I’ve mentioned it several times before…when an album has drama surrounding it, a lot of times it’s hard to separate the drama from the music being created. That phenomenon reared it’s ugly head yet again with the release of Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco’s third album, Lasers. The album’s been on various release schedules for almost a year, and has had several teaser singles surface over that time. The word on the street is that Lupe and his label, Atlantic, were involved in some serious feuding over the album’s direction, and that’s what was causing the holdup. In interviews around the album’s release, Lupe’s been quoted as not being particularly fond of some of the album’s material and has at times taken an antagonistic attitude towards his record label, suggesting that they forced him to make some commercial concessions to give Lasers broader appeal.

Being the cynic that I am, I’m not so sure I buy that. Lupe’s first two albums had their share of crossover-friendly stars, so I don’t know why he’d suddenly be battling his label about an album that actually has less immediately commercial appeal than either of his first two. I mean, if you ask me whether the better seller will be the album with guest spots from Jay-Z, Jill Scott and one of the dudes from Linkin Park or the album with guest spots from John Legend, Skylar Grey and Trey Songz, I’d call that even money at best. At any rate, I appreciated Lupe’s first two albums (thought Food & Liquor was a work of genius, thought The Cool was okay) and had high hopes for Lasers, despite the label drama and Lupe basically being a whiny bitch.

I’ll tell you one thing-Lasers is definitely not a one listen album. Initially, to my ears, the album sounded like all kinds of a hot mess. Lupe’s always been an interesting lyricist even while not being the best technical emcee (kinda like his boy Kanye), and his rhyming seemed a little clunkier than usual this go-round. However, what really freaked me out initially was the production. Although most of it is handled in house (the only semi-big name to show up is Alex Da Kid, who’s most famous for producing Eminem’s “Love the Way you Lie”), it’s still a little shinier and poppier than I’d expect. The biggest offender in that category is “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now”, a song whose title might suggest Lupe’s mindset when picking beats for this album. Rhyming over modified techno-electro that even Ke$ha would pass over isn’t a good look for anyone, much less a gifted emcee who should have much more to offer.

It’s the only overt transgression on the entire album-so rest assured, Lasers isn’t a complete failure. However, it’s also far from a triumph. The entire album just sounds lazy to me. It’s not as sharp as I would have expected. The interesting concepts that made Food & Liquor such a great album have kinda faded away, and I’m not sure if maybe I’m desensitized to the notion of a popular rapper that’s not on the gangsta tip (thanks to Lupe, Kid Cudi, B.o.B, Drake and the many others who have popped up in ‘Ye’s wake) or if Lupe’s just not trying as hard anymore. Even on the cuts where he’s trying to do something a little different (the history-rewriting “All Black Everything”) something sounds off-like he wanted to go somewhere and just wasn’t able to get all the way to his destination.

Some songs are a little more realized and keep the album from being a failure. John Legend adds a touch of class to everything he does, and “Never Forget You” is a mature, classy finale to the album. Despite being an obvious rewrite of Lupe’s breakout pop hit “Superstar”, “The Show Goes On” is pretty pleasant as far as formulaic hip-hop goes (plus, it’s pretty awesome to see a Modest Mouse chorus reworked into a pop record), “State Run Radio” harkens back to the Lupe of old, and despite Alex Da Kid’s sound becoming rote way too quickly, “Words I Never Said” is interesting if only because it’s one of the most pointedly political records to get radio play recently. I’m amazed that nothing has been said yet about Lupe’s open admission in the song’s lyrics that he didn’t vote for Obama in ’08 and won’t be voting for him in ’12, either. I’d say it’s pretty ballsy for any hip-hop artist to drop that into the middle of a song.

Lasers is decent enough that you won’t think Lupe has completely lost the plot, but there’s definitely something missing. Of course, the drama and resultant press managed to earn Lasers a #1 debut with the biggest first week sales of Lupe’s career, but just from trolling around social networking sites, I’ve seen quite a few instances of buyer’s remorse, so unless the pop audience catches on (a dicey proposition for an artist whose work is still quite polarizing no matter how shiny the production is), I’d imagine the numbers will sink swiftly. I can’t tell whether the album’s failure to deliver is due to Lupe bowing to record company mandates or just an erosion in hunger on Lupe’s behalf, but I can say that all in all, Lasers is a pretty disappointing release.

Rating (on a scale of 1-10): 6

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