Lupe Fiasco's DROGAS Wave

            Lupe Fiasco is one of the few rap artists in active dialogue with his own catalogue.  This, in many ways, makes his work some of the most literary in the genre.  His newest album, DROGAS Wave, is an example of this.  It presents the urban Black American experience through allegory no less effectively than its spiritual successor, 2007’s The Cool.
            The Coolwas a novel – the story of a zombified young Black man murdered by the very streets he pledged himself to -  complete with its own Grim Reaper-style villain.  DROGAS Waveis a short story collection.  Every song is an episodic tale, each connected thematically to the sinking of a slave ship in the Caribbean.  Many songs reference drowning and the metaphorical fight to keep one’s head above water.  Also like The Cool, Lupe has not allowed himself to be constrained by the concept album.  DROGAS Wave is less saddled with this thematic story than enlivened by it, allowing Lupe to play within the imaginary, creating fantasy audioscapes of an undersea kingdom where the dead still live and “fish are [their] friends, the whales are [their] homies,” as he sings in the song “Down.”  He does so with a confident, metronomic flow that shows off the powerful breath control he’s built over the twelve years since his first album.
            It’s the willfully obscure in Lupe’s style that I have most often responded to.  He rhymes about everything from Black Liberation to 80s manga and doesn’t pause for the listener to catch up.  The lamenting strings of “Slave Ship (Interlude)” seems a reference to the string interludes he had on his 2015 album, Tetsuo & Youth.  He revisits his biggest hit to-date – The Cool’s “Hip Hop Saved My Life” – with a sequel in this album’s “Stack That Cheese,” in which the chorus pleads to be saved now.  Eleven years later after personal ups and downs and a seeming backwards societal slide, Lupe isn’t sure that hip hop actually saved him or anyone else.
            That’s what may be most interesting about DROGAS Wave.  It is a multi-pronged indictment of the cheapness with which Black life and death are held within the American hemisphere.  The song “Manilla” paints a clear picture of the web-like apparatus of the 19thcentury transatlantic slave trade across the Americas. Lupe draws parallels between the drowning of enslaved Africans to the death of Trayvon Martin and the thousands killed in Hurricanes Katrina and Maria.  And from city violence in Kingston to that in Chicago.  These things are consequences of active choices by governments uninterested in investing in certain of their citizens’ lives. Across the diaspora – from slavery to Jim Crow, red lining to miseducation, police murder in the name of Law and Order, the election of a president who made his money as an urban slum lord, poor city infrastructure, and failed emergency response – Black death is the acceptable loss on the balance sheet of American business since the very beginning.
            Lupe levels these indictments with a heavy dose of rhetoric aimed at Black respectability.  He has never shied away from sharing his views on the disintegration of the Black family.  While I would challenge the very supposition of a Black Golden Age where the Black family held supreme sway as being either revisionist or a misread of history, I cannot deny that there is certainly a valid conversation to be had about the virtues and limitations of personal responsibility in our community.  For me, however, Lupe doesn’t engage in the subject much further than the “pull up those pants” talking-to we’ve had from nostalgia-bound Black grandparents nationwide.  That said, I also disagree with gang murders and taking sexual advantage of drug addicts and I’ve banged enough of those songs over the years to give a pass to a little old-fashioned Black conservatism.  Lupe’s self-righteousness maybe a bit for some, but it lands no more or less clumsily than the self-indulgent gangster extravagance of many in the genre.
            In this way, Lupe is also in dialogue with the wider artform.  DROGAS Waveis an important work within the Millennial School of rap artists who came on the scene in the mid-2000s, inspired by the likes of Kanye and Outkast.  Like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole – the two torchbearers of this particular school – Lupe prizes storytelling and consciousness, weaving them into spitfire rhymes over bass-heavy, sonically-inventive instrumentals.  (I tried to resist using other rappers for comparison in this piece for so, so long.)  There are some really impressive entries here, but the album, as a whole, suffers some from a longer runtime.  Some ruthless self-editing might have cut down the twenty-four song tracklist and increased the impact of the album.  Lupe, of course, has the right to define the parameters of his own work, but I do believe DROGAS Wavewould benefit with a bit more brevity.
            Lupe has created a piece art here, crafted with intention and skill, despite my minor critiques.  This album is one that demands to be engaged with by its very content. In it, Lupe shows himself as still being able to create something that is complex and expansive while still having accessible, high-production music behind his words.  DROGAS Waveis a masterwork by an artist seeking to refine and distill his core message while using his established style to create a dark fairy tale kingdom that exists beneath our often cold, suffocating reality.

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