Toward the end of 2010, already a fairly healthy year for music releases in general, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy presented a brilliant, bombastic redefinition of hip-hop and R&B, capping off a decade that saw both genres occasionally mired in uncertainty. At the time, despite the best efforts of MCs like Drake, Big Boi and Raekwon, rap’s auto-tuned marriage with electro-pop seemed not only permanent, but worsening with every new Black-Eyed Peas track and every month Weezy spent behind bars. Apparently inspired by the success of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” record executives felt that no set of hip-hop verses sounded complete without slapping on the same recycled Rihanna chorus or T-Pain hook. Artists like B.o.B. made careers off this formula, Eminem shamefully resurrected his in the same way, and even legends like Snoop Dogg needed a Katy Perry to latch onto.
Just as hope seemed lost, Kanye’s comeback slapped hip-hop in the face and pumped it full of steroids, opening up limitless possibilities for the medium in the coming decade. New acts like Odd Future, Big K.R.I.T., Das Racist and Curren$y testify to rap’s wonderfully cracked-out new potential, and Lil Wayne’s return bodes well for earning the genre back its stripes.
So when an artist as prolific and innovative as Lupe Fiasco releases a long-awaited third album that seems dedicated to plunging hip-hop back into the sugary, synth-y crap it spent so long trudging around in—well, it spells disaster.
For at least half of the previous decade, Lupe Fiasco made a name for himself defying rap convention. He embraced all the style and quirk of hipster hip-hop in ways that rendered the old maxim of bling n’ bitches meaningless. Lupe imbued enough energy into his rhymes about skateboarding and animé to open new doors to the capabilities of the genre. Suddenly—with abundant help from fellow Midwest rappers Common and, of course, Kanye—an MC sporting thick-frames, sweater vests and vintage sensibilities outshined the female-degrading attitudes of yesteryear. With conceptual albums like Food & Liquor and The Cool, Lupe’s approach proved that splicing references to Star Wars, comic books, GQ, and robots with Beta Band samples and Hollywood orchestras made for some pretty compelling hip-hop.
Following the success of The Cool, the Chicago-born MC kept toying with the public’s expectations for his next release, an album he claimed as his last. Borrowing from the all-too-typical bag of mixed expectations and ambition known as “hip-hop hype”—for further reference please consult Dr. Dre’s Detox—Lupe first announced a triple album entitled LupE.N.D. before promptly postponing those plans in favor of releasing three separate albums over time. Eventually, only one future album lay on the table, this one, entitled Lasers. He announced the album’s completion via Twitter, although its release date remained unclear. An online petition organized by fans demanded that Atlantic Records release Lasers, and in the year that followed Lupe passed the time with a few side projects, giving occasional glimpses of his upcoming album to fans increasingly thirsty for new material. The album finally dropped last month after weeks of speculation and a public protest outside of Atlantic Records headquarters in New York, demanding its release.
So, why am I reviewing Lasers a full month later? Why have I just spent a few hundred words building up an album that I just deemed “crap”? In answer to the first question, I spent the month listening with dedication, in a desperate attempt to find something redeeming about the album before I cast judgment. I once described Lupe Fiasco as my favorite contemporary rapper, so I felt that, regardless of how disappointed I felt after one listening to Lasers, he deserved more of a chance. This also answers the second question: I spent a few hundred words building up this album because I need you to understand the full breadth of my dissatisfaction. After three years of non-stop speculation and widespread hype—which included the tentative title The Great American Rap Album—Lasers is profoundly and utterly disappointing.
Almost every song on the album leans so heavily on cut-and-paste backing tracks drenched in over-produced synthesizers that barely any number distinguishes itself. Opener “Letting Go” plays with a piano line reminiscent of an Evanescence B-side, and that says nothing of the laughable chorus, which sounds like the type of second-rate emo crap an angst-ridden sixth grader might write: “things are getting out of control / feels like I’m running out of soul / you’re getting heavy to hold / think I’ll be letting you go.”
The entire album’s production sounds fuzzy and muffled at best, as if the producers—with names like Miykal Snoddy, The Buchanans, and King David—were attempting to hide the laziness of their work. Most songs play out quite chaotically, with recycled electric guitars noodling between overwrought choruses that feel like some record executive slapped them on at the last minute for iTunes appeal. The album’s second single, “Words I Never Said,” actually degrades the pop-rap formula, and Skylar Grey’s campy Rihanna impression sounds like a pre-teen karaoke contest.
At many times, Lupe sounds awkward delivering his own choruses, as on the silly and self-aggrandizing “Till I Get There” and single “The Show Goes On.” The latter samples—or perhaps bastardizes—Modest Mouse’s “Float On” in a chopped-up, amateur mash-up beat that sounds like a rejected White Panda track or cheap ringtone. Mostly, Lasers finds Lupe lazily sprinkling lyrics to evoke superficial emotions that mostly insult the listener. “Coming Up,” featuring an artist inane enough to call himself “MDMA,” trades uplifting verses with the grade-school logic of Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles,” and “Break The Chain” features the type of textbook hip-hop hubris that even the most inexperienced rap fan might scoff at.
On nearly every level imaginable, Lasers fails. As a hip-hop album, it completely detracts from the genre’s potential. As a Lupe Fiasco release, it stains his once-impressive reputation as a subversive songwriter. We expect Lupe to work against the grain, but on Lasers, he isn’t even conforming to any mainstream rap trend. His latest release mocks that trend—completely unintentionally.