On Nas’s summer LP Life is Good, he appointed himself as hip-hop’s Don, a seasoned Escabano-puffing kingpin who presides over the industry from atop; on 2011’s Watch the Throne, Kanye and Jay-Z declared themselves as hip-hop’s unstoppable emperors, daring anyone to question their rule. In 2006, with so many artists claiming hip-hop as theirs, and so few writing music that represented its audience, it often felt like the genre needed to be rescued from the clutches of aristocracy. Lupe Fiasco emerged as its savior. His debut album Food and Liquor tackled the Iraq war, unearthed forgotten subcultures and transformed Chicago into a living, breathing body scarred by inner-city struggles. His new album, Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Part 1 suggests a continuation of such craftsmanship, and while that’s sometimes true, the comparison is ultimately misleading.
In between his debut and current release, Lupe released 2007’s The Cool (the album that’s probably more deserving of the title Food and Liquor II) and 2011’s Lasers, a commercial disaster that Lupe himself barely sanctioned. It’s the Lasers-esque remnants that particularly bog down the second half of the album, though these are probably the tracks that the Atlantic Records CEO plays in his corner office. “Battle Scars,” “Unforgivable Youth” and “How Dare You” all blur together with their shared mid-tempo beats and bloated hooks; they makes Lupe’s lyrics look boring by association, even when they aren’t.
The most satisfying tracks arrive early on the album: “Strange Fruition” is a slow-burning stunner produced by longtime-collaborator Soundtrakk, the engineer behind earlier fan favorites like “Hip-Hop Saved My Life” and “Kick, Push.” But the undeniable winner on F&L II is the album’s first single, “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free).” Lupe attracted controversy with the track when he sampled Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s classic 1982 hit “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”, a move that Pete Rock criticized. Legal disputes aside, the argument raised an important question: who should be allowed to sample “T.R.O.Y.,” a soulful sax-powered track that dissects the dynamics of a single-parent household while paying tribute to a dear friend, if not Lu? He matches the song’s timelessness with his own enduring riddles such as, “If poverty is chocolate and privilege vanilla/then what’s the flavor of the Sunday preacher’s pedophilia?” Even if he lifts the instrumentals, it may be his most accomplished song to date.
“Bitch Bad,” however, serves as a reminder that Lupe’s role as an artist has changed since F&L, and he’s painfully aware of that. The track is a long-winded examination of the word “bitch” and its decade-long implications among youth. Lines like “Couple of things are happening here/First he’s relating the word ‘bitch’ to his momma, comma” sound stilted at best and preachy at worst. His explicitness is not the problem—it’s his assumption that we, his listeners, couldn’t come to the same conclusions ourselves. Now that Lupe has accepted his role as hip-hop’s messiah, he no longer relies on lyrical subtleties, but instead uses his pedantic bullhorn to call attention to society’s ills. The pervasive used of the word “bitch” is an issue that should undoubtedly be addressed—by rappers all the more—but the message gets lost. There’s a seeming contradiction in Lupe’s attitude toward his target listeners. He criticizes constructs in society that hold back young black Americans, yet, by preaching spoon-fed arguments, he implies a somewhat dismissive attitude toward his audience.
When Lupe isn’t getting in his own way, he displays characteristic insight into problems that we should be aware of, issues that maybe make us feel a bit guilty because we’re less informed than we’d like. On “Lamborghini Angels,” he wants us to feel uncomfortable. He wields his graphic lyrics about violence and torture as his own form of intellectual weaponry. While Lupe uses the album as a vehicle to discuss weighty topics like international politics and rampant hypocrisy (including his own), he still remains hopeful. Album-closer “Hood Now” celebrates and references key figures in the evolution of black culture from Cornel West to Kanye West.
Excluding Lasers (because we should always exclude Lasers), Lupe hits his highs and lows on Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Part 1, occasionally treading on solid middle ground that echoes a younger, less-burdened rapper. But the album doesn’t quite live up to the revolution its namesake inspired, which raises yet another question: was the original F&L indeed the great American rap album Lupe aspired to make? Hindsight is 20/20.