Lupe Fiasco gives us (an only slightly flawed) masterpiece

October 3, 2012

Like his early mentor and Chicago homeboy Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco has done his growing up in public, working out both his complicated persona and his sometimes contradictory but generally laudable philosophy under the harsh glare of the spotlights. From the Star Wars- and videogame-loving urban nerd of “Kick, Push,” to his mid-period embrace of Pink Floyd and concept albums, to the current political history grad student and fiery alternative to Chief Keef and all that young rapper represents, Lupe’s evolution has not always been smooth or pretty. But it has been absurdly ambitious and thoroughly gripping, and never more so than on his awkwardly titled fourth album Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1.

As with last year’s Lasers, Atlantic Records didn’t share the artist’s vision for this release, which Lupe wanted to issue as a double album; whether as a dig at his corporate overlords or an aesthetic statement, the new disc takes a cue from Spinal Tap and features a solid black cover devoid of all markings. But the record company might have been right this time: With 15 full tracks (plus brief spoken introductions and conclusions), this already is an incredibly dense album, musically and lyrically. It amply rewards the effort required to plumb its depths, but more might have been way too much.

Lupe continues to have a great ear for big, melodic choruses, following the model of his early hit “Superstar,” with memorable, R&B-flavored hooks sung by artists such as Jane $$$ (“Cold War”), Guy Sebastian (“Battle Scars”) and Casey Benjamin (“Strange Fruition”), combined with layered, atmospheric backing tracks and a wide-ranging palette of well-chosen samples—including the bite from Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s ’92 classic “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” controversially fueling “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)”—creating lush and alluring settings for his supple and often inventive rhymes. This is a good thing, because he has a lot to say—some of it a little addled or a bit heavy-handed (“hectoring” has been many critics’ favorite word in assessing this album). But that’s a flaw that’s easily forgiven since the message so obviously comes from the heart—and so desperately needs to be heard.

In a classic example of Lupe setting his agenda, setting the troubles on the streets of his hometown (and yours) in the context of the Great Global Struggle, as well as reviving an old controversy (over his comment that “President Obama is “the biggest terrorist” because of his use of drones) while simultaneously claiming he’s not doing that, we have these verses from “ITAL (Roses)”:

Called the president a terrorist

Corporate sponsors like, how the f--- you gon’ embarrass us?

Ain’t my fault, I was just repeatin’ this

Professor Emeritus from America

But my tone was like an Afghani kid without a home

Blew that bitch up with a drone

An Iraqi with no daddy, Palestinian throwing stones

The f--- you think they call him, I’ma leave that all alone

Cause this, the focus on this new s--- is that hopeless

Place that I was born into systematic brokeness

Took that downpression and developed it to dopeness

It’s that great American rap-rap ferocious

And the “Professor Emeritus” is indeed ferocious on the target of his rhymes, which include the abuse of the word “bitch” (“Bitch Bad”), the consumerist trap laid to pressure the poor to buy things they can’t afford (“ITAL (Roses)” and “Lamborghini Angels”), drawing parallels between the African-American battles of the past and those of the present (“Audobon Ballroom,” named of course for the Harlem venue where Malcolm X was assassinated, and “Strange Fruition,” with a title that plays on the timeless protestation of a lynching made famous by Billie Holliday), and a veritable college textbook full of other timely topics.

Hectoring? Heck, no. Overly earnest bordering on messianic at times? Well, yeah—and, as noted earlier, that’s the flaw that places this album one notch below an unqualified success. But even at his most preachy, Lupe leavens things with a welcome burst of humor and a well-placed nod to cultural silliness, as in this nod to Connie Chung’s spouse in “Heart Donor” : “I hope my stories can keep you off Maury… Keep your sons out the slums and your daughters out of orgies.” Hey, you can’t blame him for trying something so noble. And why should Bono be the only pop star trying to save the world?

Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 (Atlantic)

Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.