For the past eight months, there has been a Reddit thread, helmed by Lupe Fiasco himself, updating semi-frequently about the writing and structuring process behind Fiasco's long-awaited seventh album, DROGAS WAVE. The thread has served as a running diary, with Lupe erratically writing and revising his thoughts on where he hopes to take the project, jumping from a “Michael Young History” spin-off unto an even denser narrative about resurrected former slaves called “LongChains” living under the ocean in freedom. Through all of the unfiltered trains of thought, and long-winded narratives, Lupe, at one point, writes down a much simpler line of explanation:
“Those who wouldn’t become slaves...instead became waves.”
Since the release of his 2006 debut album Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, Lupe’s relationship to music transcends our perceived notion of what complexity should sound like. Lupe’s music is a Rubik's Cube of political philosophy, mind-numbing lyricism, and intricate world-building that demands your undivided attention at the cost of losing yourself in his web of rhymes. His commitment to this complexity is what makes him special. It’s what made his storytelling as expansive and affecting as Masta Ace or Slick Rick's, his penmanship as sharp as Black Thought’s, and why, at his peak, he was truly the wordsmith that we've now crowned Kendrick Lamar.
Lupe’s complexity is also what has made him an increasingly hard sell, and why concepts like his aforementioned Reddit thread make you feel almost uncomfortably lost trying to reach whatever plane of reality his mind exists in. Being a genius with words, which Lupe unquestionably is, is only fun if he remains aware of that fact.
DROGAS WAVE is Lupe through and through—as beautiful and complicated as his Reddit thread suggests. The ideas of “slaves” and “waves” lay heavily throughout the album. One of Lupe’s most admirable artistic qualities has always been his examination of world history through the lenses of good and evil, choices and consequences. Through its 24-track, hour and 38-minute runtime, DROGAS WAVE hammers home how impactful the actions and inactions of many can be on the world, and specifically on black culture.
Lupe has never been afraid to wield the sword of conscious rap, but DROGAS WAVE’s inclusion of the “LongChains” characters and their underwater existence, in which they either travel back to Africa from which they came or stay in the water to help free other slaves, is as conceptually ambitious as anything Lupe has ever attempted. He uses this aquatic palette as a jumping-off point for the first third of the album (“WAV Files” and “Down”), creating an entire world full of freedom-seeking souls in such nearly overwhelming detail.
From there, the album dives even deeper, pivoting the “wave” concept into historical and modern context, with quintessential Lupe tales of freedom, growth, fear, and power entangled in every track. It’s hard to imagine another artist this year attempting a concept as daunting as this one.
The highlights of such an approach are often found when Lupe turns the narrative on himself. On tracks like “Imagine” and “King Nas,” Lupe recovers the humanity in his music. Where “Imagine” succeeds because we get a rare insight into Lupe’s feelings about his falling-out with Atlantic Records, “King Nas” combines an earnest discussion of manhood with Lupe’s own lessons of growth. Each of these moments feels so perfect in the context of what Lupe’s best tracks do: finding a way to realize his faults and transitioning those into lessons we as listeners can follow.
DROGAS WAVE’s bright spots are also when Lupe reimagines his impeccable storytelling abilities. On both “Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever,” two tracks worthy of finding a home in the pantheon of Lupe’s music, Lupe creates two distinct alternate realities for his main characters, Alan and Jonylah. Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who was infamously found dead on a Turkish shoreline, and Jonylah Watkins, a six-month-old girl killed by in a senseless Chicago gang murder, are the main characters of their respective tracks, and in each Lupe attempts to reimagine their life paths had they not died.
While “Alan Forever” carries a lighter, piano-laden tone, in which Alan Kurdi grows up to be an Olympic swimmer who one day saves a little boy on a beach just like him, “Jonylah Forever" uses a haunting sample from Apparat’s “Goodbye” to tell the same bittersweet journey of a bright, young girl that managed to grow out of the violent Chicago she was born into. The messages in each, once it’s discovered whom Lupe is writing about specifically, resonate on levels that remind us just how gifted he is at encapsulating even the most convoluted concept into a song.
There are of plenty of moments, however, where DROGAS WAVE works strictly off the basis that Lupe can just rap about complicated things better than almost anyone else. “Mural Jr.,” “Cripple,” and “Manilla” are just three examples of the sprawling lyricism we have come to expect from the 36-year-old verbal technician. They feel refreshing compared to the condemnatory head-shaking at trap rappers and hip-hop that plagued much of Lupe’s last album, DROGAS Light. Instead, DROGAS WAVE is much less satirical, and even when he’s brimming with cynicism on tracks like “Sun God Sam & The California Drug Deals,” his anger at the world feels more earned than it does when he directs it at the current state of hip-hop.
DROGAS WAVE also contains arguably the most pristine production Lupe has been blessed with in his entire career, and there are very few, if any, points throughout the album where the production doesn’t lift Lupe’s words even higher. Whether it’s the soulful throwback to The Cool’s “Hip Hop Saved My Life” on “Stack That Cheese,” or the jazzy, blissful piano and flutes on “Cripple,” Lupe’s ear for beats, unencumbered by the weight of a radio hit or label expectations, is on full display.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Lupe Fiasco album without imperfections. Conceptually, DROGAS WAVE resembles The Cool the most in regards to how Lupe uses the characters he raps through to focus on something grander, his ideas almost borderline impenetrable initially. With such a wide range of directions on this album, it’s easy to wonder if the heft of existential interludes, an extremely long run-time, and even the entire “LongChains” concept itself are entirely necessary for this album to succeed. Lupe’s raps can feel like Russian nesting dolls at times: as you twist off each layer, you start to wonder if what you find at the bottom is worth how exhausting it can be to get there.
It’s as hard to fully understand DROGAS WAVE as it is to fully comprehend a Lupe Fiasco-helmed Reddit thread. Never shy of being daring and unique, Lupe put together a dense and beautiful text of ideas that feels less like an album, at times, and more like an Honors Philosophy class you showed up for three months late: you want to understand, but it’s stressful enough just trying to copy the notes off the board before class ends.
There is definitive greatness with DROGAS WAVE, just as there has always been with Lupe Fiasco, as he remains one of the finest lyricists in the history of hip-hop. But once again, it may just take a little longer to piece together how exactly Lupe wants us to process this all.
Three Standout Tracks
The heart of DROGAS WAVE, Lupe’s fictionalized retelling of Alan Kurdi’s life had he not died, is one of the most heartbreaking and wonderful tracks in his entire catalog.
“Stack That Cheese”
One of the direct descendants of Lupe’s “Michael Young History” character from The Cool, “Stack That Cheese” is a soulful trip down memory lane for hardcore Lupe fans clamoring for him to return to his earliest narrative roots.
The prototypical “Lupe might be literally better with words than anyone in rap history” song, “Cripple” is the perfect blend of pillowy production, scathing punchlines, and enough time for Lupe to still educate us all on socioeconomic pitfalls in America.
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