Artists being vocal about their frustrations with record labels is not a new phenomenon; yet, few artists have been quite as candid, and seen the quality of their craft and career trajectory take as steep a nosedive due to label conflicts, as renowned Chicago emcee Lupe Fiasco has.
Following the release of his universally-panned Lasers album — an album that Lupe acknowledges he created with about as much enthusiasm as a “hostage” — the Chicago wordsmith has mostly failed to recapture the momentum and acclaim he started his career off with on Food and Liquor and The Cool (save for Tetsuo & Youth).
Last year, Lupe dropped the first effort in his planned DROGAS series, DROGAS LIGHT, which was again a relatively mediocre outing — Lupe admitted that it was merely “a compilation of old-ass songs” and that he purposely “took a L.” He did, however, promise that the next installment would see the return of a “fully complex, fully involved Lupe Fiasco.”
And he certainly did not mislead: On DROGAS WAVE, Lupe, an acquaintance of conceptual projects, executes one of the most complex concepts of any album released so far in 2018, as well as what could be the most ambitious album of his career.
Lupe begins DROGAS WAVE with the storyline of the “LongChains,” which are, as Lupe explains in his reddit thread, African slaves who have survived and thrived underwater during the transatlantic slave trade. The songs “Manilla” and “Gold vs. The Right Things to Do” have Lupe observing the material motives behind oppressors and instigators of tyranny — “manilla” and “gold” — as well as introducing the LongChains, who patrol the oceans and attack and sink slaveships.
On the odyssean “WAV Files” and “Down,” the Chicago emcee ponders the universe’s complacency and complicity in the oppression of slaves, and proceeds to paint a picture of a world in which the gods, mother nature, the constellations, and other natural/supernatural forces are actually on the side of disenfranchised people. Through this reimagining, Lupe subtly critiques society’s “stars,” and wonders how the plight of African-Americans, and marginalized populations in general, would change if people with status, power, education, etc. stood up for these people, instead of being apathetic. It’s the kind of storytelling and narration that rivals the likes of Nas, Slick Rick, and The Notorious B.I.G., with a creativity that puts him on par with poets like Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000.
At the conclusion of the LongChains arc, DROGAS WAVE pivots and becomes an exploration of various kinds of resurrections and new beginnings. On “Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever,” which are two of the album’s crown jewels, Lupe reimagines the fates of two children — Alan Kurdi: a 3-year-old refugee who drowned in 2015 after his family’s boat capsized on its way to Kos; and Jonylah Watkins: a 6-month-old toddler who was shot multiple times in Chicago in 2013 — as if they did not actually meet their tragic deaths. Alan is resurrected as an accomplished Olympic swimmer who saves a boy from drowning; Jonylah is revived as a precocious student who eventually opens her own clinic in low-income areas to help victims of gun violence. Lupe turns their fates into absolutely beautiful stories. They’re emotional and poignant; these moments elicit tears — of joy and of sorrow.
Throughout the album, Lupe invites the listeners to use their imagination to envision what the world would look like in better alternative timelines: What would’ve happened if the idle people of history took action (“Haile Selassie”)? Would depression or intraracial violence rates change if we viewed ourselves as royalty (“Kingdom”)? If time could be rewound, would you change the course of your history? This question is actually the premise of the song “Imagine,” where Lupe addresses his time as an Atlantic Records signee, and in which he concludes that, despite wishing he could return to his younger days, before the frustration and suffering, he has found solace in the path he has chosen.
While Lupe’s ambition on DROGAS WAVE is its greatest strength, it might also be its greatest weakness — from a commercial standpoint, at least. The album is a journey, in every sense of the word; it is very rewarding, but it is lengthy (about an hour and 40 minute runtime) and it’s not an easy listen, lyrically or conceptually. That, unfortunately, hurts it’s replay value. In a saturated climate that oftentimes prefers memorizable hooks and simple lyrics, DROGAS WAVE is permanently out of place, as it favors Lupe’s extensive vocabulary and complex choruses. What the album gains in quality and inventiveness, it loses in commerciality and reach.
Nevertheless, on DROGAS WAVE, Lupe sounds as reinvigorated and energized as ever. You can tell, by the concept, vision, and execution of this album — all on a “razor-thin budget,” I should add — that this was an album that he actually wanted to make, unlike some of the lukewarm albums he released under his Atlantic Records contract. Independence from a label has given Lupe a sense of purpose and zeal that audiences have barely heard from him in years.