By Daniel White
“That was Lupe version one…now this is version four.” – Lupe Fiasco – “Brave Heart”
The evolution of art is a subject that can divide even the most loyal fan bases. Some fans enjoy consistency, while others encourage progression. It can be difficult as a fan to realize that artists are people, and people evolve and mature from life experience and influences. In the case of music, and more specifically hip-hop, there seems to be a divide among listeners who disagree on what makes a great artist, a great artist. On one side there are the die-hard “purists” who neglect the concept of evolution and expect music that is comfortable, familiar, and consistent with a certain style. Then there are the listeners who resent complacency and expect artistic progression at every turn.
While it is difficult to please both sides of the spectrum, Chicago-based emcee Lupe Fiasco’s latest album Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, the sequel to his critically acclaimed 2006 debut, could possibly make the divide even more complicated. The album is a departure from Lupe’s earlier sound; his flow and beat selection have changed in the six years since his debut, which can be expected. But his subject matter and lyrical skill have stayed the same. After two highly regarded albums in Food & Liquor and The Cool, label issues and a mixed response from his more radio friendly release Lasers, Food & Liquor II, at the very least, is a step in the right direction.
Lupe’s strength tends to be his ability to tackle controversial issues with a genuine point of view, which reigns true on this album. His lyrics are thought provoking and reflect the emcee’s opinions on everything from police brutality, substance abuse, unemployment, planned obsolescence, gang violence, famine in Africa, misogyny in hip-hop, and materialism in hip-hop and on television.
The album begins with a spoken word intro by Ayesha Jaco that sets the social and political tone that is prominent throughout. It touches on a wide variety of issues relative to Chicago, as well as the rest of the world “be it Englewood or Egypt, Bed-Stuy or Baghdad.” The opening track “Strange Fruition” follows in the same vein, with the very first lyric: “Now I can’t pledge allegiance to this flag, cause I can’t find no reconciliation with your past.“ You’ll realize immediately that this isn’t a light album; it’s dense and unapologetic.
On “Bitch Bad,” Lupe critiques the use of the word “bitch” in popular culture, creating a hook that plays on how freely the word is utilized in hip-hop. Lupe cleverly subverts the use of the word and creates one of the standout tracks on the album.
With “Brave Heart” Lupe shows that he can switch his flow up and rhyme with a slower, more deliberate style, while still profiling his impressive lyricism. This album shows Lupe’s versatility, as he can switch from that deliberate style, to a fast paced cadence on “Lamborghini Angels.” Lupe’s lyrical skill shines throughout, mixing a wide range of subject matter with a variety of rhyme patterns and tempos.
Production standouts include “ITAL (Roses),”with its pulsing horns, rolling hi-hats, and a synth ridden chorus, the menacing guitar and futuristic synths on “Put ‘Em Up,” and the moody baseline and keys on “Form Follows Function.” The production as a whole is a departure from previous Lupe albums, featuring less samples and more of an emphasis on synths, pianos, violins, 808 kicks, and aggressive hand claps. The beats are technically sound, but a bit too glossy and overproduced in some areas, lacking some of the rawness that I enjoyed on his first album.
Along with some of the production, the main thing that is bothersome with the album is the overuse of what I’ll call “grandiose hooks.” There are a few too many tracks scattered throughout that are compromised in quality because of an obnoxious hook or a derivative beat. It’s not necessarily that Lupe is attempting to be more radio friendly or trendy either. He’s always had a knack for creating popular, substantial singles with sing-along hooks, from “Kick Push” on Food & Liquor to “Superstar” and “Hip-Hop Saved My Life” on The Cool. Those tracks are catchy, but are laced with stories that feel genuine; they feel personal. On Food & Liquor II, tracks like “How Dare You” and “Heart Donor” just don‘t seem to fit the tone of the album. The theatrical grandiose hooks come to an unbearable crescendo during the last half of the album with “Battle Scars,” “Cold War,” and “Unforgivable Youth.” These songs don‘t fit Lupe‘s style well. The whining, gratuitous choruses spoil what might otherwise be decent songs. Lupe’s strengths are storytelling and social commentary, and these hooks are distracting.
My only other gripe is the slight lack of creativity in some of the tracks’ concepts. Lupe’s strong debut album creates a creative standard that is difficult, if impossible for him to match, much like Nas with Illmatic, or Mos Def with Black on Both Sides. Songs from his first album like “Kick Push”, “The Cool”, and “American Terrorist” are the reasons why I became a fan of Lupe. His ability to tell a story and depict images is almost unmatched in mainstream hip-hop today, and for the most part that was absent from Food & Liquor II. This album doesn’t quite live up to the imagination of his previous efforts.
Fans will to come to the realization that this a different Lupe than the 2006 version. His music sounds different, his flow has changed, the production is conducive to a style that’s popular right now, layered with synths, 808 drums, hand claps and rolling hi-hats, and that’s okay. Fans can’t expect an artist to stick to a specific sound fort the rest of their career, even if that sound is revered. The truth is, I like the production from Food & Liquor and The Cool better. I’m partial to samples and drum breaks. But I also can accept a change in style. Lupe is a different emcee now, but his message is the same.
Is it as good as the original Food & Liquor? No. Is it as good as The Cool? probably not. Is it a solid effort from an emcee who isn’t afraid to speak freely and bring important social issues to the foreground? Yes it is.
Standout Tracks: Strange Fruition, ITAL (Roses), Bitch Bad, Form Follows Function, Hood Now (Outro).
Overall Score: 7 out of 10