Depending on his mood and label situation, Lupe Fiasco’s music has been either creative and cerebral or pedantic and pedestrian. A quick skim through the highs of “Food and Liquor,” “The Cool,” and “Tetsuo & Youth” and the lows of “Food and Liquor II” and “Lasers” makes it plain: with Lupe on the mic, it can either be the best of times or the worst of times.

Thankfully with “Drogas Wave,” listeners get a motivated and creative Lupe Fiasco. On his seventh album, the Chicago MC spins an ambitious partial concept album that details a mythologized account of drowned African slaves, called the Long Chains, haunting the waters of the Atlantic.

Following in the Footsteps of Equiano, Morrison, and Ward

This album bears the family resemblance of Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” These African-American novels examine the haunting nature of the past upon the present through mythological or supernatural means. And “Drogas Wave” is as complex and layered as a novel. Many songs require multiple listens to decipher and that will be a barrier for some listeners, but a reward to others.

The first five tracks are of particular note due to the closest ties to the slave/wave motif. “WAV Files” deserves a close listen and your full attention as it masterfully paints the horrors of the slave ship in a manner reminiscent of the early chapters of “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.” It’s a wonder that an artist can mourn the evils of the middle passage, marvel at the resilience of our ancestors, and mold a re-imagined narrative for them all in one track:

My bones is why the beach is white
Why the beach is white cause they bleached us light
So I’m goin’ back home, I took a leap last night
So I’m walkin’ on water ’til my feet just like Jesus Christ

When talking about the album, a friend doing doctoral work in history noted the connection between the album’s narrative and the 1781 Zong Massacre where British slave traders drowned ~130 African slaves in order to profit from insurance money. I had never heard of this massacre and was immediately struck with empathy and grief. This is the power of the album’s opening run: once listeners grasp its narrative, the emotions hit like the waves that swallowed our ancestors centuries ago.

In this way, “Drogas Wave” is an ambitious attempt at recapitulation and participation through rhyme, allowing listeners to relive and re-envision the realities and ramifications of The Middle Passage.

Past and Present in Direct Conversation

Part of the value of “Drogas Wave” is the attention to the historical placed in direct conversation with the problems of the present.

This is something that Christianity, as an embodied historical faith, can and should appreciate. The historical reality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection have earthly, cosmic, and eternal ramifications and reverberations upon this present world. In a categorically different way, the historical realities of The Middle Passage and chattel slavery also reverberate presently in our country and consciousness.

Rather than propelling us to frivolous debates, the recognition of the past’s imprint on the present presses us to work—to creatively imagine a better world and lasting solutions to the problems staring us down in the here and now.

Justice and a Re-Imagined Reality

Acknowledging and confronting the past injustices of slavery leads Lupe to the creative work of re-imagining. Employing a blend of Greek and African diasporic mythology, Lupe re-imagines deceased slaves as protectors of the Atlantic ocean waves, fighting off future would-be slave ships from further perpetrating evil. This re-imagining shifts into the present. The songs “Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever” details re-imagined futures for Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee drowned in 2015, and Jonylah Watkins, a 6-month-old gunned down in Chicago, had they not suffered unjust, premature deaths.

Here we find an artist poignantly imagining, in part, what God in Christ will perfectly inaugurate in full: a day when sin’s curse, tragic deaths, and injustice are no more and God’s righteousness and justice reign.

These tracks remind us that, in a sense, doing justice is an act of re-imagining. To love our neighbor is to acknowledge and confront the ways in which that has not been done historically, and to bring a re-imagined reality to fruition through acts of love and service presently.

Again, what Lupe creatively re-imagines in song, God in Christ is actually doing through his people: loving, serving, advocating, and sacrificing in faithful ministries centered on and for black and brown people across our slavery-haunted land. In this way, the album’s attention to re-imagining reminds me of the gracious power of God to redeem both body and soul.

Lupe Fiasco rebukes any inclination to be ahistorical regarding black experience in America while championing the resilience of the African diaspora in the face of centuries of historical injustice. The message is substantive and the album, though cumbersome and/or explicit at points, is mostly stellar. For that, Drogas Wave’s historical approach and ambitious artistry deserve applause.

 

Claude Atcho serves as a pastor in a multi-ethnic church in Memphis, TN. He has previously served as a church planter and an adjunct English professor in Boston, MA. Follow him on Twitter: @claudeatcho.