Lupe Fiasco

Food & Liquor

(Atlantic; 2006)

By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007

The release of Lupe Fiasco’s debut record is an Event not because of “Touch the Sky,” nor a Jigga cameo, nor a shiny Neptunes beat. It’s not because Idlewild deserved the 66 I gave it, or because King wasn’t as good as T.I. needed it to be, or because Fishscale was a slipshod record elevated exclusively by its excitable star. The release of Food & Liquor is an Event for a reason nobody heretofore had expected. It’s an Event because it’s a Lupe Fiasco record, and -- get this -- that’s enough.

I’ll say it upfront: I adore this album. If I saw Lupe on the street, I wouldn’t ask him for an autograph; I’d fucking thank him and give him my bike. And no, I’m not afraid of you, Bloggerati, nor do I fear the mouth-breathers mouth-breathing at Hipinion, nor shall this review be tethered back for any other motherfucker that would kick me in the shins for gushing such fanboyisms. It takes a few tracks to build into it, but act like those horn blasts in “Just Might Be OK” aren’t signaling something huge, helicopters buzzing around to cop a better look at that boy on the building with the megaphone spitting, “I’m cool / I don't foretell best / I ain’t nicest emcee / I ain’t Cornel West / I am Cornel Westside / Chi-town Rivera / Malcolm exorcise the demons / Gangsta leanings,” spitting a dozen internal rhymes per line while actually coming with something substantive, wryly claiming to have chosen a 44 over a motherboard but then, well, namedropping Cornel West. Kanye, who I love dearly, turned his collegiate failure into a statement of unbridled egotism, simultaneously drawing attention to his conventional intelligence and his hustler’s ethic, but he does it in one verse. Lupe grinds over this central dynamic with more subtlety and nuance than Ye’s bleating punchlining ever could. And I’m just pulling this shit out as an example, guys. There’s more.

Readers, this is Lupe Fiasco’s debut record; love it. It surpasses Beirut and the Pipettes as the strongest debut of 2006. I’ll be goddamned, though, if it doesn’t sound more like a mid-career high than a debut, resounding more of The Blueprint’s remarkably sated confidence than Reasonable Doubt’s leering hunger pangs. There will be those that draw comparisons further and deeper between these two emcees, Jigga and Lupe, both of them being, you know, great ones, and there are certainly a few ostensible similarities. Such as: the ability to flip a Linkin Park beat backed with Mike Shinoda coos into an impressionistic paean to TV mind control (“The Instrumental”), or the way they both spit game like the most popular kid in the school (“Sunshine”) but still have time to develop an inside joke with the Half-Life nerds in the computer lab (“The Cool”) and the harried smart kids (“American Terrorist”) and the mall punks (“Kick Push” and its sequel). But really, nimble flow and universality are Lupe and Jay’s only connections; in the nitty gritty, Lupe’s DNA is equal parts Nas’s whiz-kid charisma, Grand Puba’s writerly humor, and a touch of Del’s nerdy eccentricity. This seems like as good a place as any to mention that Lupe wears eyeglasses.

Bloggers, mock my enthusiasm. I’ll be as ridiculous about this record as you need me to; flay me like Tom Breihan, get your kicks in, I’m over it. But Breihan, that thug-loving blog-baiter, got some shit right. After Food & Liquor initially leaked, back in halcyon March, those that care about such things lost their shit over it on the internet. Fishscale still fresh, some clamored that this kid from Chicago had bested a Shaolinite for hip-hop record of the year. (He had.) Breihan got a sit-down with Lupe to discuss the pre-release hype, and in it he said to the rapper: “I read this interview with David Banner a year ago where he was saying that Southern rap sounds different from New York rap because people listen to it in cars. That's how they experience it, so the levels of bass matters. The version of your album that leaked is the first rap album I've heard that I would call an iPod album. The way it sounds, it seems more geared toward close listening, and sound-wise it's soothing in these weird and interesting ways. It's more intimate, the way you use your voice on the beats and the kinds of beats that you use.”

Old boy’s right, and I could pick apart the reasons why, but it’s sorta intangible. Why “I Gotcha” is such a banger seems obvious -- warm, crisp Neptunes drums, bounding piano line, Lupe’s hyperactive metapunchlines -- but there’s something about the track; it’s too inviting, too clean and clever; it’s a party cut, sure, but it’s a fucking headphone anthem, in the end. There’s nothing “soft” about the sound of the record, and Lupe never pulls his punches (though doesn’t curse, irrelevantly), and it’s not as if the drums don’t kick, the samples don’t push. But this album’s an outright jawdropper, my favorite of the year, in one context -- that is, on headphones -- and merely “good” in any other.

I think a big part of this is the sense of organization with which Lupe approaches his music, both from verse to verse and as an album. Listening to this album closely is an outright rewarding experience. Take British single “Daydreamin’” which…okay, let’s not really get started on the beat (brilliantly inverting any sensible formula, hushed on the chorus and explosive for the verses, OMG!). Lupe inhabits one childhood dream in the first verse, rhyming, “as I spy from behind my giant robot's eyes / I keep him happy cause I might fall if he cries.” The second verse is a different kind of hallucination: “now come on everybody let’s make cocaine cool / we need a few more half-naked women up in the pool / and hold this Mack 10 that's all covered in jewels / and could you please put ya titties closer to the 22s,” and the implication (drawn together by Jill Scott’s chorus) is that both fantasies are equally ludicrous. He draws you in with the big robots, then subverts that imagery with a deft twist, and then complicates things further with the self-implicating addendum, “but I'd like to thank the streets that drove me crazy / and all the televisions out there that raised me.” By setting these two verses against one another, Lupe bridges geeky ‘90s Rawkus-hop (giant robot part) with ‘00s Chi-town mainstream-criticism (anti-gangsta part), when all it really sounds like he’s doing is rapping about big robots and some gangsta shit. It’s in their careful juxtaposition that Lupe makes his commentary.

This organizational clarity carries over to the album as a whole. There are those rappers that rhyme about a few things exclusively: the school of stunts, blunts, and hip hop, say, or the old Five Percent Nation mythologizers. There’s nothing wrong with this singleness of mind; some (Prodigy, GZA, Ice Cube) made art of it. But Lupe Fiasco doesn’t belong in this class of emcee. Lupe’s rhymes are full of microscopic detail, and he rhymes about incredibly specific shit on a track-by-track basis, like detailing the way a smart kid reacts to Too $hort (“omitted the word bitch / cursing I wouldn’t say it”), giving a tragic intensity to skateboarding (“‘the freedom is better than breathing,’ they said”), or, uh, turning into a zombie (“the only thing on his brain was brains”). Food & Liquor can seem, at times, more like the work of a greenhorn singer/songwriter -- like he’s been polishing these tracks in his head for a few decades -- than like the work of some brash, eager-to-dazzle freshman emcee. Each track represents the crystallization of a unique thought, as opposed to mere confluence of a beat and some rhymes. This may be the first record with a musical genealogy that includes both Chuck D and Billy Joel.

So when Jigga does show up, amid eagle cries (as is his wont), he sounds stilted, unwelcome. That thing that happens when Jay-Z starts talking doesn’t happen; he just kinda raps. The entire verse could slip by unnoticed. This is, in other words, Lupe’s show exclusively, and as a host he’s apparently unimpeachable even by Hov. In a few weeks my boys Betz and Nool are going to flip out about the new Subtle record, and they’re right to; it’s fucking good. What For Hero : For Fool does is revalidate hip-hop as a medium capable of hyperdriven conceptual backflips and dense, vivid writing, but what Lupe’s doing here is both simpler and more difficult. He has put out a seventy-three minute mainstream hip-hop record of endless replayability and boundless enthusiasm; nothing more, nothing less. It’s probably a Great Record. There is not a bad verse on it. I had one thing I wanted to say with this review, and I don’t know how many other ways I can say it. This is not a promising debut. Food & Liquor sounds like a promise gloriously fucking fulfilled, and I, for one, shudder to think of a follow-up. And, shit, I guess this is the best place to do it: thanks, Lupe.