On October 15th, 2009, fans held a rally in front of Atlantic Records headquarters to spur the label to release Lupe Fiasco’s third album, whose release date had been pushed back for nearly two years. Surprisingly, Atlantic complied, resolving to release Lasers in early 2011. That news was a huge boon to Lupe Fiasco fans that were tired of waiting for his follow-up to 2007’s The Cool, and was a testament to the power of audiences to influence the often enigmatic policies of labels. However, when I heard this news, I was incredibly disheartened. The fact that Atlantic and, to a certain extent, Fiasco, had to have fans organize in their front yard in order to release Lasers signaled to me that, for one reason or another, either or both parties did not feel that the album was ready to be released to the public. So I approached Lasers with quite a bit of trepidation, seeing it as an album that either was not quite up to snuff for an artist who has proven himself to be one of rap’s formative geniuses through his first two albums or was just not the right sound he was comfortable with releasing.
Ostensibly, the delay of release for the album could be due to both. Lasers sounds nothing like a Lupe Fiasco album. It is loaded with modern hip-hop signifiers such as Euro-pop textures and Auto-tuned choruses. Its backdrops sound more like that of the next Taio Cruz album than the follow-up from a guy whose two best singles on his first album were about skateboarding and robots. The trite vocal manipulations and rinkydink synths in “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now” sound like the hollow reggaeton Pit Bull would rap over, and the compressed guitars of “State Run Radio” approach Rebirth levels of clumsiness. Gone are the frequent Fiasco collaborator Matthew Santos and any reference to the supposed trilogy that Lasers was supposed to bookend. Lasers reeks of studio intervention (how the Hell else would Trey Songz appear on this thing?) and it sounds like the biggest outlier Fiasco could have released at this point in his career. With all this said, one can understand why the man and the label would be uncomfortable with releasing it.
However, if I were a musical ideologue, I could say the same for almost half the releases I’ve reviewed in the past year and dismiss them all. Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” was a last-minute songwriting request from Vertigo to have another single and the reworking of “Love Reign O’er Me” to fit a single sounds better than the original version that appears on The Who’s Quadrophenia. Sometimes, the amoral habits of labels can result in something good, and Lasers, to a certain extent, is a reflection of this.
Although the scenery of Lasers is completely different from anything the man has released in the past, the Lupe who is conflicted on the state of both hip-hop and his worldview is still very much intact. Where, on past works like “Hurt Me Soul,” these conflicts would rage within a song, Lasers is more emotionally polarized from track to track, to almost a comical degree. “Words I Never Said” is the most vitriolic screed Fiasco has ever gone on, the man reeling off heavily pessimistic one-liners, one after another. Where Big Boi, another rapper whose most recent release was dogged by delay, opened his album with this bit of off-handed criticism, “Then who you voting for Republican or Democrat / Take no second doesn’t matter cuz that’s how they stole the last one,” Fiasco blows him out of the negativity water by opening his album by seething, “Limbaugh is a racist / Glenn Beck is a racist / Gaza Strip was getting bombed / Obama didn’t say shit / That’s why I ain’t votin’ for him / Next one either / I’m part of the problem / My problem is I’m peaceful.” Props to Lupe for having the gall to open the second track of his album with, “I really think the War on Terror is a bunch of bullshit.” It’s definitely is an attention grabber, even if the track, itself, comes off a little too preachy.
Elsewhere, Lupe is a lot more hopeful, as on “The Show Goes On,” (Yeah yeah the world is yours / I was once that little boy / Terrified of the world / Now I’m on that world tour”) but it isn’t long before he bogs down again in the next track, “Beautiful Lasers (2Ways),” wallowing in self-depreciation like Kid Cudi hijacked his lyric book. Fiasco has always been a great rapper, but I’ve always been more enamored by the beats on his albums, so I’m more likely to forgive him for not having as many memorable lines on Lasers than on The Cool or Food & Liquor.
Especially considering, (and here’s the part where I really piss off the Lupe Fiasco fans still reading), I think Lasers is a better album than The Cool. Where the highs of the latter far surpass that of Lasers, Fiasco’s newest isn’t bogged down by transitional filler to suit a storyline, every one of its tracks memorable and, at the very least, fun. “The Show Goes On” interpolates Modest Mouse’s “Float On” into a communal toast that Rihanna may have set a trend for with her “I’ll Drink to That.” “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now” sounds like Taio Cruz, granted, but more like the shameless hands-in-air party fare of “Dynamite,” and “All Black Everything” is cute and clever in imagining a world where slavery never existed (“The Rat Pack was a cool group of black men / That inspired five white guys called The Jacksons”).
However, considering the tongue-lashing he has received from both critics and fans, it’s doubtful that Fiasco will attempt an album as blatantly commercial as Lasers ever again. However, keep in mind that the album is not the cacophony that many others have made it out to be. Lasers is an admirable attempt by Fiasco to move away from constantly repping the underground. If anything, it solidifies his talents as a rapper, as it shows that he can be smart and clever while pretending to be a genre-defying pop star, even if it’s just going to be for one album.