by Daniel Paskowski
Lupe Fiasco has had a tumultuous relationship with his former label Atlantic Records, to say the least. After largely stripping him of creative autonomy following his sophomore release Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, he was forced to indefinitely shelve a planned triple-disc retirement album in favor of Lasersand Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, generally regarded as his weakest bodies of work. Free from the grips of a major label, Drogas Wave is Lupe’s seventh full-length album and his first as an independent artist. On it, we see the Chicago emcee at his most comfortable, exploring a new grandiose theme with slick lyricism while still managing to bring some new things to the table.
While teasing Drogas Wave over the past year, Lupe revealed that the inspiration for its title comes from his myth of The LongChains– captive slaves thrown overboard that escaped death and continued purposeful lives both on the sea floor and elsewhere. He has woven this mythos by incorporating stories from his two first releases and dissects it over the front half of the album where each track builds on the one previous. The story begins with the punchy ‘Manilla,’ laying ground by rooting modern-day materialism with the currency for which African slaves were traded. He continues with ‘Gold vs the Right Things to Do,’ an oral history with Jamaican patois flavor, which leads into the expansive ‘WAV Files,’ performed from the perspective of The LongChains and peppered with more instances of wordplay than there are droplets of water in the Atlantic Ocean.
Lupe manages to keep things fresh by experimenting with his flow and delivery on the front half. It’s most notable on the album’s first proper track ‘Drogas,’ performed entirely in Spanish atop a fiery beat. His mythos gains weight on the syrupy ‘Down,’ where he readily connects the plight of The LongChains to the modern-day struggles of those affected by Katrina – poignantly linked by the flooding of New Orleans leaving its residents literally underwater – and Native Americans, another race of peoples subjugated in the New World. Acknowledging the tendency for those at the bottom of society to be ignored, whether underwater or under socioeconomic burden, through The LongChains he seeks to amplify their struggle.
After an interlude, the album becomes loosely connected by the overarching theme of Drogas, how both drugs and human nature result in the tendency for ruin. It is a collection of tracks that, regrettably, makes Drogas Wavethe latest casualty of the trend of nearly two-hour long albums. Here, however, the album suffers because tight beats paired with clever lyrics form the blueprint for songs that are still good on their own yet become overshadowed by standout cuts like ‘Jonylah Forever,’ ‘Stack That Cheese,’ ‘King Nas,’ and ‘Quotations from Chairman Fred.’ I can’t listen to ‘Stack That Cheese,’ a lighthearted reprise of his powerful ballad ‘Hip-Hop Saved My Life,’ without a stupid grin on my face. Meanwhile, ‘Jonylah Forever’ showcases Lupe’s incredible storytelling skill as he takes us through the life the six-month old Jonylah Watkins, killed in a drive-by shooting, could have had if she had lived.
At one point, Lupe advertised his post-2015 output as a trio of albums. Perhaps he should have stuck with that plan, as a split Drogas and Wave would both be made stronger by concision. Nevertheless, past its daunting presentation, Drogas Wavecomfortable rests among Lupe’s finer releases. While there was something truly special in the way an early Lupe was able to masterfully craft bars and navigate the pockets of any beat with unyielding precision, he has, for the most part, yet to lose his touch. On ‘Imagine,’ he remembers the relationship he had with his former label – curiously tying himself in with The LongChains who also wrestled with the Atlantic – and explains that they sought to permanently withhold his fifth studio album from release until hackers threatened to leak it. While we will never know how Lupe’s career might have unfolded under a different record label, we do know that an independent Lupe can still reliably deliver his fans a great product.