Bespectacled MC Lupe Fiasco wowed with classic debut and sophomore records in 2006 and 2007, proving the viability of a new, nerdy rap archetype. Superstardom seemed imminent, but aside from a great mixtape, an appearance on the Twilight sequel soundtrack and post-punk side project Japanese Cartoon (whose influence permeates this guitar-heavy record), he remained noticeably absent. His four-years-in-the-making third album was the subject of such prolonged label disputes, it's hard to mute that narrative while listening. Especially when he keeps mentioning it in rhymes, as if to blame Atlantic for any perceived shortcomings. On Lasers' opener "Letting Go" he laments: "As the old me/I predicted all my recent plights/exhausted trying to fall asleep/losses in my recent fights." Excessive voice-tweaking undermines the track's epic tone, like Lupe's attacking his foes via conference call. The next song, the conspiracy theory barrage "Words I Never Said," dissipates jarringly into the jaunty, piano-sampling "Till I Get There." The record frequently juxtaposes such extremes, shifting from airy, pop-tinged bounce to lush, dramatic gloom, like when the quasi-suicidal "Beautiful Lasers (2 Ways)" follows the Modest Mouse-sampling lead single "The Show Goes On." It's a pleasure hearing him rattle off crisp, hilarious battle raps at a breakneck pace on "I Don't Wanna Care Right Now" and following with the Trey Songz-assisted radio-ready serenade "Out of My Head," but Lasers lacks the willingness to experiment with different flows, subjects and sounds that made Food & Liquor and The Cool so rich.
There's nothing here like a daydream about a giant robot friend, no story told from a zombie's perspective, or anything so musically unusual as "Gold Watch." He comes closest on Orwellian broadcast "State Run Radio" and penultimate track "All Black Everything," an optimistic "what if" imagining racial harmony and world peace, delivered over ghostly vocal and strings samples. "Break the Chain," with its moody mid-90s techno-evoking futurism, is surprisingly affecting. There's a nagging sameness to instrumentals in the record's two dominant modes—upbeat, old school-inflected, and dark, dense soundscapes—that makes a few tracks barely distinguishable. That's especially alarming since Lasers is already significantly shorter than Lupe's previous albums, which remained unpredictable throughout. This record's still solid, with moments of majestic pop and astounding wordplay, but it's a letdown following two of the aughts' best rap albums. Now that hip-hop has caught up—or, in fellow Chicagoan Kanye West's case, forged ahead—it's time this early post-gangsta innovator beamed forward.