2018 has been an eventful year for hip-hop. The news cycle was dominated by rap feuds, battles for Billboard 200 supremacy, tragic artist deaths and Kanye West’s entire social media presence. Major releases came from J Cole, Logic, Nicki Minaj, Nas, Travis Scott, Noname, The Carters, Kendrick Lamar and countless others. “Daytona,” “Kids See Ghosts,” “Dirty Computer” and “Invasion of Privacy” were some of my favorite listening experiences of the year so far. Despite all of that, nearly all of my headspace and anticipation for the year has been directed to one under the radar release from my all-time favorite artist: Lupe Fiasco’s 7thfull length album, “Drogas Wave.”
I have listened to Lupe Fiasco’s discography for the better part of ten years. “Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor” and “The Cool” are both considered classics of 2000s hip-hop, and “Tetsuo & Youth” (2015 is my favorite album of all time. At the same time, being a Lupe fan has been incredibly frustrating. His persistent trouble with Atlantic Records, paired with his capacity for Twitter controversy, has made each new release feel more and more like a gamble for the fans. “Lasers” (2011), which many felt was a failed attempt at a pop crossover album, and “Tetsuo & Youth” were delayed numerous times. Lupe Fiasco’s Twitter conflicts with Azalea Banks and Kid Cudi frequently distracted from his music. Despite all of this, I looked to “Drogas Wave” as a new beginning for Lupe. I was incredibly excited to see how his first truly independent release since leaving his contract with Atlantic in 2016 would turn out. After two years of delays, Instagram history lessons, cryptic Reddit posts and a last-minute leak, “Drogas Wave” is finally out in the world.
The album is a dense, 24-track epic that covers topics ranging from the Syrian refugee crisis to Chicago gun violence to the hip-hop industry itself. Lupe’s lyricism is as dense and multi-layered as it has ever been, while the production accompanying those lyrics explores musical ideas reminiscent of Brian Eno, Outkast, Bob Marley and Miles Davis. After hours spent poring over Rap Genius annotations, researching Lupe’s webs of references and submerging myself in the music, I can confidently say that “Drogas Wave” is not only my favorite album of the year, but also Lupe’s magnum opus and a masterpiece of 21stcentury hip-hop.
Disk one of the album (Wave) is dedicated to building the world of the Longchains: Africans that were thrown overboard by white slavers and became spirits living beneath the waves. Some chose to return to Africa, while others armed themselves with chains and hooks to sink slave ships and free their brothers and sisters. Lupe does make the odd choice of using the first two tracks as preludes to the two very different disks making up the album. “In the Event of Typhoon” is a spoken word piece detailing the practice of throwing sick slaves overboard during major storms. “Drogas” introduces the themes of religion and drugs, two ideas integral to the second disk. Given that it is rapped entirely in Spanish and makes no reference to the Longchains, this one is a bit jarring to listen to.
After that, the story of the Longchains starts proper. While each of the following seven tracks has its own merit regarding craftsmanship and enjoyability, there were three that I found to be especially in tune with my tastes and expectations: “Gold vs the Right Things to Do,” “WAV Files” and “Alan Forever.” On the first track, Lupe raps in patois to great effect as he paints a detailed portrait of a group of slaves being kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the attack by the Longchains that frees them from their binds. The chorus is sung from the perspective of the African peoples that sold their brethren into slavery. The production is driven by piano and strings, but is also permeated with the sounds of crashing waves and human screams. After this song, I felt like I had just watched a Tolkien-style fantasy epic about the Longchains.
“WAV Files” builds on this foundation of grand storytelling and emotional resonance by rapping from the perspective of the men and women who fell beneath the waves and became new Longchains. In each verse, he takes a different part of the world to task for being complicit in the slave trade. In this world the seas, the stars and the trees were all guilty in the kidnapping of their black brothers and sisters. “Alan Forever” is a tribute song to Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned in the midst of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. In the song, Alan never drowned; instead, he grew up to become a world record breaking Olympic swimmer that saves another little boy from drowning. The piano driven music meets the jubilant and childlike lyrics in a way that is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. In the world of the song, Alan doesn’t succumb to the waves — he becomes a part of them. With that image, Lupe closes out the narrative portion of the album with what is far and away my favorite song.
On disk two of the album (Drogas), Lupe Fiasco chooses to abandon the narrative of the Longchains established on disk one in lieu of a collection of songs that explore ideas as varied as drug addiction, black masculinity and Lupe’s own legacy as a hip-hop artist. Moreover, the fantasy presented to the audience on “Alan Forever” comes crashing down with “Stronger,” the second disk’s first full track. The song embodies this paradigm shift between the two sides of the album, with notably darker sounding production and a thematic focus on the impact of corruption on the lives of ordinary people. Some could argue that Lupe dropping the narrative found on disk one is indicative of a lack of focus, but the less structured approach to album construction allows for different kinds of ideas and emotions to be explored. While there isn’t a single song that needs to be removed from the track listing, three cuts stand out to me as high water marks: “Kingdom,” “Imagine” and “Happy Timbuck2 Day.” “Kingdom” is an anthem for black excellence, with Lupe and featured artist Damian “Junior Gong” Marley proudly declaring that Port-Au-Prince, Kingston, New Orleans and south central Los Angeles are all African Kingdoms. The production is fast and energetic and it compliments Lupe and Marley’s voices incredibly well. It is a “feel-good” song, but one that comes from a place of genuine love and pride.
On “Imagine,” Lupe raps autobiographically about his rap career and the decisions he’s made along the way. References are made to Craig Kallman of Atlantic Records, the role hacktivist group Anonymous played in the commercial release of “Tetsuo & Youth” and the imprisonment of Lupe’s friend and mentor Charles “Chilly” Patton. While Lupe does note the pain and loneliness he felt at times in his career, he ultimately chooses to leave the past in the past and look toward the future. This sentiment, combined with “The Cool” era production and countless Lupe Fiasco Easter eggs makes for supremely nostalgic listening experience for long time fans. “Happy Timbuck2 Day” is a tribute to late Chicago DJ Timbuck2. This song is the easiest and most enjoyable listening experience on the entire album. Lupe uses the penultimate track to flex his flow muscles and pack as many cool rhymes, double entendres and slick puns into a song as possible. The production reminds me of 90s era Outkast. Given that Lupe has the rapping chops to play both André 3000 and Big Boi on this track, that is certainly a good thing.
As a whole, “Drogas Wave” is an incredibly difficult listening experience. Nevertheless, it is a deeply rewarding one. The work is one of cinematic proportions that refuses to bow down to expectations for what a rap album is 2018 needs to sound like. The lyrics aren’t especially welcoming to new listeners of Lupe Fiasco, but they also reward the work put in to absorbing his preceding albums. The production is the far and away the best of his career, with some truly unique musical ideas peppered throughout the entire album. The narrative of the Longchains allows for Lupe to flex his storytelling chops, but it also avoids the pitfall of overstaying its welcome. The fact that the Drogas half of the album could be its own work, distinct from the Wave half, is a boon to the project’s overall enjoyability, not a knock to it. In the age of Spotify and music streaming, it is all too easy to write off a 24-track album as a slave to stream trolling. Yet, “Drogas Wave” thoroughly rejects the precedent set by albums like “Culture II” from Migos or “Scorpion”from Drake in a number of ways, ranging from its lack of official singles to its consistent lyrical depth and sonic exploration. At the same time, Lupe speaks to deeply human tendencies and emotions and avoids coming off as pretentious. Even after roughly two-and-a-half years of hype, I found the project to exceed my wildest expectations. As this is perhaps something of a “final boss” for Lupe Fiasco’s rap career, I don’t recommend that people start with this album. Perhaps give “Food and Liquor,” “The Cool,” “Food and Liquor II,” and “Tetsuo & Youth” a listen, and then dive into “Drogas Wave.”
Final Score: 9.5/10
Best Songs on the Album: “Gold vs the Right Things to Do” “WAV Files” “Haile Selassie” “Alan Forever” “Jonylah Forever” “Kingdom” “Imagine” “Happy Timbuck2 Day”