When you’re a well-known rapper, it’s easy enough to just ride trends and collect your paycheck. You have made your mark as a veteran in the game; what more do you need to give? Unfortunately, we see this behavior far too often. No example comes to mind quicker than Kanye West’s recent collaboration with Lil Pump on “I Love It,” a commercial success whose subject matter is only more cringe-inducing when you remember that Kanye is the father of three young children. Not every veteran follows this path, which is what makes Lupe Fiasco’s most recent release, “Drogas Wave,” all the more refreshing.
Lupe’s career has been through a wide array of ups and downs, claiming intentions to retire more times than Brett Favre. His first two albums, “Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor” and “Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool,” are widely regarded as two of the Chicago hip-hop scene’s best albums. But conflicts between Lupe and his label led to a stagnation of new music until the 2011 release of “Lasers.” Despite spawning Lupe’s biggest hit with “The Show Goes On,” Lupe’s core fan base largely disliked “Lasers,” considering the album to be disingenuous and far too focused on radio-friendly songs.
Two albums later, Lupe released “Tetsuo & Youth,” one of his most daring albums that puts his ability as a wordsmith and creative artist on display. He experiments with different styles on “Tetsuo & Youth,” with almost all of them proving to be successful.
But Lupe’s following album, “Drogas Light,” was absolute garbage (in my humble opinion). His attempts at homemade trap sound uninspired and ultimately out-of-touch. This misfire on “Drogas Light” makes his triumphs on “Drogas Wave” all the more powerful.
On “Drogas Wave,” Lupe takes risks most musicians would never dare to. The most significant ones are:
- The album is 24 tracks long, reaching almost 100 minutes.
- The first third of the album follows the narrative of a group of slaves who hijack their slave ship, causing the ship to sink. Rather than drown, the slaves’ spirits live on.
- His first vocal performance is on the album’s second track, “Drogas,” where he sings entirely in Spanish.
- After only three rapping tracks, Lupe performs a three-and-a-half-minute violin solo on “Slave Ship (Interlude).”
- Two tracks, “Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever,” follow the hypothetical futures of two real children, Alan Kurdi and Jonylah Watkins. Kurdi, who drowned as a three-year-old Syrian refugee, is imagined as an Olympic swimmer. Watkins, a six-month-old who was shot dead on her father’s lap, is imagined as a doctor in the hood.
Despite taking these risks, Lupe sounds as good as ever on the mic. His complex wordplay and left-field allusions continue to be unparalleled. Lines like the following are incredible insights into the poetic mind of a man inspired by everything around him:
“Ghetto mythologies colonize my mind constantly. I shine sonically in the Chi, divine comedy. I vibe consciously to override suicide inside. Honestly ’cause they don’t wanna honor me and honesty.”
“Was it God’s plan or man mismanaged to turn New Orleans to Atlantis?”
“Come here like Pol Pot.”
The guests and the production on this project only assist Lupe in creating great music. Nikki Jean, who appears on six of the album’s twenty-four tracks, absolutely kills it. Jean and Fiasco have been working together since 2007, and their chemistry is tangible, paralleling the connection of Vince Staples and Kilo Kish. Damian Marley’s performance on “Kingdom” also stands out, as he is the only big-name feature on the album.
Lupe reminds me of an English teacher I had in high school. His class, despite often being frustrating, taught me a new way to learn, and gave me a newfound appreciation for English. Just like this teacher, Lupe utilizes sophisticated styles and dense wordplay to educate and inspire. It may be inconsistent and frustrating to be a Lupe fan, but the pay-off when he releases a project like “Drogas Wave” is unlike any other.
Stand-Out Tracks: “Manilla,” “Haile Selassie,” “Stroner,” “Alan Forever,” “Jonylah Forever,” “Imagine,” “Cripple,” “King Nas,” Happy Timbuck2 Day,” and “Mural Jr.”
COVER PHOTO: Rap-Up