Drogas Light (released February 10, 2017)
It’s hard being a Lupe Fiasco fan in 2017.
It was all good 10 years ago. Lupe’s first two releases – 2006’s Food & Liquor and 2007’s The Cool – still hold up as two of the greatest rap releases of the past decade. Thanks to a batch of brilliant concepts and unmatched wordplay, Lupe was on track to lead the next generation of rap artists.
All things considered, Lupe’s much-maligned third album was not nearly as bad as some critics claimed. The heavy-handed attempts at radio play just weren’t in the league of his previous releases. Label woes, pointless rap beefs and terrible Twitter rants later sent Lupe on a tailspin that nearly derailed his career for good.
Still, a few faithful Lupe fans – including me – held strong, hoping for redemption.
In 2012, Lupe finally began to right the wrongs of the past with his underrated Food & Liquor II album. Then three years later came Tetsuo & Youth – a thrilling return to form worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Lupe’s debut and sophomore scores. Sadly, by 2015, many of Lupe’s early fans had tuned out – the Lupe they longed to hear was finally back in top form, but they weren’t around for the ride.
That brings us to Drogas Light, a record that simultaneously tries to reaffirm Lupe’s status as hip-hop’s Einstein, yet also capture the ears of mainstream rap fans while again dipping his toes into pop waters.
Quite frankly, Lupe puts way too much on his plate and it’s impossible to digest everything.
The first half of Drogas Light is conceptually ambitious – Lupe hijacks mainstream rap’s current obsession with trap to serve as a canvas for his own conscious rhymes. While it’s extremely effective on the frantic first single “Jump” – easily one of the most addictive records Lupe has ever recorded – other tracks miss the mark.
“City of the Year” attempts to be an insightful look into the cycle of violence that swirls in the Chicago but the repetitive hook (which, of course, is just “City of the Year” repeated 10,000 times) drowns out the message. “Made in the USA” is basically the same song, down to identical themes and brain-numbing hook. Lupe breaks his 2007 promise to never dumb down his music and intentionally goes into Migos mode on “Promise,” as sort of an ironic attack on today’s lethargic rap bars. Again, that’s a witty approach in theory, but no one actually wants to listen to Lupe slumming it.
Lupe’s attempts to uplift just wind up rolling into a big ball of corn on “Tranquillo,” where instead of rapping about pushing drugs, he’s pushing positivity. Yep: “I got kilos by the speedboat/And I ain’t talkin’ ’bout them drugs/I’m talkin’ ’bout that love.” Uh huh. Big K.R.I.T.’s closing verse helps salvage the song a bit but again, it just winds up another missed opportunity, Lupe has had much better success with flipping drug tracks on their heads in the past, like on his fantastic remix of Rick Ross’ “BMF.” (Rawse, by the way, shows up on “Tranquillo” too to talk about letting his son hold his gun while he swims laps in the pool – sigh, don’t ask.)
The second half of Drogas Light is straight up Top 40 territory, filled with poppy production and oversung hooks. This isn’t always a bad thing, of course. Slick wordplay and 80s-inspired production make “It’s Not Design” a fun listen, but “Wild Child” and “Pick Up the Phone” just wind up blending together.
On my first listen of Drogas Light, I was ready to throw stones at Lupe for a rushed, lazy project. But on subsequent listens, I realized there was a method to his blandness – he’s intentionally using contemporary rap styles and production to market his message to new listeners. But on this undercover mission, Lupe went in too deep and fell victim to the same mistakes as underachieving peers – resulting in tracks like “Kill” that’s 90 percent hook a little else and “More Than My Heart,” an ode to motherhood that sounds like someone reading a sappy Mother’s Day card. It’s a stark contrast to “Madonna” from Tetsuo & Youth, a gripping account of mothers grappling with neighborhood violence.
Did Lupe really “Dumb It Down?” I wouldn’t say so. But in his attempt to reach backpackers AND 17-year-olds with tight pants and weird haircuts AND top 40 fans whose only exposure to rap is on the radio between Taylor Swift songs Drogas Light probably will wind up alienating them all.
Best tracks: “Jump,” “Tranquillo”
3 stars out of 5