Lupe Fiasco- Drogas Wave Album Review
(By: Thomas Rodriguez)
Lupe Fiasco’s lyrical and musical ambition flourishes on one of his best studio albums to date.
There haven’t been many careers that have been as much of a fiasco as Lupe Fiasco’s. The Chicago rapper is known both as a master wordsmith and storyteller, as well as one of the most inconsistent faces in modern hip hop. For every classic album he’s birthed, Lupe has also put out a tone deaf pop album that sounds worse and worse as the years wear on (his album Lasers is a prime example of this.).
Granted, some of these pop albums may be the result of some bad relations between Lupe and his previous record label, Atlantic Records, but their existence is a stain on Lupe’s well-known rep as a conscious rapper. Lupe is currently free from Atlantic Records, however, and from his unshackled brain has come the newly released Drogas Wave, the sequel to his middling 2017 album Drogas Light. It’s ambitious as hell, containing 24 tracks, running a staggering hour and 38 minutes long, and revolves around a concept Lupe called the “Longchains”, a group of African slaves that survived drowning in the ocean and lived beneath the waves to save more slaves or return home. On paper, even a Lupe fan like myself was concerned. Overly long albums are more often than not a trainwreck these days (*cough*, Culture II). Lupe could have gone in over his head and drowned in the waters of this odd concept…
But that’s not the case here. Just like the Longchains Lupe raps about, he finds himself revitalized and reborn in a rap game that considered him long dead. Drogas Wave isn’t just good; it’s great.
Drogas Wave, according to its creator, is divided into two sections. The first is Wave: the beginning of the album where Lupe details the lives of the underwater slaves. The second is Drogas, a more general (but still detailed) look at African American life in America, as well as an examination of Lupe’s career as a whole. While it is a bit jarring for the listener to have so many themes and song topics thrown at them in one album, the two parts surprisingly mesh well together in the big picture, letting the common themes of rebirth, greed, triumph, and oppression trickle between both ends of the projects. The album is less like one fat novel, but more like a collection of short stories that all join together to paint a powerful picture. “Drogas” and “Manilla” tell an incredibly vivid tale of 1600s slave trade, while “Gold vs. the Right Things to Do” is simply jaw dropping as Lupe describes the tragedy of slaves drowning at sea, until a voice tells them to simply breathe. It’s these first few tracks that are the “hook” of the album; it lures the listener to plung directly into the greater tale the Chicago MC wants to tell. The narrative of these underwater freedmen is taken into great detail in the album: it goes from them swimming with their homies (freaking whales) on “Down”, to helping young refugees reach the shore on the touching “Alan Forever”. The first leg of the album is something to behold on a conceptual level.
Despite the seemingly scattered narrative of Drogas Wave, the tones of the tracks here blend together nicely: the hypnotic piano and trap percussion on the lyrical odyssey of “WAV Files”, echoey synths on “Down”, and lush flutework on “Cripple” are just a few examples of how Drogas Wave is ballsy in its production and laid back nature. There are no true bangers, per se, but the instrumental palette is ear grabbing nonetheles.
The only times the album really trips over itself are the overblown singing and electronics on “XO” and the occasionally repetitive -sounding choruses from Nikki Jean throughout various tracks in the album. Although Jean’s hooks and singing are good (as in the gritty street-life examination on “Stronger”), sometimes they blend together a little too much throughout the second part of the album.
That second portion of the album, after the life of the Longchains is extensively told by Lupe, is admittedly jarring at first listen. To go from a fantasy story about freed underwater slaves to verses about modern day street life, Black empowerment, and rap careers is a hard switch. Against all odds, the switch still works. It’s easy to see why; Lupe uses the second leg of the album to encourage his listeners to be free from oppression and drug abuse on the fiery verses of the powerful “Kingdom” and “Sun God Sam & The California Drug Deals”, just as the Longchains freed themselves from slavery.
This narrative makes even more sense when you realize that Lupe isn’t just writing this album for his hardcore fans, but for himself. After having been borderline enslaved by his old record label, Lupe is ready to be free his talents and be a better version of himself. He sounds truly invigorated on the phenomenal jazz rap tracks at the tail end of the project: “King Nas” has a killer flow and wordplay that’ll make your head spin, “Imagine” crushes your earbuds with a thumping boom bap beat that backs up Lupe’s reminiscing of his past troubles in the rap game, and “Mural Jr.” is a triumphant closer that shows the listener that everyone has the ability to free themselves from sticky situations: oppression, abuse, even crappy management. It’s a wondrous finish that ties up the loose ends of the album nice and tight.
Drogas Wave isn’t an easy listen. Even by doing this review, I haven’t even broken the surface on all it offers to this listener in storytelling, rapping, beats and bars. The length of the album is daunting, but the rewards that one can get from listening to the album can be incredible. It’s a collection of songs that are consistently well made, and have a higher purpose besides existing. Lupe’s calls of “gimme the mic” on “Happy Timbuck2 Day” encapsulate this perfectly: Lupe is back as a force of conscious rap, and he has a message to tell.
It’s one hell of a message to hear.
Tracks to Save: “Drogas”, “Manilla”, “Gold vs. The Right Thing To Do”, “WAV Files”, “Alan Forever”, “Kingdom”, “Imagine”, “King Nas”, “Mural Jr.”
Tracks to Skip: “XO”, that long diatribe at the end of “Quotations From Chairman Fred”
Listen to Drogas Wave here!
What did you think about this album? Any comments or criticism? Comment down below and let me know; I’d love to hear what you think!