Lupe Fiasco peaked too early, and he knows it. In his own review of his own album, posted on Twitter, he asks what more there is to prove, and he has a point. His discography paints a complicated picture; Food & Liquor (2006) broke barriers for a debut album, mixing unprecedented sonic instrumentation with uniquely pointed preaching. The Cool (2007) brought with it just the right amount of aggression, maintaining trademark Lupe swerve while still harping on the same type of local worry with which he grew up. And then shit went down. Lasers (2011), the product of a long miscommunication between Lupe and Atlantic Records, was watered down and mostly ingenuine, devoid of the soulful swagger to which we had become accustomed.
Tetsuo & Youth (2015) left plenty for us to decode, most of which we couldn’t, which was perfectly fine. The intellectual puzzle revived Lupe’s career after his lowest low (2012’s Food & Liquor II), and reaffirmed his seemingly limitless capacity for lyrical development.
It’s not rocket science; there legitimately isn’t much left to prove. Enter DROGAS Light, a release that is, quite literally, light on everything: substantiality, implication and even innovation. It is a light version of his better self, a diverse compilation of mostly bubbly throwaways that are more suited for a concert setting than a Rap Genius seminar. It may not be the Lupe we want, but it’s one with which we should probably become comfortable at this point.
It’s evident as early as the second track. If “NGL” is meant to be a political statement, it’s outdone in substance by earlier Lupe, and outdated in sound by, well, 2017. A Ty Dolla $ign feature can’t save what sounds like off-brand Lupe. Seemingly one quip away from having a much-needed bite, that informed aggression never comes, instead proving that Lupe has settled for this. He knows, and we know, that he is, and has done, better.
“Jump” is a brighter note, his trademark flow on full display over pulsing and shifty production. Recklessly assertive, it brings with it a palpable punch. The substance of the song lends itself to the smorgasbord of worry (e.g. material obsession, Black plight, familial strength, sexual intimacy) Lupe explores throughout the album, all nods, undoubtedly, to his legacy. It becomes clear that he wants to be remembered as someone who cared. We hear this in “High,” which boasts a futuristic sound draped in layers of pitchy background accompaniment as he pleads to be sent to the rap heavens.
“Kill” is Kendrick-esque in its effortless cool, which is ironic to even claim, as Lupe arguably laid the foundation for Lamar’s later adapted mastery of a vibe-infused political flex. Borrowing linguistically from To Pimp a Butterfly’s “These Walls,” Fiasco shifts thematic focus from Lamar — “My n—a, if these poles could talk / If the stage grew another pole, got up and walked / Gotta kill these dollars, it can't be an assault / Need your real love, mama, you can't be in my thoughts” — but hits with the sort of emotionally-charged appeal that made us fall in love with him in the first place. Reasoning with the seemingly more ignorant public about women’s worth in society (uniquely, in this case, through the lens of a stripper) is the danger with which Lupe should probably still be flirting, because he’s proven over the course of his career that he’s able to effectively do so. A provocative hook with Ty Dolla $ign and Victoria Monét cements the track as the album’s best.
A relatively strong initial push can’t hide what feels like a somewhat half-hearted final stretch. “Law” plays as a cheap attempt at intimacy; “Pick up the Phone” fragments itself with an annoying hook; “It’s Not Design” showcases Lupe’s lyrical versatility and even creativity (“And in the futuristic / Love will be reduced to physics / Computer digits made by robots / That use statistics, algorithms, and group logistics”), albeit alongside out of place production, the same issue that plagues “Wild Child” one track later. The sincerity of “More Than My Heart” manages to salvage some of the back end’s lost momentum.
Regardless of album-wide fluidity (or lack thereof), DROGAS Light cannot be listened to pretentiously nor contextually. It becomes apparent fairly quickly that it’s not a release singularly intended to enlighten. Compartmentalization is vital in its listening approach; consciously dense Lupe is rarely in appearance, and deliberately so, eschewed in favor of a more carefree aura. After all, this Lupe 2.0 (better yet, Lupe Light) is all that’s left, and for good reason. His legendary record speaks for itself. He said it best himself when he claimed this release as being Lasers, refined. Well, Lasers was kind of trash, and while DROGAS Light deserves more credit than trash, it’s certainly nowhere close to gold.