Jonah Bromwich prefers Douglas Brinkley.
Two years ago, Lupe Fiasco released a great mixtape called Enemy of the State. It was a staccato burst of angry politics, quickfire rapping, and a well-curated selection of beats from songs as disparate as Radiohead’s “National Anthem” and Lil Wayne’s “Fireman.” The mixtape was approximately twenty-two minutes of exactly what his fans loved about the Chicago rapper.
Last year, Lupe released his long awaited third album L.A.S.E.R.S.. It was an oddly compromised piece of work, melding Lupe’s now-predictable political rabble-rousing into the schlockiest beats contemporary radio could contribute. And when Lupe wasn’t talking about politics, he was spitting vague clichés, like “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now” and “I’ma keep it cool, I’ma do me.” There was a guest feature on nearly every song, and it was hard to take Lupe’s occasional demagoguery seriously when “The Show Goes On” turned an already ubiquitous indie-rock anthem into the corporate song of the year.
And now, Lupe’s released Friend of the People, a new mixtape which is clearly meant to be a sequel to Enemy of the State. This would be a welcome relief for those of us who like to hear Lupe’s rapping be the focal point of a Lupe Fiasco. But it’s really strange because Friend of the People kind of sounds like, well, a well-edited version of L.A.S.E.R.S.
The similarities between the two are hard to spot at first. Lupe comes out all fire and energy, complaining about the restraints that major labels place on artists and rapping more compellingly than he did for the entirety of that last album. And the next track, even though it has a feature (Enemy of the State had few) is ok because the feature is a rapper named Dosage who can kind of spit, and Lupe still tears the beat up in vintage fashion. It’s even acceptable that the next song, “Double Burger with Cheese,” samples something that sounds ominously like “Hotel California.”After all, Lupe’s rapping about classic black movies, in a kind of street-cred bonanza. How could there be any problem with that? And he manages to keep the Lasers stuff at bay on the next track (even though it’s got another feature, from another nobody rapper). Still, it’s hard to complain about a “California Love” reference and probably the best gloryhole punchline ever.
But then we get a song called “WWJD He’d Prolly LOl like WTF!” which starts off with a weak hook which sounds like a throwaway from L.A.S.E.R.S. and continues with a beat from Justice while Lupe muses about Apple products and how they’re a great example of the horrors of consumer culture. Again, these kind of didactic rhymes would be easier to swallow if they didn’t come prepackaged with a beat and a hook that sounds like it was made for an Ipad 2 commercial. “Lightworks” slides further into the muck, Lupe peacefully co-opting the Occupy movement, throwing out platitudes that are more reductionist than revolutionary. The problems continue on “SNDCLSH In Vegas” on which the rapper compares the suits at Atlantic to Jerry Sandusky (?!) before taking it all back and big-upping Bassnectar.
It’s not as if Friend of the People is a total cop-out. There are still great tracks, most notably the one-two punch of “Life, Death & Love from San Francisco” and “SLR” and even when there are pandering beats, or cloying features, Lupe still sounds focused. It’s just that he seems unable to resist using the same kinds of tricks that so thoroughly ruined his last record. The worst of these instincts surfaces on the last track, “The End of the World” which samples the M83 barn burner “Midnight City.” To use such an obvious sample harkens directly back to the obvious cash-in of “The Show Goes On,” in a truly depressing fashion.
Lupe is still capable of making great songs but it’s worrisome to see how difficult it is for him to go all in like he did two years ago, without the triple crutch of pop hooks, features, and beats that distract from his flow. Lupe is no longer just a smart, ferocious rapper; he now has to wrestle against those parts of himself that incline towards those crutches. Until he gets rid of them, everything he makes will sound like compromise.
ZIP: Lupe Fiasco-Friend of the People (Left-Click)