Mixtape Review: Friend of the People is not The Cool

Lupe Fiasco’s new mixtape, Friend of the People, falls short of both his two best works, Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor and Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, as well as his up-and-down third album Lasers.  Food and Liquor, Lupe’s debut album, featured his characteristic smooth flow and advanced lyrical creativity (a line from The Cool’, perennially comes back to me – Tried to light the blunt but it burst into flames/ Caught the reflection in the window of what he became/ A long look… Wasn’t shook, wasn’t ashamed/ Matter fact only thing on his brain was brains.. yeah).  This song, featuring an undead hustler and drug dealer named The Cool, became the basis for his second studio album The Cool, which went Gold as it followed and developed the story surrounding the concept character and his acquaintances.

‘The Cool’

Lupe’s music after his first two albums developed around themes of childish vulnerability, love and loss, drug dealing in the Midwest, religion, and problems in American leadership.  But his storytelling mastery took a hit in Lasers, which listened more as a collection of pop-infused singles (‘The Show Goes On’, ‘Words I Never Said’, ‘I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now’, ‘All Black Everything’) than a cohesive album.  His message, outlined in the L.A.S.E.R.S. Manifesto, is as such:

“To every man, woman & child… We want an end to the glamorization of negativity in the media. We want an end to status symbols dictating our worth as individuals. We want a meaningful and universal education system. We want substance in the place of popularity. We will not compromise who we are to be accepted by the crowd. We want the invisible walls that separate by wealth, race & class to be torn down. We want to think our own thoughts. We will be responsible for our environment. We want clarity & truth from our elected officials or they should move aside. We want love not lies. We want an end to all wars foreign & domestic violence. We want an end to the processed culture of exploitation, over-consumption & waste. We want knowledge, understanding & peace. We will not lose because we are not losers, we are lasers! Lasers are revolutionary. Lasers are the future.”

So many nice things to say, so many positive messages – but I have to listen to this manifesto over and over again just to keep it all straight.  Put simply, this is far too grand of a message to try to fit into one studio album.  The beauty of Lupe’s earlier work came in its focused and delicate subject threads that bobbed and weaved around his larger theme, forcing the listener to engage and think intensely about each track.  His attempt to make an explicit political message faltered and fans saw a deterioration of his carefully-constructed verses and simple, beat-inspired hooks into silly conspiracy theories (9/11, Building 7, did they really pull it?, from ‘Words I Never Said’) and auto-tuned, synth-heavy hooks featuring the biggest names in music.  Lupe’s appeal to the 99%, a group he clearly feels a part of, weakened as he moved from subjects the everyman could identify with.  L.A.S.E.R.S. saw Lupe becoming what he didn’t want to be: a black rapper manipulated by mainstream media into a disaffected, anti-government personality, a troublemaker – exactly how the white-majority media organizations have pigeonholed rappers for decades.

‘Words I Never Said ft. Skylar Grey’

The release of his new mixtape, Friend of the People, was meant as a thank-you to his fans and an appeal to his initial, pre-L.A.S.E.R.S. fan base.  But it fell short – instead of channelling the smooth, simple, beat-carried lyrical flow of his first two albums, Friend of the People finds Lupe’s best verses drowned out by Skrillex samples and heavy rock riffs.  When he does attempt to rap accompanied by more classically-inspired samples, in ‘Joaquin Phoenix’ and ‘Life, Death, and Love from San Francisco’, his verses are often ungainly and never really feel comfortable with the beat behind him.  His lyrics still stand out overall, but his choice to sample house and dubstep beats and leave a theme undeveloped (apart from hating Atlantic Records) weakens this album irredeemably.

‘Joaquin Phoenix’

‘Lupe Back’

‘SNDCLSH in Vegas’

TOO MUCH DUBSTEP!

Friend of the People begins with a Howard Zinn speech against American military bases in foreign countries, leading the listener to expect Lupe to follow with songs inspired by peace, perhaps, or a populist appeal to American roots.  Instead, after a sample of a news report detailing the UC Davis Occupy Protests, he dives into an impressive speed-rap in ‘Lupe Back’ that, upon closer listening, really says nothing of importance at all.  It’s full of meaningless phrases like “Yeah, Team Jacob, We’re long armed, put my hands on a Lear, every time I put my hands in the air” which apply obviously to the wealthy, Learjet-owning set than the 99% Lupe seems so infatuated with.  Over the brain-shaking dubstep sample, Lupe seems lost.  His foggy path continues through the rock-riffed title track, ‘Friend of the People’.  In ‘Double Burger with Cheese’ and ‘Joaquin Phoenix’, Lupe almost reconnects with himself through Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society references.  His chippy flow in ‘Joaquin Phoenix’ harkens back to ‘Go Go Gadget Flow’ and is full of dizzying rhymes, including: “Goin’ in is goin’ wild, goin’ in is goin’ strong, Goin’ for the gold, Some world class goin’ in is goin’ on” and “Flow is in the microwave, call it Michael Tyson flow, Killing is a dirty job: Michael Myers, Michael Rowe, Bring it back like Michael Fox, see how far them Michaels go, I feel like I’m Michael Chrichton writing with a microphone”.  When he dropped that lyric, I shivered.  Unfortunately, after ‘Joaquin Phoenix’, Friend of the People falls off entirely.  The remaining tracks’ dubstep/synth blurs together and is better for working out  than carefully listening.  Ultimately, Lupe’s ‘thank you’ falls short – clearly, it was a quickly produced, quickly released, cobbled-together collection of lyrics Lupe had mostly already written.  Hopefully, his upcoming album, Food and Liquor II, will see Lupe going out with a bang, repping Chicago hard, and spinning an amazing tale between the tracks.

Grade: C