Amid all the controversy preceding the release of Lupe Fiasco’s third studio album – the disheartening yet inevitable record leaks, his labels dogmatic approach in changing the album’s sound, a fan-staged petition and subsequent protest outside of Atlantic’s offices – the headlines for Lasers sadly became less about an artist whose music inspired a growing youth culture and more about whether his message could cover a financial bottom line. In the aftermath, what fans receive from Lupe is a product that he himself is unable to fully support.

In retrospect, what made Food & Liquor and The Cool so appealing was not only Lupe’s impressive lyrical prowess but also his ability to poignantly describe any topic at hand with pinpoint precision. Here, we find the Chicagoan emcee misfiring left and right without any direction in sight. In one moment, he’s condemning the Top 40 format over dull groans on “State Run Radio.” The next, he’s doing the two-step alongside Trey Songz on “Out Of My Head”. The latter record likewise brings up a disconcerting lapse in execution. Whereas previous tracks focusing on the opposite sex such as “Paris, Tokyo” and “Sunshine” suitably were accentuated by an enthusiastic and clever Lu, “Out Of My Head” lazily settles for a predictable performance with his lyricism acting as corroborating evidence (“100 million spins in my mind all day, calling in request, on the line always / Yeah, the president of your fan club / Leave them players all behind like a bad love”).

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Gone also is the backbone production of frequent collaborator Soundtrakk, whose arguably had the best musical rapport with Lupe Fiasco since Food & Liquor was released. Instead, Lupe attempts to fill the void with up-and-comer King David, with the results generating more bewilderment than reassurance. Rather than leaving space to emphasize Lupe’s serious tone, the distorted production on “Beautiful Lasers (2Ways)” diminishes his message to the point that it becomes overbearing. Conversely, King David delivers a feel-good vibe for “Coming Up” while MDMA (formerly Pooh Bear) flexes his vocal chops. However, Lupe’s lyricism lacks any real depth and the track disappointedly strolls along with little replay value. Things take a turn for the worst on “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now,” where The Audible’s electro-pop backdrop turns Lupe Fiasco so far left his delivery is nearly unrecognizable. Match that with weak metaphors galore, and it soon becomes four minutes of sloppiness that should have found the cutting room floor.

Only traces of Lupe Fiasco’s greatness are present on Lasers, and even then he sounds less focused. This is evident on “Letting Go,” where lines like “a self-portrait shows a man that the wealth tortured / Self-absorbed with his own self-forfeit” and “inspiration drying up, motivation slowing down” reveal a man exhausted from the plight of his musical endeavors. With Alex da Kid’s brooding drums and thematic melody on “Words I Never Said” turning up his creative conscious, Lupe begins unleashing lyrical shots at anyone that has brought despair to our current cultural climate. With so many different individuals in his scope, his thought-provoking tirade comes at the cost of a fully-formed argument behind his visceral rhymes. The enticing “All Black Everything” and reflective “Never Forget You” provide high points on Lasers, however it’s too little too late on an album that is cut short to 12 tracks.

For those who feel cheated out of what was to be a triumphant return from their favorite emcee need only harken back to the “Lasers Manifesto” from a few years back, in which Lupe declared: “We will not compromise who we are to be accepted by the crowd / We want substance in the place of popularity / We want to think our own thoughts / We want love, not lies / We want knowledge, understanding, and peace / We will not lose, because we are not losers / We are Lasers.” Rarely does this proclamation show up in the music, a failure even Lupe Fiasco is surely aware of.