Lupe Fiasco


(Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Food & Liquor (2006), 6.5/10
The Cool (2007), 6/10
Enemy of the State (2010), 6.5/10 (mini)
Lasers (2011), 4/10
Food & Liquor 2 (2012), 4.5/10
Tetsuo & Youth (2015), 7.5/10
Drogas Light (2017), 4/10
Drogas Wave (2018), 6.5/10
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The rapper Lupe Fiasco (Chicago-born Wasalu Jaco) became a star of hip-hop music thanks to Food & Liquor (Atlantic, 2006), a collection of 16 vibrant and creative raps by a polite, literate and devout Muslim. His elaborate meditations (that touch on sociopolitical themes) stand out in the world of rap music, but the production often steals the show. Rudolph "Soundtrakk" Lopez pins Real to a crunchy hard-rock guitar riff and to an organ-tinged funky-soul shuffle, smothers He Say She Say, that introduces the character of Michael Young History (the next album's protagonist), in the orchestral saccharine of Burt Bacharach's The Last One to Be Loved, turns a weeping orchestral snippet of Filipina singer Celeste Legaspi's romantic Bolero Medley (1982) into a neurotic tic for Kick Push, and reaches a peak of pathos in The Emperor's Soundtrack with a jarring hymn-like choir (a sample from UFO's Between the Walls of 1975). David "Prolyfic" Ewing creates the propulsive Caribbean jazz of American Terrorist by sampling Chick Corea's The Romantic Warrior, unleashes the feverish electronic mayhem of Just Might Be O.K. and then adds a catchy choral refrain (which samples Paul Humphrey's Humphrey's Overture), and slaps a crunchy funk-rock riff onto the hard-hitting Pressure, featuring Jay-Z. The highlight, however, is a swinging duet with Jill Scott engineered by Craig Kallman by basically remixing I Monster's Daydream (1998), which was in turn of a remix of the Belgian-British band Wallace Collection's hit Daydream (1969). A peak of fun is the jovial The Instrumental, in which Mike Shinoda blends a minimalist keyboard pattern and a droning orchestra while a sinister whispered melody unfolds in the background. On the other hand, the Neptunes craft the jovial, jumping I Gotcha with a hysterical piano carillon (a song that doesn't amount to much) and the Kanye West collaboration The Cool is one of the least original songs.

The 19-song concept album The Cool (Atlantic, 2007), again mostly produced by Soundtrakk, contained too many rap-ballads, notably the tedious hit Superstar, but the dense orchestral pop of Free Chilly, the alternative doo-wop of Fighters and Coolest, with an ominous female choir and tidal waves of strings, elevated even this genre aboge the average. There are a couple of unconventional moments (the acrobatic wordplay and fast marching beat of Go Go Gadget Flow, and the psychedelic distorted sounds of Hello Goodbye), but the direction is clearly towards the mainstream. Furthermore, the arrangements adopt a more electronic sound, for example in Hi Definition, Little Weapon and especially Hip-Hop Saved My Life (with a robotic female counterpoint). By comparison, the laid-back, guitar-tinged Gotta Eat is country blues. The dramatic tension peaks in Intruder Alert (orchestral swellings and multiple voices), in the propulsive Streets on Fire and especially in the claustrophobic, almost horror Put You on Game. Dumb it Down became a famous rant against the music industry. Almost half of the album is unnecessary.

Lyrically, his best work could be the mixtape Enemy of the State (2010), and musically it may even be more original than Cool with the oneiric free-jazz of The National Anthem (that samples Radiohead) and the street-band fanfare of Turnt Up, while the vibrant Fireman and the indolent Popular Demand ignite his imagination, and surrealistic interludes like So Ghetto and the rocking The One even provide disorienting detours.

The rapper then announced a triple album titled Lupend, that would also be his last one, but instead, following pressures from the music label, what came out was a collaboration with mediocre singers, Lasers (Atlantic, 2011), mostly produced by King David, widely considered a shameless sellout because it went for a pop production, with an overkill of singing and of synthesizers. Two of the most publicized songs are also among the least interesting: The Show Goes On (which infects Modest Mouses' Float On with a horn fanfare), produced by Daniel "Kane Beatz", and I Don't Wanna Care Right Now. David "King David The Future" Manzoor rescues the Kanye West-esque Letting Go, State Run Radio (with traces of reggae-punk of the 1980s), and especially Coming Up, the song with the hardest beat. The rapper is intimidating in Words I Never Said, produced by Alex "da Kid" Grant (with a loud hook by Skyler) and emotional in Beautiful Lasers, but perhaps he is more effective in the visionary and satirical synth-heavy All Black Everything, produced by Wiz Buchanan.

The kitschy electronic beats remain on Food & Liquor 2 (2012), which, despite the title, has nothing in common with his debut album: it is simply another pop album (see the pop-hop crossover Battle Scars), although this time his sociopolitical commentary is more scathing and radical (notably in Hood Now and Around My Way). The lyrics are sometimes so confusing that they begin to sound surrealistic (for example, in Put Em Up).

Tetsuo & Youth (Atlantic, 2015) marked a complete rebirth of the rapper, now a mature and sophisticated architect of how cerebral lyrics should exploit intricate beats. Lupe Fiasco's ambition on this album is evident in the sudden urge to indulge in longer songs. His visionary lyrics and sociopolitical themes transform him into a sort of Bob Dylan of rap music, with producer Dacoury "DJ Dahi" Natche in the role of an Al Kooper (or of the entire Band). The longer pieces are basically the blues in the age of hip-hop. After the neoclassical overture Summer, his impeccable but frenzied flow pens the nine-minute Mural (no hooks) over a hysterical organ loop (Wiz Buchanan) and angelic female vocals (sampled from 1975's Chanson D'un Jour D'Hiver of French jazz-rock combo Cortex), unleashing a cryptic stream-of-consciousness meditation (for example, "what's a coffin with a scratched ceiling?"). Seven rappers alternate deliveing 32-bar verses in the nine-minute Chopper, an avalanche of wordplay over a DJ Dahi-produced trap-rap beat. Preceded by the cello-driven jazzy instrumental interlude Fall, the eight-minute Prisoner 1 & 2 is instead a hilarious suite that collages together (with help from producer Maurice "Moezart" Thomas) a musichall section a` la Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, a frenzied Michael Nyman-esque violin, clownish piano, bombastic keyboards, a telephone recording, neoclassical strings, an industrial plantation song, and a dramatic coda. Stimulated by Lupe Fiasco's creative mindset, the producers are free to experiment. Larry "Symbolyc One" Griffin couples the rapper (who declames verses such as"Sanskrit dance on the page of the dead book") with a sweet soul ballad in Body of Work, and then appends Terrace Martin's deranged saxophone solo. Even better is Blur My Hands, in which Griffin's a propulsive beat is diluted by an anguished soul organ and Eric Clapton-ian wah-wah guitar and then dwarfed by Guy Sebastian's soaring refrain. Dots & Lines, engineered with help from Canadian trap beat-maker Simon "Sayz" Morel and multi-instrumentalist Jack "LNDN" Aishey, is introduced and closed by a country banjo and littered with harmonica sounds and choral singalong. Moezart sculpts the rare hard-hitting banger, Deliver, which is hijacked by a sinister multiplexed feature (also the lead single). DJ Dahi is the brain behind the triad that ends the album: the moving prayer Madonna, a duet with Nikki Jean, drenched in psychedelic reverbed voices, electronic rumbles and an scrambled beat; the hypnotic jazz-rap of Adoration of the Magi, one of the highlights, an anarchic blend of samples, voices and finger-snapping beat; and They.Resurrect.Over.New, that begins with videogame noise and features an agonizing muezzin-like call-and-response by Herbert "Ab-Soul" Stevens.

The six-song mixtape Pharaoh Height (2015) was confusing but confirmed his peak rapping form.

Then came another pop sellout, Drogas Light (2017), probably a collection of leftovers.

On the other hand, the 98-minute monolith Drogas Wave (Thirty Tigers, 2018), mostly produced by Soundtrakk like in the old days, was a concept album about a group of slaves who, two centuries earlier, survived a shipwreck and spent the rest of their lives sinking pulling ships into the ocean depths. The wordsmith can indulge in all sorts of metaphors and allegories about the African-American condition, sometimes bordering on abstract wordplay. After the Mexican shuffle Drogas, the bombastic Manilla begins the narration with dissonant strings and a spoken-word explanation (a bit too didactic). From the beginning the programmatic concept makes the music unnaturally ponderous and clumsy. If Gold Vs The Right Things To Do is rescued by elegiac female vocals and poppy refrain, and Sun God Sam & the California Drug Deals by a dissonant street carillon, and WAV Files relies on a catchy melody an African piano that is a close relative of Dollar Brand, songs like Down feel tired and dull. If the game of voices is enough to construct the tragic atmosphere of Haile Selassie, the best duet with Nikki Jean, enhanced with further vocal effects, and the pounding, jumping beat is enough to push the listener through Stack That Cheese (another collaboration with Nikki Jean), His pop-hop hybrids are getting more sophisticated, perhaps pointing to a future of Broadway musicals: XO, Imagine and especially Kingdom (with one of DJ Dahi's proverbially acrobatic beats, a children's choir and a reggae feature by Bob Marley's son). Add the mellow jazz-rap of Cripple (one of his sociopolitical rants) with piano and flutes, and King Nas, with gentle horns. But not particularly engaging. There are affecting narratives, especially Alan Forever, whose simple piano, guitar and organ shuffle disguises a moving meditation on Alan Kurdi, a child who drowned trying to escape the Syrian civil war and whose body was washed on a beach (the rapper imagines that the child survives and grows up to become an Olympic swimmers and to save a drowning boy), and Jonylah Forever, whose soaring choir and stately piano (taken from Apparat's Goodbye) compose a requiem to Jonylah Watkins, a little girl killed in a gang shootout, one of the peak of pathos of his entire career. No hip-hop purist would admit it, but, musically speaking, the least interesting song is the seven-minute Quotations From Chairman Fred while the best composition is Slave Ship, a mournful violin solo performed by Rosy Timms. If it had been trimmed down, Drogas Wave could have rivaled Food & Liquor, if not Tetsuo & Youth. As it is, it feels bloated and indulgent, even though the lyrics may be his most emotional yet.

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(Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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