New Music Tuesdays: Lupe Fiasco, Avril Lavigne (LISTEN)
Cross the Notorious B.I.G. with Malcolm X and you have Lupe Fiasco, a hipster poet from Chi-town who doesn’t balk at slipping a political manifesto or sprawling narrative into mind-bending couplets like, “And the bunch of other cover-ups/Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts/if you think that hurts then wait, here comes the uppercut/the school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up-and-up.”
Clearly, Lupe’s at his best fighting The Man, but on Lasers, he finds himself at a crossroads: studio agendas forced him to make a more mainstream record, which caused a well-publicized identity crisis for both the rapper and the album.
As a result, Lasers is a little all over the place: some songs sound forced, some sound culled from other artists, and very little of it sounds like something Lupe himself would have thought up. Opener “Letting Go” sounds like an outtake from Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak. That immediately segways into the politically conscious “Words I Never Said,” which sounds like studio-enchaned Lupe: a lumpy political message anchored home by hook girl du jour Skylar Grey to make the whole thing playable for radio.
The good news is that, even at half-speed, Lupe is skilled enough to make it work. The Modest Mouse-biting “The Show Goes On” is an entertaining ode to inner-city positivity, while “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now” is a whirlwind club banger that comes out of nowhere and ends up the album’s best surprise.
It’s all fun, but not nearly substantial in the way Lupe likes his music to be. It’s only towards the end of the record that Lupe lets his revolutionary flag fly with “All Black Everything,” a Utopian fantasy that’s much less radical than it sounds, and “State Run Radio,” a vicious lashing of the suits who forced his hand.
“You’re now tuned into the weakest/frequency of fear, keep you locked right here/and hope you never leave this, never be a leader/think inside the box, and follow all procedures,” Lupe spits over a vicious rap-rock beat by King David. Let it never be said that he went down without a fight, if he even went down at all.
LISTEN: Lupe Fiasco; “State Run Radio”
With three smash records and one failed marriage (to Sum 41 singer Deryck Whilbey) behind her, it’s hard to begrudge glitter-punk queen Avril Lavigne an album of grown-up melancholia. Consequently, Goodbye Lullaby has been billed as the “Complicated” singer’s “adult” album and a departure from the power-pop of smash hits like “Sk8er Boi” and “Girlfriend.”
If only. Lavigne’s songwriting has definitely grown, and the tracks here are far and away more personal than “hey, hey, I don’t like your girlfriend.” It’s a bold step, lyrically speaking. But make no mistake, Jagged Little Pill this ain’t.
It might have been, though, if not for the sound. Lullabye’s production by Lavigne and her army of collaborators (Butch Walker, Max Martin, and, bizarrely, ex-hubby Whilbey) blasts her voice to high heaven amidst the clang and clatter of guitars, piano, strings and drums, like a teenage girl covering the E Street Band. If that sounds familiar, it should: Lavigne’s been using this formula for nine years now, she’s just using it with more serious songs this time around.
Make no mistake, it’s all very catchy, if not exhausting down the stretch. But the straightforward production undermines how serious the album is. Lead single “What the Hell” is a surprising gut-punch of angry-young-womanhood shoehorned into a radio-friendly format; it’s the teen punk version of “Single Ladies” delivered in bubblegum wrapper. “I Love You” has solid lyrics as well, but it’s packaged like something Ashlee Simpson would have put out back in the day. What the hell, indeed.
The back-and-forth continues the whole time, with glimpses of what could have been adventurous showing amidst all the sound and fury. Appropriately enough, closer “Goodbye” starts out as a beautiful piano ballad, but before long, violins and acoustic guitars are thrown in and suddenly it’s “Time of Your Life” circa 2011.
Come on, now, Avril. We all know breakups suck, but aping Green Day at the moment of truth? You’re better than that, girl.
LISTEN: Avril Lavigne; “Goodbye”
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