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.
Label: Atlantic Release Date: March 8, 2010 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon