Album Review: Lupe Fiasco, Drogas Wave

drogas wave

Lupe Fiasco

Drogas Wave (released September 21, 2018)

Just a couple of days ago, social media celebrated the anniversary of Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor, an incredible 5-star album that still stands as one of the greatest rap debuts of all time. Lupe was immediately slated to be rap’s next great orator, a legend in the making.

Then, life happened.

In 2006, we were ready to pass the crown. But by 2017, I was struggling to make it through Drogas Light, a horribly misguided take on rap’s current trap wave – a misfire that made Lupe’s much-maligned Lasers album sound like It Was Written.

I’ll skip the analysis of Fiasco’s roller-coaster of a career, where flashes of greatness have often been clouded by everything from record label politics to ill-advised Twitter rants. Y’all know the story.

Regardless, Lupe has always had his own story to tell, and that’s especially true for Drogas Wave, Fiasco’s seventh LP and arguably his most daring narrative yet.

The concept of Drogas Wave seemed pulled from the mind of Erik Killmonger himself. Remember his dying words at the end of the Black Panther film?

Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.

Drogas Wave is sort of an evolution of that concept: A slave ship departing Africa for America is ripped apart. Some of the slaves swim back home to freedom; others live underwater destroying subsequent ships and freeing their people.

Nah, this isn’t your “Stir Fry” rap. It’s a seven-course meal, and a LOT to digest.

“Manilla” serves as a brief lesson on the horrors of human cargo, while “Gold vs The Right Thing to Do” attempts to put voices behind those in bondage. But Lupe is a lyricist at heart, and the concepts really take off on “WAV Files”

My bones is where the beach is white
Where the beach is white cause they bleached us light
So I’m goin’ back home, I took a leap last night
So I’m walkin’ on water ’til my feet just like Jesus Christ

Lupe smartly isn’t handcuffed by the theme of slavery – the overarching theme here is bondage. On two tracks, “Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever,” Lupe reimagines the future of two children – the former a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, the latter a six-month-old murdered in Chicago – whose lives were stolen by violence. Jonylah’s tale is especially gripping, a girl who becomes a doctor who rescues a dying baby. In essence, she saves herself.

Though the concepts on the first half of the album are intriguing, the album doesn’t truly hit its stride until the second half. On “Imagine,” Lupe wrestles with his own personal Atlantic Slave Trade – his woes with Atlantic Records: “When keeping it real goes right, I couldn’t keep my faith/By third album I was done, you shoulda seen my face.”

“Stack That Cheese” is an evolution of Lupe’s “Hip-Hop Saved My Life” while the jazzy production of “Cripple” (including incredible flautist Elena Pinderhughes) and the boom bap of “King Nas” put Lupe in his comfort zone. I mean, “Happy Timbuck2 Day” is a master course in lyricism:

Now this might drive you insane
Keep blacks all around that waist, but don’t wanna make us senseis
That’s insane, send slaves, man’s like, “I don’t wanna work, send slaves
On ships, on waves, in waves,” OK
Colder than a goalay, golder than my Rolay
Told her hope and hold her ‘lobe just like Evander Holay
That’s cleaner than a solar panel, power panoramic camera
Tanner family photo album, used to smuggle cocaine
Now they don’t want that beef, let that child talk like a king
Let that cat walk in the street, extra mild sauce on my wings

It’ll take way more than one listen to uncover all the gems in those bars.

And honestly, that’s Drogas Wave’s greatest obstacle. At 24 tracks and nearly 100 minutes, there is a LOT to consume here. Too much, in fact.

If you see any of those “one listen” and “first reaction” reviews of this album floating around the Internet, throw ’em in the trash. There is no way you can accurately digest this album with a cursory listen.

The album’s crushing heft does hinder the experience – several tracks here run up to six or seven minutes, with extended (and unnecessary) outros. It’s what kept Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from reaching the pinnacle of greatness in my eyes – it feels really bloated in spots and often gets in the way of the messages it tries to present.

It’s one thing to have a full meal. It’s another to overload the plate.

If you’re a hip-hop fan who struggled with the heft of albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, you’re going to drown in Drogas Wave’s heavy concepts. But don’t let that weight intimidate you, it’s still a worthy listen. The exploration of bondage – and the fight for survival – resonate in this climate. Conceptually, this may be Fisaco’s finest hour.

It feels like Lupe has been chasing greatness for well over a decade. For now, he’s back on track.

Best tracks: “Cripple,” “Happy Timbuck2 Day,” “WAV Files”

4 stars out of 5


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