[Atlantic; 2011]

Here’s the part I don’t get about Atlantic’s much-publicized battle with Lupe Fiasco over the release of the Chicago rapper’s third album, Lasers: it’s not like Food & Liquor and The Cool were that far removed from what can be considered “mainstream” hip-hop. His flow and lyrical content have always been more complex than your average radio fare, but he’s had pop leanings from day one. “Kick, Push,” “I Gotcha,” and “Superstar” did reasonably well on the radio, right? He wasn’t giving the label nothing to work with. He didn’t stand out as a rapper that would need to be bullied into a change in sound to find success, yet this is the route Atlantic seemingly took, and it shows in this indefensibly bland, cynical, and calculated set of songs.

Even the few songs, such as “Words I Never Said,” on which Lupe is allowed to cut loose on his favorite social issues (he’s not a fan of Glenn Beck or the war on terror) are bludgeoned to death with interminable, bloodless, personality-free beats tailor-made to capitalize on the “Love the Way You Lie” blueprint. The album’s producers stick him with hooks that mistake “loud” for “memorable.” The worst offender, “State Run Radio,” is ostensibly a screed against tightened national radio playlists, except it boasts a hook so vacuous and by-numbers it would make Dr. Luke blush. Well-known, accomplished singers like John Legend (“Never Forget You”) and Trey Songz (“Out of My Head”) are on equal footing with no-namers MDMA and Matt Maheffey in the worst way possible. You could have stuck absolutely anybody on these songs and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The best track on Lasers is “Till I Get There,” which cuts through the gloss to recapture some of the off-kilter bounce that made his first two records interesting. However, it’s hard to ignore the irony of the song’s chorus, on which Lupe declares, “I’ma do me/it is what it is and that’s how it’s gonna be.” In reality, he isn’t even remotely himself on Lasers, and he even admitted recently to The Guardian that Atlantic threatened to shelve the album unless he recorded “The Show Goes On,” a Modest Mouse-sampling pseudo-anthem that seems like it was designed specifically to be ESPN bumper music. Unfortunately, “The Show Goes On” is the rule rather than the exception on Lasers. It is at times hard to differentiate between one slab of synth-drenched, mid-tempo sludge and another, and after a while trying just creates headaches.

At a certain point, Lupe probably just got tired of fighting and caved to Atlantic’s demands. Lasers is more an indictment of the state of mainstream rap than anything. This is the absolute worst-case scenario of what can happen when commerce is placed above art, and in this instance it’s especially offensive because Lupe is someone who doesn’t need to bend over backward to be accessible.