Approximate Number of Songs Likely to Inspire Karaoke Singalongs: Zero
No better way to endear yourself to Hip-Hop Nation than by branding its favorite president a terrorist. Research shows that you'll get even more fans on your side if you condemn the things they hold dear, piss on their lingo, and disrespect their idols. That explains why Lupe Fiasco will go down as the most beloved rapper on the planet for his Pulitzer-awaiting world peace soundtrack, Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album...Pt. 1.
Lupe really rattled the cage this time, didn't he? When he dropped Food & Liquor in 2006, he was an underdog on the brink of stardom. When he launched his Food & Liquor 2 campaign with three provocative singles, he was an underdog toying with career suicide. But Lupe lives to see another major release.
Two reasons this album exists:1) He's comfortable in his own skin: At this point in his career, legacy trumps popularity.
2) He has the skills to back up the drama: Lupe is arguably the best lyricist hip-hop has seen in the last six years. Even when he was rhyming over syrupy beats on the stupidly maligned1 LASERS, he was still dishing out lessons on emceeing.
Raging against the machine isn't new for Lupe, but Food & Liquor 2 doesn't rage as much as his singles might suggest. The producers supply him with post-boom bap atmospherics--throbbing drums, synth showers, supple keys -- backing up the drama in his defiance.The all-black cover sums up F&L 2's aesthetic. Here,—and this is my interpretation of the cover—Lupe is trying to start conversations on America's dark history. He just isn't interested in being the center2 of that conversation. So, he stands aside and weaves a history of America based (primarily) on the writings of Baldwin and Zinn and others. How you perceive Lupe's take on American culture/past/politics will depend, in part, on your relationship with American culture/past/politics. Like the artwork, F&L 2 is a blank slate. You fill in the words.
It's nobility flirting with condescension—because Lupe Fiasco exists outside his own conversations, it inevitably sounds like he's peering down at subordinates through thick-rimmed glasses.
At times, it's hard to see Lupe through the CAPS LOCK sentiments fogging up his music. Squint slightly past the reckless politics, though, and you might like what you see. The singles really do paint half the portrait. The space between his views on social structures is occupied by a genuine desire to empower, as on "Audubon Ballroom." And the personal moments, though rare, are beautiful. Aside from the pathologically corny "Heart Donor" with Pooh Bear, this album is thoroughly likable.
There are clear standouts, of course. A friend once said that the best song on an album is the one that most encapsulates the artist's trademark. Here, it's "Form Follows Function." It hews close to signature Lupe, with its layered punchlines and quadruple entendres. But it's not the best song on Food & Liquor 2.
That title belongs to "Cold War." It combines everything we love about Lupe: honesty, deft lyrics, and a compelling narrative. And, aside from "Brave Heart," it's the only other song that puts him squarely in the eye of the conversation ("At my brother's Janazah/Tears-stained sunglasses/A Salat with no bows").
One vital point: You can't skim this album. You really have to take your time and get to know this album. Above all, you have to look past Lupe's politics. Think of F&L 2 as that hot girl you're meeting at a bar. You get there and find out she's ordered a light beer (Life Lesson: Never trust a girl who drinks light beer). But if you overlook the sham-brew and get to know her, you might discover that she can make a mean lemon mousse (Life Lesson: Always go with a girl who can make a mean lemon mousse, even if she happens to like light beer).
Other rappers may have gold plaques and Grammys; Lupe has that and something they don't: a fierce legacy album.Songs Not Safe for Ignorant Levels (NSFIL):
- "Lamborghini Angels" ("Told him take off all his clothes and put your penis next to mine")
- "Heart Donor" ("I'm a heart donor")
- "Cold War"
- "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)"
- "Strange Fruition"
- "Brave Heart"
- "Form Follows Function"
Release Date: September 25, 2012
1 And, according to critics' consensus, stupidly mediocre.
2 Except when he is.