Very rarely does an artist release a 20-plus-song album that is highly enjoyable front to back — no filler and no frills. Chicago-based rapper Lupe Fiasco’s seventh studio album, “Drogas Wave,” a 98-minute, 24-track firebrand that dropped Sept. 21, provides an expansive and rich utopian re-imagining of human suffering, both domestically and abroad. Following its lackluster precursor, “Drogas Light,” “Drogas Wave” is filled with the dense lyricism, vivid portraiture, nuanced social commentary and “extracurricular listening” that has defined Lupe’s critical success.
It has been 13 years since Lupe skyrocketed into the hip hop limelight conferred to him by his feature on Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky.” After his initial ascent, he quickly dropped two veritable classics —2006’s “Food & Liquor” and 2007’s “The Cool” — but has since failed to replicate his rare achievement of both mainstream and critical success. Though his 2015 album, “Tetsuo and Youth,” proved to be an indelible assortment of abstract wordplay, the three other albums he has put out are contrived. This may be due in part to Lupe’s constant conflict with his label, Atlantic Records, which has continuously blocked Lupe from releasing the music he has wanted to release: “I will never ever ever … give this label my heart,” Lupe said at a concert. Now that his contractual obligations have been seen through, “Drogas Wave” marks a moment that exhibits Lupe at his independent, unhindered best. Conceptually, the album initially revolves around an image of sick and dying enslaved people who were thrown overboard while being shipped from Africa to the West Indies. Lupe reimagines the enslaved as “long chains,” or underwater-dwelling humans who spend their lives sinking slave ships. This tale then transitions into other themes like gang violence, drugs, self-help and community empowerment, which eventually coalesce into Lupe’s hope for a future unconstrained by nauseating realities. Lupe’s now-signature use of acronyms and obscure references submerge these ideas and their connecting strands in a certain opacity to create a slowly digestible work that requires multiple listens.
The album’s first few tracks highlight Lupe’s thematic and linguistic creativity and set up a cinematic montage that eventually propels listeners into the present. In “Manilla,” the album’s furious anthem, Lupe raises up the Manilla, a West African currency used in the slave trade, as a dehumanizing symbol of enslaved people. “Don’t ruin us, don’t ruin us, don’t ruin us, God said,” Lupe sings, using the D.R.U.G.S. acronym to trace a continuous line of commodification that extends from historical enslavement to contemporary mass incarceration. In “WAV Files,” as the title suggests, Lupe raps smoothly on a laid back beat and riffs off entendre after entendre on topics like Davy Jones, Poseidon and Jay Z’s Tidal, while simultaneously painting a picture of “walkin’ on water ‘til my feet like Jesus Christ.” Lupe does not limit himself to rapping in American English but also speaks in Spanish in “Drogas” and assumes a faux-Patois in “Gold vs the Right Things to Do.”
Interludes are common in long albums, but only Lupe could include something like the “Slave Ship - Interlude,” a three-and-half minute violin solo which comes in after the fourth track. Rosy Timms, the soloist, intersperses slow melancholic melodies with dissonant thrashes between low and high octaves and creates a spiritually overflowing elegy that elevates the album to a lyrical-transcendet plane. The piece recalls Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1960 “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” a work composed for a 52-piece string ensemble that attempts to shape ineffable suffering into sheet music, and only further highlights Lupe’s expansive imagining of how close music can come to doing history justice.
Taken with the idea of drawing as close as possible to the core of human suffering and then reimagining it with hope and grace, Lupe drops the theme of sea dwellers to ruminate on contemporary and individual loss and despair: In “Jonylah Forever” and “Alan Forever” Lupe beautifully elegizes Jonylah Watkins, a six-month-old killed in Chicago gang violence, and Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the coast of Turkey. However, in Lupe’s utopian world, Jonylah is “accepted by every medical school you applied” and afterwards returns to her neighborhood where she creates a “free clinic, nobody denied,” saving gang violence victims. Alan Kurdi becomes a world class swimmer, nicknamed “the lifeguard,” who eventually rescues a drowning boy from the sea. Both end up in similar positions, taking what literally killed them and using it as their source of strength: “Bet you ain’t even know you saved yourself,” Lupe says, leaving listeners a cryptic message that may point to the breaking of the cyclical chains of violence.
With 24 tracks in “Drogas,” there are bound to be some disappointing cuts, and there are, like the song “Down,” where Lupe veers into (hilariously) corny aquatic rap, saying “fish is my friends and the whales is my homies / octopuses my people, the shrimp, they all know me.” The song “XO” sticks out as pop-rap-EDM residue reminiscent of “Lasers”: “You and me, ecstasy (X-X O),” Troi Irons sings in the chorus. However, these tracks are by no means objectively bad and fail to disrupt overall flow of the album, which is disproportionately filled with catchy and nuanced melodies, classic instrumentals and a lyrical effort only matched by a handful of contemporary artists. Even in just the album title, “Drogas,” or drugs in Spanish, several meanings can be ascertained. It may point listeners to the flooding of drugs onto the streets. The “wave” may refer to a washing over, both in a life-giving and life-destroying force. Or, simply, it may refer to being “dope” and “wavy.”
In “Manilla,” Lupe raps, “you can do anything if you survive blackness” and possibly distills the spirit of the album to a single line. It is out of this conviction that Lupe and his art operates: his belief that, though racial oppression is a battle far from won, glimmers of hope can be thawed out from history’s dark abysses. It is also out of this conviction that Lupe gives listeners all of himself in his music — Japanese video games, circuit laws and ancient Greek poetry somehow tie into Lupe’s self-aware, braggadocio claims (“fit the life of a whole booth in only half a line”). At this point in Lupe’s career, it is abundantly clear that he will never back down from the esoteric references, difficult-to-parse connections and straight bars that makes his music so frustrating, yet so great.