Lupe drops his strongest effort since "The Cool," enough to erase our memories of "DROGAS Light."
Lupe Fiasco’s DROGAS Wave is not an album you can listen to in a few days. That’s why when reviews for Fiasco’s seventh album started pouring online after just 48 hours, his fans were confused. The Chicago veteran is known for writing some of the densest yet compact verses in the game. A seven-song effort from Lupe may take months to break down. DROGAS Wave is more than three times that length, sitting at a lofty 24 tracks. There are still pieces of this project that are floating above the consciousness of everyone who listened to this album, including me. Some pieces of the puzzle feel obscure, while others stand out and are connected flawlessly. The sprawling album is one of Lupe’s best, although it does have its pitfalls.
The basic concept being explained within this album was birthed from Lupe’s obsession with The Cool. Michael Young History played an integral part in Lupe’s second album, and he devised a storyline about another form of the undead. DROGAS Wave transports listeners to a reality where slaves that jumped from ships didn’t die, but became underwater creatures called LongChains. They walk back to Africa underwater, and they guide the waves of the ocean to help free other slaves. That is the simplest way to describe the dynamics involved in songs such as “WAV Files,” and “Gold vs the Right Things to Do." The former sits high as one of the best tracks on the album, with Lupe dedicating an entire verse to naming slave ships. If there is anyone knowledgeable enough to tell a story about slaves, it’s Lupe. Especially in the wake of Kanye West’s confusing and polarizing statements on the subject.
Lupe keeps Black culture in mind on tracks like “Manilla, ” where he raps, “You can accomplish anything if you survive blackness.” Those haunting words linger throughout the album as Fiasco touches on slavery, war, death, and the current climate of America. “Manilla” is described as the currency used to buy and trade slaves at the songs end, which brings the repetitive chorus into focus and aligns a piece of the puzzle. From there, Lupe spends the next four songs diving into his reality filled with LongChains. The multi-song narrative hits a low point on “Down,” where Lupe finds the need to sing about underwater life from the perspective of the LongChains. “Fish is my friends and the whales is my homies/ Octopuses my people, the shrimp, they all know me," he raps. "The sharks is my niggas, the dolphins is with us/ The crabs is my comrades, the seahorse be holdin' us down.” The concept works, but the execution fails and puts a messy conclusion on the LongChain narrative in the album’s opening act.
“Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever” are two of the strongest tracks on DROGAS Wave. Both are initially based on true stories. “Alan Forever” is about a young boy named Alan Kurdi. The three-year-old drowned while he and his family attempted to escape Turkey as refugees. A picture of the child's dead body made worldwide news, and increased the attention on the conflicts in Turkey and Syria. Lupe narrates the story as if Alan never died that day, and instead grew up to become an Olympic swimmer who saves a boy that would have died just like him.
“Jonylah Forever” follows the story of Jonylah Watkins. She was a 6-month-old baby who was murdered by gunfire in Chicago. Lupe flips the script, and reimages that Watkins survived and grows into a woman who strives to change her community. In contrast to the hopeful piano riffs of "Alan Forever," "Jonylah Forever" has a somber energy that is more cautionary than anything. Lupe pays his respects to another soul that has moved onto the next world as well, Timothy “Timbuck2” Jones. On “Happy Timbuck2 Day” Lupe dedicates his energy to raising up the Chicago DJ who passed away after a battle with cancer. The energetic and fun track sounds like Sunday morning, and Lupe flexes his flows flawlessly while still performing a catchy hook.
The features that Lupe collects on DROGAS Wave are well placed. Damian Marley and Fiasco collab for the addicting and revolutionary “Kingdom,” which paints some of the most infamous hoods as royal grounds. In a time where rappers drop lines about killing each other with every other breath, it’s refreshing to hear two artists ask for the motive of those actions. “Port-au-Prince is a kingdom, Kingston is a kingdom,” sing Lupe and Marley in unison. “New Orleans is a kingdom, South Central is a kingdom/ Freedom, free men are freedom/ Black life is a kingdom, why kill yourself for no reason, fam?” The question resonates with the current racial strife unfolding throughout America.
"Haile Selassie" featuring constant Lupe collaborator Nikki Jean is a wavy salute to Emperor Selassie, who was born Ras Tafari Makonnen. His name and legend are forever tied to Rastafarian culture, and in turn, tales of Black empowerment would be incomplete without a nod to the legendary ruler. “Stack That Cheese,” which also features Nikki Jean, is a nod to Lupe’s older work. Functioning as a sequel to The Cool’s “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” this story references the same rapper who suffered from writer's block before settling on the chorus “stack that cheese.” Lupe had no reason to construct this song other than it being a well-intentioned gift for those who have stuck by his side since the beginning.
DROGAS Wave does feel bloated, but only because there is so much to digest. The album is riddled with interludes and sometimes, Lupe reaches a level of obscurity that is both unentertaining and counterproductive. Still, Fiasco’s seventh studio album is one of his best records, and the closest project we’ll get to receiving a sequel to The Cool.