For someone who used to hate hip-hop (‘Yep, because the women degraded… but Too $hort made me laugh, so like a hypocrite I played it; a hypocrite, I stated though I only recited half’ as he previously recalled on Hurt Me Soul), it must be said that the man born as Wasulu Muhammed Jaco is quite the adept lyricist; one that would go on to prove that he can hold his own amongst those that so adamantly believe knowing one’s history and being 100% passionate about the art form are the two crucial prerequisites before one would be socially accepted by your peers.
The man they call Lupe Fiasco didn’t just breakthrough once the instantly lauded classic Food & Liquor showed up. No, he caused the kind of turbulence that would give an airline pilot pause when he burst onto the scene. Fast forward about two albums (one of those albums pushing Lu into the realm of suicidal tendencies and depression during its creation), a couple of mixtapes, and an infamous TV debate with the slimy far-right political pundit Bill O’Reilly, Lupe goes ‘Oops!’ upside our heads with Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 which undeniably leaves fans, critics, and other hip-hop artists in another heated debate about the lyrical content and the lyricist himself as we all attempt to decipher the latest Fiasco concoction. The problem is – barring Lamborghini Angels – Lupe’s not being subtle, cryptic, or studious with his political/social stance any more. Nope. Lu’s pissed off and he makes no bones about it.
The album opens up with another powerful spoken-word poem by his sister Ayesha. Ayesha maintains form as per the usual and gives everyone more food for thought on the latest current events in the US and internationally, delivering each verbal blow stanza after stanza in a tone that doesn’t mask her personal frustration. She also dares to play devil’s advocate (‘attaching explosive devices to themselves because they keep stealing their lands… in the name of freedom.’) and with that, Ayesha Says sets the tone perfectly for FL2. All that’s left for Lupe himself to do is stay the course. Easy peasy, right?
Once Strange Fruition floods the senses with the Bluesy wailing and militant drums, you’re left with no doubts at all that this album is serious business. The production complements Lupe’s flow and lyricism expertly. The opening line (‘Now I can’t pledge allegiance to your flag cuz I can’t find no reconciliation for your past.’) acts as a wake-up slap, giving the listener a none-too-subtle warning that you better be listening to what he has to say. It’s certainly a suitable lead-off track that is sure to harness the attention of even the most ADHD-afflicted person and keep it locked… but that’s until the horns of ITAL (Roses) come in. Immediately, the beat throws me off as it’s not something that I would attribute to Lupe’s style unless he was parodying someone like Rick Ross or any one of his MMG clones (Meek Mill, Wale et al). Lu’s direction lyrically here is a bit like watching someone play Pin The Tail On The Donkey: you can see what he’s trying to do but the execution is sloppy and thus, you can’t help but laugh as he goes about trying to make his point. The second verse in particular is a red-flag, especially for those that heard Bitch Bad before they copped the album. More on that later, though.
Lupe manages to regain its composure once that all-too-familiar saxophone from Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s legendary T.R.O.Y. sound off. I’m sure most of you reading this know the back story behind this track’s creation. Some think Lu and the producers (Simonsayz and B Sides) did everyone’s favourite Soul Brother wrong; so too did Pete Rock, initially. All the music-related politics aside, Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free) is a banger. Dope beats and classic Lu lyricism touching on the reality that a lot of people can relate to comfortably. Next up: Audubon Ballroom – the track named after the very place where Malcolm X was shot and killed. Perhaps the title was more for people to remember it rather than it being about a story detailing Fiasco’s character getting assassinated up-to, during, and after Lasers. Instead, Lupe tackles the ongoing debate about black identity and that word that we all hear and some of us use more than we really should, regardless of context. The delivery on the verses are on-point but I felt the hook could’ve been much more powerful; as such, Lu would have been well placed to have someone with a more powerful vocal to belt that one out. Still, it’s a decent track and I can certainly ride with it.
Before you know it, Bitch Bad is wreaking havoc on your eardrums and Lupe dons the approach of a university professor… well, that’s the impression I got seeing as he’s dropped the trademark tone is his flow and elected to simply speak to the listener. The message is abundantly clear: Lu goes about detailing the double-standard and gratuitous use of the word ‘bitch,’ offering insight into the perspective held by [probably] the most impressionable generation of youths anyone has ever known. The debate about how the context of the word ‘bitch’ is used is getting a full dressing down here and Lu deserves praise for touching on this issue. The beat’s nothing to shout about but it provides a platform sturdy enough to act as Mr Jaco’s soapbox. One could argue that the beat’s composition (courtesy of The Audibles and Jason Boyd) was done strategically, solely to grab the attention of your average mainstream hip-hop listener. Most beats today stay using 808s, heavy bass, and the same warbling synth that you heard on [insert pop song here] so to that end, Lupe deserves credit for using that as part of the ultimate vision for this track. However, whether or not he loses a few people once they start listening to what he has to say and if that detracts from the impact he hoped the track would make remains to be seen.
Then Lamborghini Angels hits and I must say: it’s the album’s best track, hands down. This is a real return to artistic form for Fiasco: constructing a story that is as powerful as his delivery is urgent and his lyrics are complex whilst said story maintain a social and political awareness. For some, it’ll take a couple of listens to catch what he’s on about but what I got was a tale about a world that is so caught-up in the fervent worshiping of the rich and all of the material possessions that most could only dream to own themselves. He brilliantly underpins this perspective by styling said worship of the rich and famous off as its own religion and borrows a bit of historical context of what organised religion has done over the years to impose control on it’s followers. As a result, the track is straight-up raw and unapologetic. The beat is incredible, too. It can’t be denied that synth gets used a lot in hip-hop these days but the application of it here isn’t done to the point where it’ll annoy you. Above all else, Lupe’s flow is on-point: relentless and shades of classic Lu a la The Instrumental. It’s this track alone that makes me wonder if we’ll ever see more of this kind of Lupe on wax ever again.
I didn’t have to wait long for an answer that latter question: once Put ‘Em Up comes on, Lu’s produces a masterclass on why you should sweat an emcee’s technique. Again, Lu is raw, incessant, and he details precisely why you should take him seriously as an emcee. Excellent track.
Sadly though, that’s where we go back to playing Pin The Point On Food & Liquor 2 again. Heart Donor means well but gets lost in a forest of mediocrity. There was a real opportunity to make a sincere, heartfelt track here but all I got from it was a sudden urge to hit the skip forward button. The production on the track – particularly the vocals on the hook – is rather muddy and 1500 Or Nothin’ should’ve allowed the melody – particularly the strings – to be a bit more prominent. Instead, we’re left with a sub-heavy track that you’d probably have mistaken someone from primary school to have penned as a tribute to his/her latest infatuation. How Dare You, however, makes up for that unsightly blemish. Bilal and Lupe work very well here and trust Bilal not to rely on silly vocal effects to bring about a dope hook. Lupe does his thing on the track and keeps it fresh but the real winner here is Severe’s production. Keeping it moving with the collaborations, the album’s most popular single Battle Scars kicks in. Some say it’s a rather dramatic track based on relationship conflict but for what it’s worth, I liked it for what it is. Guy Sebastian shows why he’s a big deal Down Under and completely runs the show here, which says a lot about Lupe’s performance: here, he coasts with no real interest in what he’s spitting. Production on the track is good, however predictable as a chart track can be these days. You know the drill: not too light but never as heavy as it’s potential indicates.
The ongoing game of Pin The Point continues when Brave Heart begins. I’m in two minds about this track, to be honest. Half of me likes it and could see me bumping this at full volume in the car like I see so many of my American friends do with their trap-music fuckery; the other half feels that Lu himself could’ve done better here lyrically. By the time I get a moment to fully under or overstand how I feel about the track, Form Follows Function comes in. Once again, Lu goes in raw and – once again – I’m left a bit underwhelmed. If form truly follows function, then this track would be the poster child for FL2’s wayward direction. It’s here that pretty much confirms the fact that there is no real concept for FL2 despite the conscious start to the album as a whole. Cold War is a lengthy track – some might say too lengthy – but gotdamn, did I enjoy it. It’s quite simply Lupe speaking on the loss of a loved one (his brother, one suspects) with Jane $$$ performing admirably on the classic rock inspired hook. Jessie J could take a couple of cues from Jane’s performance here but that’s another discussion for another time. Next up is Unforgivable Youth and while I’m not a fan of the beat, Lupe once again returns to classic form, managing to combine his form from Daydream and American Terrorist. The track is worth a listen in the grand scheme of things and the message is one that will no doubt leave those in the know discussing the twist in the final verse. Clever lyricism from the Lu and he manages to keep your attention throughout.
Out of the four 1500 Or Nothin produced tracks, Cold War certainly makes up for the mess that is ITAL but his best offering would be the outro, aptly named Hood Now. Lupe’s saved his anthemic track for last and everything about it is an incredible tribute to all of the people and things that damn near everyone loves and where it all comes from: the hood, the ghetto, the projects, etcetera. The hook is crazy good as is the beat and I defy anyone not to leave Hood Now on repeat for hours on end. It’s definitely one of the best on the album.
VERDICT: Food & Liquor 2 isn’t so much a political firebrand as his some of his hardcore fans would have you believe. It’s more of a smorgasbord, touching on a number of subjects with a smattering of tracks that have no theme to them at all (Form Follows Function et al). That’s not my overall problem with FL2, however. What I loved about Lupe was the once-refreshing concept of Food & Liquor and The Cool, where there was a Rage Against The Machine-esque direction exposing the infatuation to the drug game and things that act as the fundamental ills of the people who glorify them. Sadly, FL2 isn’t really any of that. It’s a half-mediocre, half-amazing collective of songs with a rather egotistical and somewhat hypocritical ringleader as your master of ceremonies. He shouts down the use of the word ‘bitch’ on Bitch Bad but immediately before that, he’s using it that same word quite a lot on ITAL without any real clarity on the context he’s using it in (apart from the fact that he doesn’t want you to mistake his anguish and frustration). Make no mistake, though: Food & Liquor 2 is a good album and I would sooner recommend people buy it rather than another YMCMB/MMG catastrophe but it worries me that Lupe himself might’ve lost a few things I admired about him post-Lasers.
One of those things would be his humility, the other would be his desire to make the type of tracks I know he’s truly capable of.