Two years ago, when the debate around Lasers was raging harder than an ASU keg party, I repeatedly heard the argument that, “If this was an album from anyone but Lupe Fiasco you’d think it was great.” But that was exactly the point. Lupe Fiasco isn’t anyone, he never has been. I’ve heard things on Lupe Fiasco albums that I’d never heard before, and it’s often felt like he’s been alone in carrying “conscious” rap’s flag through the mainstream.
Kanye seems to have forgotten his socially conscious leanings sometime around his fourteenth trip to Paris, JAY-Z’ music has always been about elevating himself above the masses, and Eminem’s struggle is with himself, not the system. If I held Lupe to a different standard, it was the standard he had created for himself. He was the one we counted on to fight for us, and so it was hard not to be disappointed when looking at Lasers and seeing hip-hop’s most high profile revolutionary waving the white flag.
So while it’s not really accurate to say that Lupe’s “back,” he’s come too far to go back to anything, there’s no question that by creating a part two to his debut album, Food & Liquor, he’s looking to return to his roots. F&L2, or if you prefer the unabridged version, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, is not the second coming of dead prez. It has its own moments of pop-leaning lightness, but there’s more than enough revolutionary material here to leave the faithful satiated.
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The most commonly leveled complaint against Lupe is that he’s “preachy,” and he’s almost never taken the podium more relentlessly than on F&L 2. But the fact that preaching is considered a cardinal sin in hip-hop is proof that our priorities have become twisted beyond recognition. As long as the hook’s catchy, rappers can deliver rhymes overflowing with automatic weapons and crack sales. But even suggest that perhaps murdering another human maybe isn’t such a great idea and watch the critics descend.
So yes, Lupe may preach, but hip-hop needs a preacher. A spoken word intro aside, Lupe wastes no time getting right down to it on the excellent opening track "Strange Fruition": “Now as I wander the city going mad / I see the fruits of evidence planting instead of grass.” In comparison, "Bi*ch Bad" delivers its anti-misogyny message with the subtly of a hammer, but considering the bad b*tch epidemic currently sweeping hip-hop, a hammer might be exactly the right tool for the job. "ITAL" is similarly hammer-ish in its message, drawing the distinction of being the first track in rap history to advocate “fiscal responsibility,” as is "Audubon Ballroom," particularly on the hook. The greatest Lupe moments, however, come when listeners are forced to unravel some mystery—I’m still decoding The Cool years later. "Lamborghini Angels" contains the kind of lyrical complexity that will have rap heads decoding, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for when I pick up a Lupe Fiasco album. You could criticize Lupe for preaching, for being too verbose and lyrical, but that’d be like criticizing water for being wet.
There are moments of comparative lightness though on F&L 2, as there was on the original Food & Liquor. "How Dare You" is the album’s most laid back and relaxed cut, though it’s more R&B/soul than pop, thanks in no small part to a hook from Bilal, and "Battle Scars" is an epic love-gone-bad offering in the Skylar Grey vein, although here it’s Guy Sebastian providing the vocals. And while "Heart Donor" may at first blush seem to fall in that same category, Lupe quasi-hijacks the verses and turns the record into a love song for his fans and followers. If radio picks up on any of these tracks great, radio could use some higher quality music. But crucially Lupe sounds determined to let radio come to him, not the other way around.
If Lupe does indeed retire after this album, as he’s threatened, then at the very least we’ll be able to say he went out on an incredibly, densely, unapologetically lyrical note. Frankly, though, I wouldn’t worry about that too much about Fiasco hanging up his mic. For rappers like him, thoughts of retirement are just part of the artistic life cycle. But if Lupe Fiasco is as truly committed to the people as he sounds on Food & Liquor 2, he won’t be able to stay away for long. It is the curse of the true revolutionary to keep fighting until either victory or death, and neither will be coming anytime soon.