Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Album Review: Lupe Fiasco - Food and Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Part 1

Grade: A
After Lasers it would have been easy to write Lupe Fiasco off. After impressive debut Food and Liquor, The Cool was a less exciting verge into the mainstream and Lasers was radio-fodder with more emphasis on the hooks and less on Lupe’s usually strong verses. The whispers of wasted potential and sellout started circulating among his less-than-diehard fans who used to praise him for his resemblance to Common. Food & Liquor 2 shakes the dust off and, surprisingly, lives up to its title as “The Great American Rap Album.”

The whole atmosphere of the album seems to capture the essence of America right now. Lupe sounds off on a variety of issues at rapid-fire pace, sometimes so fast that you’ll miss the myriad messages being tossed around. It’s a gritty album, full of politically-charged lyrics and depictions of street life in the bad parts of town. It’s also a very organic record: these are the things that Lupe knows. He can still write a mean hook- look no further than “Lamborghini Angels,” “Battle Scars” or “Unforgivable Youth” for great examples- but it’s really his storytelling ability that sets him apart from his peers. There are plenty of sermons to be found on Food & Liquor 2 that will “baptize your mind and let your brain take a bath.”

On previous albums, The Cool in particular, Lupe Fiasco’s storytelling style centered on an invented, nameless representation of himself; autobiographical in the same way that Slim Shady is to Eminem, but minus the horrorcore tropes. On Food and Liquor 2, Lupe comes out as just himself- and even brings his sister Ayesha along to enlighten the listener about the conflict within Egypt. He spends most of “Strange Fruition” rapping in first person, describing a walk through the city and his thoughts on what he sees. He’s still “rapping about the same stuff” with each word meticulously calculated and placed, which suits him a lot better than his style on tracks like “Free Chilly” or “The Show Goes On” from previous efforts. As promised, Lupe is preaching from his heart about everything from the modeling industry and geo-politics on “Around My Way” to the defamation of women and the power of the internet on “Bitch Bad.” By shedding his nameless alter-ego, he can be bolder than ever with his lyrics and messages. He never presses his agenda too hard or is too overt with his politics: he merely stands on his soapbox and sounds off about everything that comes to mind (after much planning, of course).

Another trademark feature of Lupe Fiasco’s music is his exceptional production. Lasers suffered from having too many beats that were obviously designed for radio appeal. There was nothing risky about them: it was wall-to-wall synthesizers. Food & Liquor 2 breaks down the wall with a variety of beats that range from the basic high-volume, synth-and-bass construction “ITAL (Roses)” to the R&B groove of “Heart Donor.” There is still a dearth of synthesizers but the production teams get more creative with them, such as the layering on “Lamborghini Angels.” Other alterations, such as the chopping-and-screwing of Lupe’s voice at the end of verses or his voice bouncing back and forth between speakers aren’t original but are executed crisply and manage to not sound distracting.

Amazingly enough, as good as the beats are, they never overshadow Lupe Fiasco himself: he is always the star of the show. This is accomplished by the production team in a few ways, such as turning the volume on the beat down during the verses or cutting the beat out on a particularly charged line, but it’s mostly because Lupe Fiasco is always on top of his game. He’s the voice of the streets with an upper-crust perspective- dropping lines like “I’m just trying to keep you off Maury”- which gives his rhymes both edge and credibility. Songs like “Form Follows Function” deal mostly in metaphor but don’t lose any of the punch that his more direct songs pack. His flow is as elastic as ever, competently fitting the different styles of producers ranging from Mr. Inkredible to three-time Grammy winner Infamous. It’s obvious he can talk all day without stopping, but still experiments with a stop-and-start style on “How Dare You?” and pulls off sing-song incredibly well on “Heart Donor.” There’s enough variety to keep the album fresh even after repeated listens.

Everything about Food & Liqor 2 is a huge upgrade over everything Lupe Fiasco has done in the six-year interim between this and the original Food & Liquor. Perhaps most impressive is that none of the 16 songs is a filler song. “Brave Heart” has the weakest verses by a long shot, but the chanted chorus and incredible beat from The Runners keeps it from being a skip-track. Conversely, the hook on “Put Em Up” is absolutely abysmal but the verses pick it up and it remains a listenable song.  This may be the strongest part of the album: the fact that the pros outweigh the cons so heavily that one eventually ignores the negative parts. With this album, Lupe Fiasco truly has created “The Great American Rap Album,” at least until the next installment.   

1. Ayesha Says (Intro)
2. Strange Fruition
3. ITAL (Roses)
4. Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)
5. Audobon Ballroom
6. Bitch Bad
7. Lamborghini Angels
8. Put 'Em Up
9. Heart Donor
10. How Dare You?
11. Battle Scars
12. Brave Heart
13. Form Follows Function
14. Cold War
15. Unforgivable Youth
16. Hood Now (Outro)

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