Lupe Fiasco is at his finest when he’s not artistically constrained, instead free to A&R his own project and entirely control its direction. For his most recent Atlantic Records release, this was tough. Many said his March 2011’s purgatory escaping Lasers fell short in this respect—pop beats and R&B hooks made for a major-label touch. With his Thanksgiving Day mixtape, Friend of the People, Lupe offers no such mainstream indulgence; this is Lupe at his uninhibited best.

The relatively constant thread woven throughout the release, a follow up to 2009’s Thanksgiving Day drop Enemy of the State, is purported in its title: Lupe is standing with the everyman, favoring Occupation over opulence. The tape opens with an excerpt from a speech by late progressive professor and author Howard Zinn, where he wonders, “Why do we have to be a military superpower? Why can't we be a humanitarian superpower? Instead of sending planes for bombs Why don't we send planes for food and medicine?” Lupe arrives on the next track, “Lupe Back,” and follows Zinn’s lead with a sharp critique of the state of the industry, where he encourages rappers to form a union and wags his lyrical finger at 360 record deals, radio, and fires at those who “Spit a lot of meh over jams of the year.”

It’s not that surprising, then, that there’s no sign of “I’ma Boss,” “Niggas In Paris,” or any other recent “it” beat here. Instead, as he’s done throughout his career, Lupe shows it’s more than hip-hop that satiates his musical palate. Sometimes, it works, like when Lupe brilliantly attacks two melodic instrumentals from French electro duo Justice: On “Double Burger With Cheese,” he bounces together scenes from movies like Menace II Society and Boyz n the Hood, recounting how the hood favorites “helped raise a generation”; then, on “WWJD He'd Probably LOL Like WTF!!!” the rhymeslinger takes rampant American consumerism to task, picking apart a dependence on things “Built by the poor and designed by the smart,” using Nike and Apple products to illustrate his point. Later, his decision to rap over “Acknowledgement,” from jazz musician John Coltraine’s classic 1965 album A Love Supreme, is outstanding.

On “Joaquin Phoenix,” Lupe raps, “Flow is in the microwave, call it Michael Tyson flow/Killing is a dirty job, Michael Myers, Michael Rowe/Bring it back like Michael Fox, see how far them Michaels go/I feel like I'm Michael Crichton writing with a microphone.” Tyson makes microwavable dinners. Myers was a killer. Rowe hosts the show Dirty Jobs. Fox was in Back to the Future. Crichton was a best-selling author and screenwriter. Yikes.

“SLR” came out last November, but is included here and is as fierce as ever.

There are other moments, though, when some of the sounds can grate on the ear, especially one accustomed to hip-hop production. Lupe’s rage against the machine sentiments may naturally align themselves with heavier beats, but on cuts like “Friend of the People” and “SNDCLSH in Vegas,” the hysterics can make it tough to get lost in the lyrics, which is an essential practice when listening to Lupe Fiasco.

This makes it crucial to sit through the tape multiple times. Whether or not the beat selection provides the best backdrop for a listener to connect to him doing so, Lupe is on a lyrical tear throughout. This is more than just a wordplay exercise, littered with similes galore. Sure, there’s that. But there’s also metaphors, boggling double entendres, concepts, and content.

“Funny how I'm only sick if you never catch a thing/Argue with your friends over what really the record means,” Lupe spits on “Lightwork.”

This is a cold worth catching. —Adam Fleischer

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