Lupe Fiasco is a polarizing figure. It’s both his subjects and subjectivity—his music and interviews are typically marked by potentially controversial claims—as well as his musical style—dense lyrical exhibitions—that simultaneously have built his army of admiring fans and shaped the criticisms of his detractors. He’s experienced some turmoil over the last few years, with Twitter rants, promises of impending retirement, clashes with his label and the release of the compromise-filled 2011 album Lasers. But with Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Pt. 1, he has unapologetically returned to his essence.
On “Bitch Bad,” the Chicago native weaves independent Coming of Age on Hip-Hop tales that later become intertwined, as he questions the culture’s use of the word bitch and portrayal of women, and how they each impact the youth whose realities are so closely informed by the music they listen to. The surrounding pieces of the album, in turn, are a response to this acknowledgement of the influence of ideas presented in rap, as he won’t waste words; he hopes to make sure that what he himself presents will, in the very least, create an intellectual curiosity in his young listeners.
The Atlantic Records signee again addresses the gamut of issues that he believes affect his community and society on the whole. There’s police corruption and single parent homes (“Strange Fruition”); fiscal responsibility and the detriments of gun and gang culture (“ITAL [Roses]”); the use of the n-word (“Audubon Ballroom”); sex abuse in the Church (“Lamborghini Angels”); and plenty more.
There, too, are moves towards mainstream without completely deviating. Joints like “How Dare You,” featuring Bilal, and “Battle Scars,” featuring Guy Sebastian, sacrifice little sonically or lyrically, instead relying on booming pop/sung choruses to denote any notable shift. However, these mid-album songs, which are also preempted by the R&B-tinged “Heart Donor,” featuring Poo Bear, momentarily slow the furious momentum established with the first eight tracks. This is salvaged by “Form Follows Function.” The lyricism is impeccable throughout, but this and “Put ’Em Up” create the heightened “Dumb It Down” moments that can cause a welcomed mental strain.
“I know you’re sayin’, ‘Lupe rappin’ ’bout the same shit,’” Lupe concedes to open the second verse of “ITAL (Roses).” “Well, that’s ‘cause ain’t shit changed, bitch,” he concludes. And he’s right. Maybe some has changed in the minds of listeners or what hip-hop accepts and expects, but there hasn’t been a societal shift notable enough to his render his politically, historically and socially charged content obsolete. Everyone else is rapping about the same shit, too, just a different brand—but there’s less discomfort in listening to an album about partying than in one that makes you consider your surroundings and your role in them, as Lupe does with Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Pt. 1. He’s not always as nuanced as he’s shown the ability to be, and can indeed come off preachy, so those with already established ideologies may find aspects of this album off-putting. But there will be countless kids—the same ones from “Bitch Bad” and #FiascoFriday—that Google terms like “Audubon Ballroom,” “manifest destiny” and “Ottoman Empire” because of it. It’s that, and the pinnacle of lyricism that Lupe continues to reach, that makes this release an achievement. —Adam Fleischer (@AdamXXL)