"Gentleman," PSY's follow-up to "Gangnam Style," has already made history.
Google "Lupe Fiasco sucks" and "Lupe Fiasco greatest rapper alive," and you will find yourself confronted, on both sides, with a whole lot of results. Even in rap music, where 90 percent of musical arguments begin and end with side-choosing and insult-hurling, Lupe is a lightning rod. What has he done to deserve such scorn? What has he done to warrant such blind devotion? The answer to both questions, unfortunately, is "not enough": Lupe's so gifted that he remains nearly impossible to tune out completely, but his career is a sad little parable about the danger of wasted talent.
Perhaps he can sense this perception in the air. Because like most rappers who've made promises to the conscious-rap crowd that they have no intention of keeping, Lupe's music has grown increasingly sour, half-assed, and defensive as he's traveled further from the glow of his Chosen One days. Listening to Friend of the People, his wearying, dispiriting latest mixtape, you don't leave with the warm and fuzzy feeling promised in the title; you come away thinking that Lupe's underlying message these days feels closer to, "Here you are, you ungrateful motherfuckers; I've given you something else beautiful to tear apart."
Friend of the People comes out a little more than a year after Lupe's last mixtape, Enemy of the State, but if there's a thematic link between them, it's beyond a dog's range of hearing. Enemy of the State was short, punchy, and highly enjoyable; for a third of Friend of the People, you feel actively punished for paying attention. Part of the problem is beat selection: On Enemy, he skip-roped nimbly over Radiohead's "The National Anthem" without embarrassing anybody, but on Friend's "Lupe Back", he allows UK bro-step goons Nero to assault us with endless, bowel-loosening bass drops. Fiasco sneaks in some eyebrow-raising rap-industry jabs-- producer deals, B.D.S., "only as hot as your last beat"-- but they disappear in the chaos.
Production has always been an Achilles' heel for Lupe: He's nimble enough to make you listen to him rapping over anything, but his tin ear tests this hypothesis far too frequently. Mainstream, aggressively macho dubstep seems to be his latest thing: Besides Nero, we get Bassnectar's remix of Ellie Goulding's "Lights" for "Lightworks" and alpha-bro Skrillex on "SNDCLSH in Vegas". Lupe throws every flow he's got against these steel-beamed, charmless corporate-office structures, but his reedy voice slides harmlessly right off. He also goes out of his way to show us he's keeping up with indie, sampling "On'n'On" from Justice's garish hockey-prog new album, and skimming some starry-eyed shimmer off the top of M83's "Midnight City". I couldn't help but wish he would stop straining and find some tracks that work as viable rap beats.
There are fleeting moments on Friend of the People where he encourages you to look past all these problems. "Joaquin Phoenix" is full of head-turning lines, both self-deprecating ("Fitted hat is Reynolds wrap/ Because I don't trust the government") and silly ("You be on that glory hole/ You don't know who you fuckin' with"). On the page, when he's engaged, Lupe is invincible. Even his quasi-philosophical nonsense comes with a poetic touch-- "Atheism's cheaper and accepts Visa" might not mean anything, but it's a sharply turned, gnomic phrase. He even drops an incredible floss rhyme on "Supercold" just to show us he can: "Christmastime diamonds singing carols on my chest/ Step up off the jet, lookin' like a pharaoh in the flesh." But he's just as likely to waste our time recounting the plots to 1990s gangsta movies ("Double Burger w/Cheese"). It cuts to the core of Lupe's problem: there's almost nothing he can't do. Sadly, he never does anything much.