put it in reverse/and go back to the scene where I seen you first”.
Lupe crowns himself president of her fan club, and Trey sings the infectious hook : “Girl I want you to know, I can’t get you out of my head (my head, my head)”, and I’m sure the repetition can’t get out of the listener’s either. This is radio-single kitsch at its best – catchy, fun, unforgettable candy-coated airiness that provokes a head-nodding sing-along as opposed to a thought provoking instant affirmative.
Poppy and eclectic as it is, thankfully the album is not all fluff. The tone of the album is a strong contrast to his last effort, The Cool, which had a dark theme throughout most of the tracks. However, it is no Food and Liquor, his refreshing debut LP cast in the mold of Illmatic. Be that as it may, Lu does find moments to shine on this album. “Words I Never Said” is one of the timeliest political songs released during the Obama presidency. The track “State Run Radio”, a SteppenLaser tour fan favorite, falls in the vein of the original concept for We Are Lasers. The song discusses the redundancy of radio programming, and how it is a metaphor for the masking of important issues in society. This is the Lupe we expect to hear.
Another album high point is the guitar and synth infused, poetic opus, “Beautiful Lasers”, in which Lupe expresses his considerations for suicide:
Sometimes livin in a world like this, it’s pretty hard not to go insane
not pretty if you don’t comply, pretty easy if you don’t complain
stand there like you don’t feel pain ,no tears in the face of defeat
pretend to the end that you don’t fear change, don’t admit that your faith is weak
don’t say that you feel like dyin’, life’s hard and it feels like diamonds
you’re home is just far too gone, much too late to even feel like tryin
can’t understand what I’m sayin? Can’t figure out what I’m implyin?
if you feel you don’t wanna be alive, you feel just like I am
No winner when it’s me against me, one of us just ain’t gonna survive
my heart been broke for a while/yours the one that’s keeping me alive
“Beautiful Lasers” is highly emotive and filled with pathos. The lyrics and the production carry this theme well, and engage the listener to lean closer, rewind, reflect, and identify: “Lord give me a reason, anything to keep me from squeezing/simplest things, yea/you really like summer/you really like music/you really like reading.” Lupe has divulged in numerous interviews that the song was inspired by the continuous rejection he faced at the behest of label executives. Atlantic Records’ rejection of We are Lasers apparently led Lupe to consider taking the Kurt Kobain route to ending his career and life.
“All Black Everything” is one of the most creative moments on the album, and should suffice to remind any potential detractors why Wasulu Jaco been listed as a top-tier emcee, in the vein of Nas and Jay-Z. It is a conceptual song that details what the world would be like if slavery never existed, and if economic wealth was not built on the backs of the have-nots. The chorus harkens the listener to imagine that blacks “stayed in Africa, we ain’t never leave, so there were no slaves in our history/were no slave ships or misery/call me crazy, or isn’t he?/see I feel asleep and I had a dream/it was all black, everything”. The song is as wide-eyed and idealistic as his “Lasers Manifesto,” and imagines Martin Luther King reading Malcolm Little’s eulogy as an old man, and Bill O’Reily reading from the Qur’an at his funeral. The American constitution is written by W.E.B. DuBois, and President Bush sends “condolences from Iran where Fox News reports live that Ahmadinejad wins the Mandela Peace Prize.” Lupe peels back the conceit to invite the listener to change the future of racial representation and interaction, stating that since we are unable to change the past, we owe it to ourselves to construct a better world where race is an irrelevant social construct. Lupe envisions a world that is not the contrived, inauthentic “post-racial” concept thrown around by media pundits and politicians, but one where people’s differences and backgrounds are understood, valued, and included as part of the equation for basic human dignity and respect.
The Platinum single “The Show Goes On” and the John Legend assisted “Never Forget You” were not songs that Lupe had envisioned for the album, and were pushed on him by his label. Despite such pressures, he was able to conjure up passion and quality lyrics to make both tracks among the best offered on Lasers. “Break the Chain” features electronic dance production, but deals with breaking cycles of unhealthy parenting and unchaining the mind from problematic representations of blackness and masculinity. This is heavy content for such a sonically light track, but it is highly effective. “Break the Chain” is one of the tracks where Lupe is able to marry both album concepts of substance/ingenuity and commercial viability.
As far as production goes, this LP is not a boom-bap hip-hop record, and treads on the borders of hip-hop, rock, and pop. Sonically, this dichotomy is evident in the poor synthesis of production. The conflict between artist and label appear to be reflected even in the composition of the music itself, inciting a clash of pop-rap standards and Lupe’s evolving musical tastes. With two years on the road, assembling his punk rock band, Japanese Cartoon, and his strong affinity for rock music (as displayed by his rock appearance on the Twilight: New Moon Soundtrack), the instrumentation borders between rock and hip-hop on its strongest tracks. The majority of the album is characterized by guitar riffs, synthesizers, and electro-pop undertones that are very light and superficial, which starkly contrast Lupe’s brand.
The inclusion of “Shinning Down” and “I’m Beamin” as bonus tracks is a monumental error, as they sonically and lyrically are superior to 50% of the album’s content, and were essentially the first two singles released under the …We are Lasers banner. Both would be well placed as the first two songs on the album, preceded by Lupe’s “Lasers Manifesto” as an opening skit. Several leaked cuts, such as his cover of Jimmi Hendrix’s “Fire”, the rock track “Solar Midnite” from the Twilight soundtrack, even “Heirplanes” from his punk band – Japanese Cartoon – would have worked better on this album than the weak songs that emerged from the label/artist power struggle.
For an emcee who prided himself upon not “dumbing down”, unfortunately, he did, and this version of Lasers is what fans and consumers are stuck with. Half of Lasers disappoints, and is a reminder of how artistic freedom can be compromised when art becomes a commodity. Fortunately, the LP is punctuated by exceptional songs whose meaning remind us that Lupe is just as disappointed in the system as we are. Despite major encroachment, he is capable of thought-provoking, heartfelt, soulful, politically and socially relevant music.
While Lasers falls short of the greatness we have come to expect from Wasulu Jaco, it is worth purchasing, serving as both a lesson and commentary on the state of the music industry. The album is a reminder of the important synergy necessary between artist and label to ensure that music of the highest caliber is released. Even when album sales soar due to adherence to trends, the lasting impact from such compromises is diminished greatly in the minds of critics, and most importantly those who view music as the aural transmission of culture.