Fueled by Food & Liquor, Fiasco skates to success

By Greg Brown

Let’s just get this out of the way first: Lupe Fiasco is a non-drinking, non-swearing Muslim, a skateboarding, glasses-wearing, self-proclaimed nerd rapper. Whew. Glad that’s over, because a quick look and listen beyond the obvious potential for pigeon-holing him or reducing him to a mere niche artist (imagine the white-haired A&R guy as one of the characters in a Guinness TV commercial: “a clean, black, skateboarding rapper? Brilliant!”) reveals a truly superb album that extends beyond any standard hip-hop niche.

Food & Liquor can be absorbed on many different levels, all of which are correct, none of which can begin to describe its quality. It’s another great release this year from the eternally up-and-coming Chicago rap scene (following Rhymefest’s criminally under-appreciated Blue Collar). It’s the breakthrough of an incredibly talented lyricist, whose talent was once stuck behind record labels and politics (a failed stint at Epic and Arista, not to mention that F & L was supposed to come out last fall). And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a wonderful autobiography, often told in second and third person, that reveals Lupe’s inner struggles, contradictions, and resilient character through his wonderful wordplay.

On “Real,” the first proper track, Lupe spits out that he’s “gotta give ’em something real” over a Thriller-style guitar riff and distorted keyboard pulses: “Life ain’t meant to come around twice/ Yeah, that’s why I gotta get it right/ They said I got it honest now I gotta give it life/ But sleep on it, that’s why God give you night.” With a shuffling, skittish beat, the optimistic “Just Might Be OK” soars with Lupe’s clever rhyming and horns that crescendo as the chorus hits.

It may not be necessary to mention “Kick, Push,” the lead single that’s still in heavy radio rotation and that might’ve been Chicago’s summer anthem, but it’s still undeniably great. The brass intro and “Kick, Push, Coasssst” chorus is familiar yet, within context of the album, is seamlessly integrated within the track list. It’s also one of Lupe’s first explicitly autobiographical songs, as Lupe tells the tale of a city-dwelling kid with his first skateboard, and chronologically progresses through the phases in his skateboarding-life with each verse.

As with “Kick, Push,” strings, horns, some guitar, and plenty of snyths and keyboards ruminate throughout the rest of the album, setting a consistent mood within a framework that still allows for a range of emotions and songs. Most of the tracks are from Soundtrakk and Prolyfic, the in-house producers of Lupe’s own First & Fifteenth record. Judging by the quality of his tracks here, it’s clear that they both have the potential to stay in the rap game for a while.

Kanye West shows up two-thirds of the way through the album as producer of “The Cool,” which was probably inevitable after Lupe appeared on Kanye’s most excellent “Touch the Sky,” Kanye’s production sounds subtly reminiscent of his own “Diamonds (from Sierra Leonne),” without the Bond sample but with more filtered synths. Sonically, it fits right in with the album, unlike a few other songs done by guest producers. Lyrically, it might be one of the best songs on the album. Lupe tells the Twilight Zone-like story of a murdered gang-banger who comes back to life to relive some of his own life experiences from the opposite perspective (“He came back in the suit that he was buried in/ Similar to the one his grandfather was married in/ Yes, he was still fresh to death/ Bling, two earrings, a chain layin’ on his chest/ He still had it ’cause they couldn’t find it/ And the bullets from his enemies sat like two inches behind it/ Smelled the Hennessy from when his niggas got reminded/ And poured out liquor in his memory, he didn’t mind it”).

Other album highlights include “Pressure,” with new pal (and Food & Liquor’s executive producer) Jay-Z. The track doesn’t quite live up to it’s potential, if only because of Hova’s half-assed verse at the end, but “Daydreamin’” is a brilliant mix of lush orchestration, Lupe’s scathing satire (“Now come on everybody, let’s make cocaine cool/ We need a few more half-naked women up in the pool/ And hold this Mac-10 that’s all covered in jewels/ And could you please put your titties closer to the 22’s?”), and some fine crooning by the lovely Jill Scott.

Because of the overall unified sound of the album, a few of the other guest produced tracks don’t immediately fit in. The Neptunes’ “I Gotcha,” a mathematical, off-kilter, but standard song—at least as far as the Neptunes go—is easily the sparsest and simplest track on the album. An obvious choice for a follow-up single, it’s catchy, but not quite as “real” (as Lupe would define it) as other tracks. Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda produced “The Instrumental” that sounds too much like, well, Linkin Park.

All in all, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor delivers on the hype and buzz that have followed him since his appearance on Kanye’s sophomore album and Lupe’s internet-only mixtape series, Fahrenheit 1/15. The album is a coherent, collected, and consistent work. Its production is full and lush. But Lupe’s words outshine the superb beats. He’s fresh, smart, witty, and allows the listener into his world effortlessly. It’s another notch on the belt of the Chicago rap scene and easily one of the best hip-hop releases of the year.