On his seventh album, the conscious hip-hop fallback poses a revisionist fantasy about underwater slaves sinking other slave ships—a premise he quickly abandons during these 24 tracks.
Conscious hip-hop exists in a state of perpetual existential irony. Known for its power-to-the-people catalog, Rawkus Records is actually a product of the moneyed elite. The subgenre’s most popular modern figure promotes himself while wearing MAGA gear. Other icons, like the artist formerly known as Mos Def, simply quit. But hip-hop heads in glasses have maintained a fallback in Lupe Fiasco, still dedicated to multi-entendres and high-concept verses.
But Fiasco’s surface-level sophistication doesn’t mask just how low-stakes his career has been since 2011. That year’s Lasers, the ugly result of his hostage situation with Atlantic, effectively ruined his chances of meeting his potential as a mainstream star and bar-for-bar traditionalist, the intersection Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole now control. Though he’s largely remained consistent since that disaster, arguably peaking with 2015’s Tetsuo & Youth, Fiasco has fallen from Late Registration feature to amicable niche. He has become overly ambitious with his smaller audience, too, so that listening to Fiasco can now feel like encountering someone’s unedited passion project. This is especially true of Drogas Wave, a wildly unrealized 24-track, 98-minute concept album with a surreal premise: What if African slaves thrown overboard during their transatlantic passage had managed to survive underwater and dedicate their existence to sinking other slave ships? This is only a slight left turn for someone who made a song about an undead drug dealer, but still.
This is emotionally rich fictitious content. Still, you can’t help but wonder if Fiasco cares to engage with its dramatic weight; this is someone, remember, who praised Ab-Soul’s barely listenable Do What Thou Wilt. by throwing around ideas about morphology and hermeneutics. Fiasco’s love of dense verses, though, often overshadows the empathy that runs through the finest moments of his career. During “WAV Files,” an early Drogas Wave highlight, Fiasco’s voice reflects a genuine mournfulness. It helps him sell his revisionist fantasy, whether incorporating a sympathetic Poseidon into the narrative or stumbling upon a new backronym: “Walking on water/WOW WOW.”
Fiasco doesn’t only construct an alternate historical narrative for Drogas Wave; he explores why we need such myths in the first place. Fiasco realizes that there’s temporary liberation available in reimagining a space where black people are empowered by—not destroyed for—their identities, a concept central to Black Panther’s significance. This isn’t a new concept for him—“Kick, Push” follows a boy wishing for something as small as a place to skateboard—but here it’s his explicit obsession. During “Manilla,” he reaches to use the tired materialism-as-slavery metaphor to set up Wave’s concept. But his powerful mantra “You can survive anything if you can survive blackness” adds gravity to this world.
This is a place, after all, populated by pain, so he offers an alternative. In “Jonylah Forever” and “Alan Forever,” Fiasco imagines a reality where Jonylah Watkins, a Chicago infant killed in a feud over a video-game system, and Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while his family attempted to flee to Greece, survive into adulthood. In Fiasco’s vision, Jonylah grows up to open a free medical clinic. Alan’s story connects through mundane but compelling details: “I love smiling, I got talents/I can do flips,” Fiasco raps, reminding us Alan could have become a regular boy.
There’s promise here, even payoff, but Drogas Wave suffers the same problems as most Fiasco albums. The production—which is filled with aquatic textures, natch—is some of the most likable of his career, but he remains as committed to his ideology as he is to a lack of focus. Despite this being his seventh album, he’s somehow grown more inept at structuring the things. Drogas Wave stops explicitly referring to its fictional concept by the end of its first third, with little sense of plot development. It’s as if underwater slaves were a passing thought Fiasco wanted to add to an album of references to his history as an Atlantic refugee (“Imagine”) and his nephews (“King Nas”).
Drogas Wave makes little effort to hide how superfluous so much of this material is. The clunker “Sharks is my niggas/The dolphins is with us” proves we jumped the shark only seven tracks in. Fiasco spends most of one very long verse just naming slave ships. And “XO” is merely the moody counterfeit of his old “The Instrumental.” Lupe Fiasco’s career is a string of near-misses. What makes Drogas Wave especially frustrating is the way you can squint and see the shape of his possible masterpiece inside.
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