Album Review: ‘DROGAS Light’

1ST and 15TH ENTERTAINMENT

1ST and 15TH ENTERTAINMENT

★★★☆☆

Lupe Fiasco’s career has been tumultuous in recent months; after a series of tweets in response to his ostensibly anti-Semitic lyrics and talks of an early retirement in 2016, the Chicago rapper cancelled the release of two upcoming studio albums. Luckily for his fans, however, Lupe Fiasco has finally dropped the first of three albums to come: “DROGAS Light,” a passionate and experimental — though at times uneven — creation. Composed of 14 tracks and clocking in at just over an hour, “DROGAS Light” is Lupe Fiasco’s attempt to both refine his signature sound and maintain his trademark focus on personal and social themes.

In his anticipation of critical response to “DROGAS Light,” Lupe Fiasco released his own review of the album on Twitter, deeming it “the only review of #DROGASLight that matters.” In his evaluation, the rapper self-effacingly rates his latest work at a mere seven out of 10, describing it as “somewhat of a mixed bag.” Still, Lupe Fiasco argues that his new music reflects clear improvement from his 2011 release, “LASERS,” and says that it “possesses … classic Lupe direct social commentary and imaginative storytelling.”

Lupe Fiasco’s review, although unquestionably subjective, is not far off the mark. “DROGAS Light” certainly has its merits — yet its overall effect is decidedly more mixed.

The album opens with “Dopamine Lit (Intro),” a brief and instantly catchy introduction with a vigorous beat. Its lyrics are relatively simple and repetitive, yet there are still a few moments in which Lupe Fiasco’s clever lyricism shines through: “Try Containment Unit, the walls, they can’t fit us / Who theGhostbusters gon’ call to come get us?” Though “Dopamine Lit” is not Lupe Fiasco’s most complex composition, it effortlessly transitions listeners into an energetic album.

Following “Dopamine Lit” is “NGL,” one of the album’s most forceful tracks. Featuring Ty Dolla $ign and recorded over a backtrack with an incredibly strong beat, “NGL” is instrumentally powerful, yet also manages to highlight guest artist Ty Dolla Sign’s intricately layered vocals. Though “NGL” draws listeners in with its hook, its thematic message is just as compelling. The track emphasizes the necessity of being conscious of the world one lives in, drawing from Lupe Fiasco’s experiences growing up as a black male. Lupe Fiasco makes reference to the inequitable U.S. justice system, rapping,

“Disproportionate convictions / Especially when it come to our case (our case) / You seen the movie, they killed the n–––a / Why you still wanna be like Scarface?” At the end of the song, the instrumental backtrack tapers off altogether, letting Lupe Fiasco and Ty Dolla Sign’s impassioned lyrics truly take center stage.

“NGL” is not the only track that benefits from the appearance of a guest artist. Other featured artists on the album include Bianca Sings, Gizzle, Rondo, Simon Sayz, Victoria Monét, Salim, Jake Torrey, RXMN, Rick Ross and Big K.R.I.T., the latter two making appearances on “Tranquillo.” The song is already a fan favorite, with the interplay between its cascading, ethereal instrumentals and distinctive vocals. The lyrics of “Tranquillo” are pure poetry, with Lupe Fiasco rapping “I will pursue felicity, find value in simplicity / Altruism and empathy will be the first thing extended to my enemy / Clarity will be the trademark of my friendships.”

Despite the wide array of guest artists, Lupe Fiasco still holds his own while solo; “Promise” is a prime example. Although more one-dimensional than the preceding tracks, “Promise” is a fun, easy listen that subtly builds a sense of tension with its string instrumentals.

While it has its fair share of standout tracks, “DROGAS Light” could benefit from a more filtered approach. Tracks like “Jump,” featuring Gizzle, and “City of the Year,” featuring Rondo, sound over-produced and overwhelm the listener with less harmonious elements.

Other tracks on “DROGAS Light” simply feel as though they do not belong. “Wild Child,” featuring singer Jake Torrey, has the feel of an indie-pop song, with a romantic, acoustic hook. Though it is by no means unenjoyable, “Wild Child” contributes to the album’s overarching feel of disjointedness. In a similar sense, “Pick Up the Phone” sounds entirely out of place on the album, like a pop-rock anthem intercut with Lupe Fiasco’s rap verse. As a result, it feels as though Lupe Fiasco is interrupting guest artists on his own album.

“It’s Not Design,” featuring Salim, is another case of Lupe Fiasco’s music completely flipping genres — to retro funk, in this case. The groovy track is yet another departure from Lupe Fiasco’s characteristic heavy rap sound that fans have grown to love. In fact, as listeners will find, the album continually devolves in random directions as it progresses, despite a strong start.

Whether “DROGAS Light” is indeed a refinement from Lupe Fiasco’s 2011 and 2015 albums — “LASERS” and “Tetsuo & Youth,” respectively — remains to be seen. Despite Lupe Fiasco’s insistence that his latest work is more successful, both past albums were more effective in creating cohesive listening experiences. “DROGAS Light” finds some success in its experimental forays, but sounds as though Lupe Fiasco was not quite committed to his musical agenda.

Lupe Fiasco’s self-assessment may seem like a humorous antic, but serves to deliver a surprisingly insightful look at highlights and drawbacks of his latest work. “DROGAS Light” is, as he hoped, high-concept and thought-provoking; it just needs editing.

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