Lasers, the concentrated beams of light to which we owe the most enjoyable portions of Daft Punk shows and the Star Wars movies, are bright, precise, and futuristic. At its best, Lupe Fiasco's Lasers is like that too. In moments of dazzling clarity, Lupe spits hip-hop prophecy, but too much of Lasers is given over to self-serious jeremiads on race, rap, and politics, or pop-rap pandering that would be easier to forgive if tracks like "State Run Radio" didn't heap derision on the very markets that Lupe's trying to break into. A Muslim moralist whose justly vaunted debut invoked food and liquor as respective symbols of sustenance and sin, Lupe has attempted to resuscitate conscious hip-hop while burdened with a Manichean understanding of good and evil. His sense that commercial rap is deeply, maybe irredeemably, corrupt had him threatening to leave the game before he even dropped his second album.
To say that this puts Lupe out of step with his peers would be an understatement. Even Nas saw fit to celebrate when Barack Obama walked into the White House; even the Roots loosened up in the spirit of hope and change. But as Lupe rhymes on the scorching "Words I Never Said": "Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn't say shit/That's why I ain't vote for him, next one neither/I'm a part of the problem, the problem is I'm peaceful/And I believe in the people." Props to Lupe for sticking to his conscience, but it's a bit puzzling to think that Obama doesn't qualify as one of the good guys…and Trey Songz does? The prince of apolitical panty-dropping ballads does hook duty on "Out of My Head," a solid banger in its own right, but Trey's inclusion is conspicuous, as he seems to incarnate Lupe's thesis that hip-hop radio provides materialistic escapism at the price of the listener's political consciousness.
Lupe's half-assed, club-ready radicalism is ultimately the most frustrating thing about Lasers, and not just because it provides numerous and obvious examples of rap's self-styled emancipator consorting with his avowed enemies. No, Lupe's sins of association only matter to those hypothetical fans that really put stock in his politics of purity. But it's not the lines that Lupe draws and then inevitably crosses which keep Lasers from fulfilling its potential. That's done by the lines that Lupe seems all too willing to work within: his unerring loyalty to the 3.5-minute pop tune, his embrace of trendy electro-inspired beats, his predictable hat-tips to indie and emo engineered for maximum demographic appeal. Lupe talks like a revolutionary, but aesthetically, he's about as avant-garde as B.O.B., whose own endlessly marketable light-on-the-rap-please rap appears to be Lasers's unstated blueprint.
It's no surprise that Lupe stepped back from The Cool's uncompromising modernism, but Lasers is a full-on retreat. Compare that album's devastating highlight, "Streets on Fire," to any track here and you'll find nothing as instrumentally complex, no rap as fast or technical, and certainly nothing as lyrically complex. Though the albums was a mess in a lot of respects, The Cool's bizarre narrative conceit at least provided Lupe a means of investigating his themes with novelistic subtlety. Having abandoned that album's sweeping sonics, Lupe instead tries to secure his status as an Important Artist with increasingly hyperbolic preaching. There's no bridging the gap between Lasers's radical message and its utterly conventional sound; it's a fault line that can't be built on productively.
And that's Lupe's misfortune, but truthfully, it's rap's misfortune too. Maybe Lupe wasn't the right guy to take on a renovation of rap's entire moral and political culture, but I like the idea of having someone out there saying this stuff, in part because my peaceniky liberal sensibilities lead me to think that Lupe is right about the points he's making, in larger part because rap fans have a plethora of compelling figures to choose from when it comes to menacing gangsta realists and amoral, yacht-collecting ballers—many of whom make some damn fine hip-hop. Right now the most talked-about rap group on the Internet is a collective of misanthropic teenage rape fetishists who, lyrical grotesqueries admitted, earn some portion of their buzz because they communicate ugly with the same transfixing ruthlessness as Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, and do so over the rawest, nastiest beats in rap. And I have no doubt that Lupe, who depicted himself in comic book super-pose on the cover of Food & Liquor, imagines himself crusading against exactly that influence, the normalizing of hateful music for tastemakers' sakes.
But you can't fight for the hearts of America's youth with whack beats. The coolest guys in the room right now are kind of huge assholes and artists like Lupe aren't going to show them up with well-directed arguments. Without an aesthetic as confident, forward-thinking, and plugged-in as their politics, rap's radicals don't stand a chance; they need to be interesting in addition to being right. When he draws Lasers to a close with "All Black Everything," a dreamy, string-drenched thought-experiment that tries to picture a world where Africans had never been taken from their home on slave ships, Lupe sounds like he's broaching transcendence, about to begin to some truly next-level rap enlightenment. But the concluding track, "Never Forget You," functions, like most of the album, to keep him grounded. By the time John Legend signs off on his uncannily Bono-like hook, it's clear that Lasers has misfired, and that Lupe's revolution looks more improbable than inevitable.