To get an idea of how an artist’s ambition can desert him, Lupe Fiasco’s career is a good place to start. After releasing two critically acclaimed albums in the mid-2000s, the Chicago rapper looked poised for a fruitful career. He peppered his second album, 2007’s The Cool, with references to a conceptual trilogy, even going so far as to name the third installment. Four years later, fans were still waiting for that promised third album. Fiasco postponed it for another project, an album that was sent off to Atlantic Records, but left to wither in R&D limbo until fans started an online petition to see its release. What came out in early 2011 was Lasers, a bona fide pop-rap album that featured almost none of the original players or a single reference to Fiasco’s first two L.P.s. The beloved backpack rapper appeared had been replaced by someone uncomfortably generic. Countless one-off projects and a mixtape did little to alleviate concerns. The man rapped over Skrillex at one point. Things weren’t looking good.
A year later, a new Lupe Fiasco album is hitting shelves, but one question lingers in the minds of longtime fans who gaze upon its Smell the Glove-like cover: Was Lasers intentional? Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 was supposedly compiled while Lupe was languishing over Lasers’ creative purgatory, and its title’s reference to his masterwork debut would seem to indicate that the man had returned to his glory days. And that’s great. If Lasers was simply a label-guided cash grab, then Pt. 1 should be about Lupe returning to his roots. However, if there was a part of Lupe that thought Lasers’ superficiality was appealing … well. The latter will be the response that many will have when listening to Food & Liquor II Pt. 1. The generous might chalk it up to more label hijinks; the cynical might find it borderline listener exploitation.
The thing is, I actually liked Lasers. The album was so unapologetically crass, you almost had to admire it for what it was. However, where Lasers was shamelessly indulgent, Pt. 1 feels awkwardly restrained; it wants to be like its predecessor but feels guilty about the longtime Lupe fans still paying attention. The result is a mix of solid to good Lupe-circa-2006 songs and Lasers-style mush. These two styles shift clumsily from song to song, but they are sometimes simultaneously present. “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)” samples the classic beat to Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You” but has a lazy chorus that goes “Live from the underside, what you see? / A bunch of nonsense on my TV.” “Bitch Bad” is an exploration of the societal implications of the titular expletive, but it has a strip-club rap bounce, making Lupe sound like the Rick Ross of gender politics. Lupe also undercuts his point by cooking up increasingly unrealistic scenarios. It’s fascinating though, because it’s a part of Lupe we’ve never heard before; someone whose self-righteousness is so endemic, he can barely complete a thought.
Musically, Pt. 1 is uneven. “Cold War” cruises on a smooth bassline for six-and-a-half minutes and “ITAL (Roses)” is a brassy fanfare in which Lupe’s flow fits perfectly. However, too often Pt. 1 defers to the Lasers formula of Lupe rapping over the same four plinked piano chords, essentially Chiddy Bang at a 12th grade reading level. The second half of the album has a block of these songs, starting with the schmaltzy “Heart Donor” and ending with “Brave Heart,” a song so bad it could have been off the new Matisyahu album. It should also be noted that Pt. 1 has no high profile guest appearances or production credits. The only notable player here is Bilal, a Philadelphia crooner who has also seen his fair share of label trouble.
On “ITAL,” Lupe has some insight into why this may be. “Called the President a terrorist / Corporate sponsors like, ‘How the fuck you gon’ embarrass us?’” he raps, referring to an interview he did with CBS News last year. While that line may paint Lupe as anti-establishment, it is actually emblematic of why Pt. 1 is far from a return to form. In addition to his creative sovereignty, Lupe has lost his nuance. Where before he would have told a personal story or role-played to get his point across, the new Lupe opts for the soapbox over the pen, talking down to his listeners instead of engaging them at their level. It’s no surprise that the only memorable lyrics on Pt. 1 are in its final track, “Hood Now,” a rare moment of levity about urban life’s dissemination into pop culture (“You know me, I don’t vote / But the White House, you already know / It’s hood now”). If Pt. 1 were simply another stopgap L.P. to help get Lupe out of his deal with Atlantic, I would be okay with that. But, because it’s a sequel to one of the greatest rap album of the 2000s divided Breaking Dawn-style into two parts, I’m sad to report that there will probably be more mediocre Food & Liquor albums than good ones.