Lupe Fiasco’s last album, Lasers, dropped just under a year and a half ago. However, despite being his most commercially successful project to date, it saw a massive backlash from fans and critics alike. They said it was “too radio friendly”, “poppish”, “dumbed down”, and “generic”. They claimed it was far removed from his previous work; that it seemed to be more focused on radio play, than delivering a message…that it lacked the soul, originality, and substance that had earned him the role of modern hip hop’s most popular and culturally relevant “socially conscious” artist.
But, while it did draw plenty of negative emotions out of much of his loyal fan base – on a positive note, and maybe more importantly, it gave him a much larger audience. (It probably made him a ton of money too, but for once in hip hop, that didn’t seem like the main motive for its artistic changes). Hopefully, that new, larger audience is going to stick around for the newly released follow up to his studio debut. It might not necessarily capture that “instant classic” feel that the first Food & Liquor album did, but that album was arguably one of the top five musical releases (regardless of genre) of the first decade of the 2000’s.
With that said, Food and Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, is more than likely about to put a big smile on the faces of his fans that understandably felt a bit betrayed by Lasers. But, before we get into what this project really has to offer – it definitely needs to be put into its proper context first.
Lupe’s always been a very politically motivated artist, and that’s something any hip hop fan probably understands. Much of his substance has always been inspired by, and sometimes graphically so, much of the pain and injustice that exists in this world, and more specifically, hip hop culture. However, we don’t live in a society where that approach is the best way to earn listeners, or the media’s attention. That’s probably the reason Lasers was what it was – an attempt by Lupe Fiasco to create a bigger soapbox for himself, by catering to the taste of the masses.
Fortunately, for old and new fans alike, F & Liquor 2, doesn’t seem to make many artistic compromises. Unfortunately, we don’t get a “progressed, more mature” version of his debut either. On the first Food and Liquor album, Lupe Fiasco took his unique aesthetic, and mixed it with some highly impressive metaphors and concepts to provide a collection of not-so blatant commentary on the world’s ills. It was done with the lyrical craftsmanship reminiscent of hip hop’s most revered MC’s, along with the intellectual approach of award winning poetry. Excuse the corny choice of words here, but it was a strangely majestic work of art. The same can’t be said for this album…
It is blatant, “in your face” commentary from start to finish. It doesn’t pull any punches in its message, and it doesn’t make any attempt to creatively veil its inspirations. It attacks a number of serious societal issues head on, including:
• The propaganda-like misreporting of American history in our public education system.
• The sometimes-perverse power of language, and how it applies to hip hop and the development of our youth.
• Racism, classism, and how they have created dire socioeconomic issues in certain areas of our country – and world as a whole. A theme only amplified by Lupe’s Southside Chicago roots, and a few of hip hop’s current events – most notably Kanye’s decision to deliver some chilling lines on the topic on G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer, (40 killings in a weekend, 40 killing in the week) and the almost eerie timing of Chief Keef’s PR inducing social media meltdown over the past few weeks.
• The almost dystopic effect of technology on our society, culture, and media.
Granted, it sounds like this merciless and loud approach to putting a message back into popular hop hop might not be a bad thing at all, but it definitely causes Food and Liquor 2 to lose a little bit of the magic that its predecessor had. While it hits on the same topics of the original, it isn’t done in such a masterful manner. That’s something that would be completely justified when discussing this album, and that’s why I’m saying it here.
But, on the other hand, I’ve heard a lot of knowledgeable and intelligent hip hop heads, who get a great deal of respect, call this album, and Lupe’s recent work, “condescending”. I’ve heard arguments that nothing Lupe Fiasco says on this album is anything new, and that it’s an insult for him to take such a noticeably “preachy” stance. I’ve even heard that it feels like Lu’s been lazily making a modern, subdued, and poppish (i.e. inferior) version of the politically charged music that Public Enemy and Dead Prez were making over two decades ago.
While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, those shortsighted hip hop fans are missing the point here. This album is not aimed at the “old heads” (not that they shouldn’t enjoy it – because there’s plenty here for them to like). It’s for the kids – pure and simple. It’s for the youth that don’t realize, or have a clear understanding, of the serious flaws in the system they live in. It’s meant to give eyes to those barely old enough to really to open them. That’s something that should not only be appreciated, but whole-heartedly embraced. A fact that’s especially true when so many of the loudest voices in hip hop carry a decidedly different message (not that there’s anything wrong with that type of music – at all. At least, when those wise enough to separate illusions from reality are listening to it.)
With that said, and message aside, Food and Liquor 2 is, technically speaking, one of the better albums to come out this year. Lyrically, Lupe is on point as ever. From the way his cadence effortlessly rides the soulful beat on “Bitch Bad”, to the verbal onslaught that describes his rise to fame and relevance on “Braveheart”, he proves that he’s among the best in the industry when it comes to putting bars together.
His approach to writing is definitely dense, and will take even the most seasoned listener more than few spins to grasp everything, but that’s the brand of music he makes. There’s a ton of information, much of which might take a few trips to Google or Wikipedia, but that’s always been part of his appeal. This isn’t the type of music you want to throw on when you’re in the mood to party or work out to, but it definitely displays some of the most impressive wordsmithing hip hop has to offer this year, especially if you’re only looking at acts and artists that are widely embraced by the “mainstream”.
(If you’d like to see a more in-depth look at Lupe’s lyricism on the album, check out our “top ten lines from Food & Liquor 2” article – which will go live on Wednesday. Follow us on Twitter, or “like” us on Facebook, to be notified as soon as it drops).
However, while Lupe’s lyrical performance is much closer to what many strict hip hop fans would have liked to see after Lasers, musically and from a production standpoint, this one is far from the experience of the first F & L. The first had plenty of R & B and soul influences, but they carried a much greater impact than they do here (remember “Daydreamin’”?). At moments, this one’s musical choices can definitely distract from Lupe’s lyrical prowess, and message. For example, The Doo-Wop inspired “Heart Donor” is almost too sweet to take seriously, though lyrically, it should be, and “Audubon Ballroom” definitely feels dangerously close to the generic stadium rap/rock sound that’s prevalent on the radio today.
That isn’t to say that it isn’t an impressive musical experience though, or that it doesn’t have plenty for pure hip hop heads to get behind either. In fact, there are even a few nods to “old school” hip hop. The album’s lead single “Around my Way” is an infectious reimaging of the Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth classic “T.R.O.Y.” Minus the vocals on the hook, and maybe the jazz flutes, “Cold War” feels exactly like what Pac and the Outlaws would rhyming over, if he was still around.
Admittedly, it isn’t a pure hip hop album from a production standpoint, but it’s much closer to the genre’s roots than a vast majority of what is played on the radio and given major media attention today. It’s impeccably well done and engineered, despite its occasional missteps, and those missteps will probably help the album find a bigger audience, without sacrificing too much artistically. It isn’t the jazzy, smooth, approach that some were hoping for, but it’s a high quality modern hip hop experience, unless you’re putting it on the same pedestal as a Madlib or 9th Wonder production.
Overall, Food and Liquor 2, isn’t a perfect album, but it serves a worthy and important purpose, and is great in its own right. Lyrically, Lupe Fiasco is mentally militant and impressive throughout, and every single one of his words carries purpose. In the scope of music that has strong commercial appeal, the album is a refreshing and very welcome experience.
However, it admittedly isn’t targeted at the die-hard hip hop heads who have an understanding of what’s widely considered “hip hop’s golden age”. If Dead Prez, Deltron 3030, or Public Enemy means anything to you, don’t be surprised when this album isn’t what you’d considered ideal (though it’s probably your expectations that need adjusting). But, if that’s you, you’d probably see it as the perfect gift for your son, daughter, niece, or nephew that incessantly listens to Young Money records.
With collectives like G.O.O.D. Music and Black Hippy slowly, yet surely, blurring the lines between “conscious” and “ignorant” hip hop, this album seems like the perfect introduction for younger fans to get into the more headier side of the genre that the “commercial” side industry has been lacking. It makes no apologies for its heavy and sometimes uncomfortable topics, but does so in a way that younger generations can get behind – without making it “unenjoyable” for the older set. To make an analogy, it’s hip hop’s take on a Pixar or Dreamworks movie – it’s really for the younger crowd, but it’s “mature” enough to watch/listen to, even when they’re not around…it’ll probably going to get plenty of award nominations too…