He had a skateboard instead of a Lexus, giant robots instead of automatic weapons, introspective raps instead of a trendy dance—the arrival of Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor was like the arrival of an extraterrestrial in 2006.
I can still recall “Kick Push” being played on the radio, a song that sounded like nothing else you'd hear on the dial, by a rapper who didn’t exactly resemble other rap artists. After appearing on Kanye’s “Touch The Sky” Lupe became the rapper people believed would bring the genre back to its essence. He toed the line of being the outcast and the champion, the sore thumb that was applauded for standing out. They called him hip-hop’s savior the same year that Nas declared hip-hop’s death. If hip-hop was going through it’s darkest tunnel, Food & Liquor was heralded as the light at the end.
Ten years have passed since the album’s release. It’s astounding that we have lived an entire decade with Food & Liquor. Lupe recently uploaded to his SoundCloud over an hour’s worth of commentary surrounding the album. He touches on the artwork, Jay Z’s role as executive producer, the making of certain songs, and plenty of little details that add a bit of new nuance to an old project. It’s a must-listen for any fans. Near the end of his history lesson, Lupe admits that he doesn’t feel like Food & Liquor is a classic album. There’s no added context to why he feels this way, a simple thought he doesn’t dwell on but has stuck with me since hearing the audio.
Having a classic album in your catalog used to have so much meaning in hip-hop. Now the word is overused to the point that just hearing a rapper define his album in such a way feels cliched and trite. An album can be released for only a few hours before social media starts a discussion over its classic status. The word is worn out, hackneyed, but it’s still significant when used in the right context. Ten years is long enough a period of time to truly decide if Food & Liquor should be considered a classic hip-hop album. Lupe might not think so, but if you ask me, Food & Liquor should be considered a classic hip-hop album.
I look at Food & Liquor as a landmark that will always represent a major shift in music. The South at the time had a dominating presence in rap. Atlanta had ushered in a new age, during the simultaneous rise of artists using the internet to their advantage. Everything was beginning to change, and Lupe was one of the loudest voices during that time who really made me feel like I was hearing something that didn’t fit in hip-hop’s past or present; music not poisoned by time. I would play the album front to back and escape from the sounds and subjects found in most modern music.
Lupe approached alienation, single-parenting, American terrorism, the dead returning back to life, and even his own conflictions with the messages found in rap music—all with the pen of a poet. There’s a kid growing up today that can see him or herself in “He Say She Say,” and a couple who can see their first date in the lyrics rapped on “Sunshine.” “American Terrorist” still carries a message that hasn’t aged a day. “Hurt Me Soul” has a special place in my heart as one of the best rap songs I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I’m still blown away by how he constructed the three verses and all the hooks. Food & Liquor opened my 15-year-old eyes and ears to what rappers could say, and how they could say it.
I believe this was the same feeling when Nas first arrived, or Biggie, or Rakim—rappers who altered the perception of what could be done with rap. Lupe was a student. He followed the footsteps of the masters and built his album using their blueprints as his point of reference. He cared about the art of storytelling, the art of lyricism, and articulated this passion in his music. Production-wise, he lived in a different soundscape. Sonically, you can hear the intricate traces of Kanye’s Late Registration inside. All the horns, strings, and guitars created a palette of sounds that Sean Fennessey called “Score-Hop” in his Pitchfork review. If Lupe rapped over more traditional, boom-bap production, it wouldn’t have had the same effect. Going outside of the conventional assisted in his music not sounding of its time.
Refreshing rapping, timeless subjects, and production that’s aging like wine and not winos is why ten years later Food & Liquor is still worth revisiting and discussing. Did Food & Liquor save hip-hop? No, I don’t think it was the culture-shifting album that rap fans wished for. Did it sell millions of albums? No, Food & Liquor has yet to even go gold. The album’s influence didn’t birth a new age of rappers, but it did show artists that caring about lyricism wasn’t old and dated. I think of rappers like Ab-Soul, Chance The Rapper, Joey Bada$$, Fashawn, Kendrick, Isaiah Rashad, Wale and X.V., who were all impacted by Lupe Fiasco and the music he dared to make. We all can’t be the big bang that changes the entire world; some of us are destined to be just the spark that will ignite the one who causes the big change.
Lupe’s story starts with Food & Liquor; you don’t get Lupe Fiasco without this album. It’s exceptional rap, it’s passionate hip-hop, and it’s one of my favorite albums of all-time. Very few albums have impacted my view on music and rap culture like Food & Liquor. If it doesn’t go down in history, history is leaving out a pivotal moment for many rap fans who missed the ‘90s but got a chance to witness Lupe arguably at his most impactful. I love The Cool, loath Lasers, and have enjoyed most of the music he has made from the early Fahrenheit days to the most recent Pharaoh Height, but none of them hit me the same way as Food & Liquor.
Hip-hop will never have another Lupe Fiasco, and we will never hear another Food & Liquor. Classic or not, let's honor them both on their 10th anniversary.
By Yoh, aka Ellen YohGeneres, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Atlantic Records