by Shawn Setaro
Lupe Fiasco has recently been one of rap's most fascinating figures. From his shockingly open pronouncements about record label pressures to his bold political statements (being an early and vocal advocate of Occupy Wall Street, performing on BET while wearing a Palestinian flag, calling the President "the biggest terrorist" in an interview for his bombings and assassinations that create terrorism as a response) to his calls for boycotts of press outlets who criticize him, Lupe's penchant for getting attention has made sure that all eyes are on his latest release Food & Liquor II: The Great Amercian Rap Album, out today.
While this penchant for the controversial ties into things that make Lupe worth paying attention to, what is actually notable about both him and his work is much more broad and exciting. Fiasco has said that this album is about nothing less than "the rise and fall of American imperialism" and, in fact, it is. But it aims both wider and deeper than that. While many rappers would be content to point out, as Lupe does repeatedly, the destructive single-mindedness of mainstream hip-hop, it takes someone with as expansive a vision as the rapper shows here to make that critique in a loving way, and to combine it with paeans to the historical brilliance and resilience of black culture.
On the political tip, Lupe shows a similarly wide range. The album is deeply concerned with the systemic, structural racism and white supremacy that has oppressed blacks since their arrival in the U.S., and delves into it in a detail matched in recent rap perhaps only by Minneapolis' Brother Ali on his recent album. But Fiasco also talks about other struggles - those of Native Americans, Egyptians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghanis. He connects these fights, in a way more visceral than a Howard Zinn (an avowed Lupe favorite) might, and in a way more likely to appeal to those who most need to hear it.
The album isn't perfect. Fiasco makes his art to appeal to a wide audience, and thus must deal with commercial strictures and pressures. Thus, there are the few obvious mis-steps - songs that are meant to be single-mindedly and non-specifically inspirational; ones that veer too far from the record's thematic strengths. Musically, too, it would benefit from a wider range of moods - while the epic-sounding, mid-tempo beats fit most material, the sound becomes overwhelming over the course of a whole record. There is also, as we will talk about below, a sequencing issue that temporarily drags the record to a screeching halt.
But all that being said, F&L II is a wide-ranging triumph of imagination and art - oh yeah, and it features a lot of incredible rapping! Below, our Rap Genius song-by-song preview:
"Ayesha Says (Intro)"
Continuing tradition, Lupe has his sister Ayesha Jaco deliver the album introduction. It sets out the themes to come, neatly connecting political struggles in Egypt to the racist "food deserts" in so many American cities. The Maya Angelou allusion serves as well to place the record in a cultural context - an idea that likewise continues throughout.
Right off the bat, this tune deals with America's institutional racism and how it connects to that oft-celebrated rap location, the ghetto. "There was nothing equal for my people in your math," Lupe rhymes. "You put us in the ghetto and then you took our dads." If there's another rapper out there who can draw a line from the Three-Fifths Compromise to the white flight, redlining, and "urban renewal" programs that created the modern ghettos, we'd love to meet them. But the tune doesn't get too heady. The extensive Southern rap language helps keep the tune grounded in today, and the hopefulness at the end ("Smile 'til they surrender," Lupe suggests) makes sure that things never get too heavy.
Lupe continues the Afro-diasporic themes here by making overt reference to reggae and Rastafarian culture, even dropping in a bit of Iyaric, the Rasta dialect. He also summons the spirit of the second-most famous Rasta, Peter Tosh, with his use of the term "downpressed" - "Downpressor Man" was one of the Wailer's most notable tunes. Fiasco's attack on mainstream rap and its endless images of drugs and strippers feels like it comes from a place of concern both for the audience and for the artists. Extra points, too, for managing to work the term "fiscally responsible" into a song.
"Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)"
This song almost sounds like Lupe is trying to fit the whole world into one four minute and fifteen second span. He nearly succeeds. In zapping from Wounded Knee to the first Iraq War to Katrina in only a few bars, he manages to create a picture of an empire gone mad, and unable to stop itself from stratifying wealth to an obscene degree. "Hither you can be Mr. Burns or Mr. Smithers," he says, in one of rap's greatest Simpsons references. "The tyrant or the slave, but nowhere in the middle."
This song features a huge-sounding beat, appropriate for a tribute to the larger-than-life heroes, Malcolm X and MLK, whose tragic murders form the core of this tune. While Lupe's flow on this, and other songs here, is simpler and slower than on his recent stellar Friend of the People mixtape, the puns, wordplay, and metaphors remain as dense and complex as ever. A passing mention of a "tap floor" ties in to overarching statements about black culture and creativity only a few bars later, and the tune is full of similar associations.
Lupe's oft-savaged tune about pop culture and its effects on gender relations proves to be unfairly maligned, and more savvy than its critics have given it credit for. The hook, it's true, sets up a problematic triad of "bitch", "woman", and "lady", in ascending order of awesomeness. But it's unlikely that Lupe meant it to be quite so straightforward. The song tells the stories of young people interacting with sexist standards embedded in pop culture, and shows how wrong-headed, oppressive ideas about gender can be passed on via corporate messaging, often without conscious ill will by anyone involved. However, the singing at the end of the tune is far too obvious. It removes any hint of subtlety, and its weird motherhood fetish ("Woman good/Greatest motherhood") nearly kills the song.
While this song is about many things (an exorcism, racism, dangerous "cures" for the mentally ill, pedophile priests), it primarily seems inspired by Lupe's own struggle with materialism. He is both attracted to fancy, expensive things, but also realizes that this is not a trait that he wants to have. While overall the song is a bit of a jumble (what's with the conflation of pedophilia and political kidnapping and torture in the final verse?), having the artist wrestle with his own attraction to the dark side of hip-hop imagery makes his critiques feel more measured and human and less didactic.
"Put 'Em Up"
This tune is the first one to concentrate mostly on Lupe as a rapper. The jokes, rhymes, and homophones ("Lockerbie" and "locker, b" is the most notable) come fast and furious. The only issue is that, sonically, the song is similar to the rest of the record. Lupe's rhymes in this case would be better served by a lighter, more playful-sounding sonic palette.
Unfortunately, after such a strong start, we were bound to slow down at some point. This tune serves as a vaguely inspirational number, much like his much (and rightly) maligned Modest Mouse-sampling 2011 single "The Show Goes On". It is a bit of a letdown to have this one-dimensional a song after an album's worth of complex, multi-layered ideas. Even the hook is obvious and repetitive. Still, even in here, Lupe finds time for a show-stopping series of rhymes about (and using the word) onomatopoeia.
"How Dare You"
In perhaps the record's greatest mis-step, one calculated, off-point song is immediately followed by, well, another one. The Bilal-sung hook sounds grafted on, and Lupe does not sound engaged in the ostensibly personal love story he is telling. The song also contains his worst pun, a Pampers joke that we can't bring ourselves to quote.
Having yet another love song in a row (with an additional one still to come) is a terrible sequencing decision that has the unfortunate side effect of putting the album's weakest patches all together. This one is the best of the bunch, as Lupe's rapping sounds angry and engaged. However, there is not nearly enough of it. We don't need a sung pre-chorus, a sung chorus, AND a sung bridge - less emoting about love-as-war and more extended metaphors would have done a world of good.
The continuation of the love-as-war military metaphors here is a bit much, as it comes directly after a tune called "Battle Scars". Luckily, though, Lupe doesn't waste too much time on the subject, and quickly gets back to themes of culture and the lingering effects of slavery - topics he seems far more at home discussing than matters of the heart, brave or otherwise.
"Form Follows Function"
Finally! We return to Lupe's strengths. This thankfully hook-less tune is not only smart and meaningful, it contains a breathtaking array of religious imagery and jokes on topics as disparate as vocal warmups, video games, and Mr. Ed. Here, unlike in most songs with a variety of references, the point is not how bizarre the comparison is (cough - Weezy - cough), but that all the puns, no matter how out there, relate to the song's central topics and ideas.
This song, likely inspired by the death of Lupe's good friend Jubar "Esco" Croswell, is touching and meaningful. However, it arrives at a point in the album where some sonic variety would be welcomed, and it instead continues in the vein of the record's other tunes. Still, though, it's chilling to hear Fiasco "question if I'm over it/Or if I'm numb because I'm closure-less".
This ambitious tune melds past and future critiques of imperialism. The first verse, sort of a rhyming version of the beginningsection of A Peoples History of the United States, is a vicious critique of Columbus, while the second attacks Manifest Destiny and the genocide of Native Americans. But it's the tune's third verse, one that imagines future anthropologists and archaeologists looking back at our culture, that is the most chilling. Lupe creatively gives the future scientists understandable misconceptions that serve as prompts for the listener to think about our society and how we stack up to our ideals.
A light-hearted, but not simple, outro, "Hood Now" summarizes the album's celebration of black creativity in the face of innumerable obstacles. It also, smartly, posits hip-hop as part of a continuum of black music, something that is often lost in today's hip-hop-dominated marketplace. The tune shows a real love and understanding of all elements of culture, celebrating soul food, jazz, and even the much-maligned "bling bling" phenomenon. A final shout-out to Lupe's frequent target, President Obama, manages to feel both climactic and unforced.
Lupe Fiasco - Around My Way Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Audubon Ballroom Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Ayesha Says (Intro) Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - How Dare You Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Bitch Bad Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Strange Fruition Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Form Follows Function Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Go To Sleep Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Battle Scars Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Hood Now (Outro) Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - ITAL (Roses) Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Cold War Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Unforgivable Youth Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Lamborghini Angels Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Brave Heart Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Heart Donor Lyrics
Lupe Fiasco - Put Em Up Lyrics