Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor sequel fixes key issues from Lasers

What type of statement do you make after the most disappointing album of your career? With a blank cover, a blank jewelcase and and no text in the booklet, Lupe Fiasco decides it's best to forget image and let the music do the talking. After being embroiled in a nasty label dispute that sent his third album, Lasers, down in flames, Lupe returns with his long awaited followup just over a year later.

Clashes with his label bosses interminably delayed the release of Lasers, and when it finally hit shelves it bared little resemblance to the albums that put initially put Lupe on the map. The first step to reclaiming  credibility with long time fans starts with the release of Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, which he first announced in 2009.

It is a major improvement over Lasers. The shameless lack of authenticity in the danceclub beats is generally rectified, and the revolving door of Top 40 pop collaborators that marred Lasers is mostly held in check. The first eight tracks present Lupe's opening argument for his continued relevance, and he attempts to get back to what made him an overnight sensation in the first place.

The album's theme is dedicated to focusing on America, and surveying its social, political, and race related issues. "Strange Fruition" sees Lupe criticizing the ADD generation, while going after his usual targets - economic and racial inequality. A heavily vocoderized vocal from saxophonist Casey Benjamin glues it all together. He attacks pedophilia in the clergy on "Lamborghini Angels," while "Ital (Roses)" points out the shallow and false imagery in modern hip hop, while sounding very much like a modern hip hop song itself.

The album's best track is by far "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)." The lyrics are as crisp and poignant as anything Lupe has written; he reels off a laundry list of social and political ills, including the over proliferation of social media, deceptive practices employed by retailers, and the declining American education system. As always, he tackles issues in a clever and witty way but also with a sense of urgency. "It's all one song short of a setlist/ a couple croissants short of a continental breakfast," he declares.

It also has the best beat on the album. Unfortunately, it's not his own. The brassy horn beat was pulled from  Pete Rock & C.K. Smooth's 1992 hit "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)." Lupe's piece is still effective if you're willing to overlook the fact that beat isn't his own, but it does ding his credibility a bit. At least he has good taste.

Lyrically, however, Lupe seems more effective when he selects a single topic and sticks to it for the course of a song. A prime example is "Bitch Bad," on which Lupe gives a detailed breakdown on miscommunication and misunderstandings between males and females centering around the word bitch.

He discusses how, through parental misguidance and uninhibited access to the Internet, young boys and girls get an eyeful of hip hop culture and come away with different ideas on the role of women, which leads to a disconnect between genders. The lyrics are relevant and well thought out; however the production is a different story. The beat sounds like something pulled from a Nelly record from 10 years ago, and when you factor in his low energy, elongated drawl it adds up to a track that is less musically effective than it should be.

Another well focused track is "Unforgivable Youth," which concentrates on looking back through mankind's past, then uses it to forecast a possible doomsday scenario for America. Jason Evigan's hook provides a worldly and historical flare while also sounding like something that could work in a high class urban environment. It's the most innovative track Lupe's come up with since "All Black Everything."

The laid back freestyle "Form Follows Function" is another album highlight. The beat is very mellow and chill, and the lyrics demonstrate that Lupe can be poetic and free flowing without having to wax about society's ills.

Some tracks hit wide of the mark, however. Poo Bear makes a pair of appearances on the album, neither of them worth crossing the hundred acre woods for. The most regrettable of the two comes on "Heart Donor," a half baked attempt at smooth R&B with a warmed over hook that makes Chris Brown's latest effort seem commendable. The other track he's featured on, "Brave Heart," is a slight improvement with its martial hook and beat, but is still one the album's weakest.

The merry go round of no name collaborators that made Lasers such a joke soon becomes established on Food & Liquor Pt. 2, it just takes until the second half of the album for it to kick in. The overall quality is much better than it was on Lasers, however it's difficult to find a guest that makes a significant positive contribution to the album. The oh so debonair Bilal kicks in suave but ultimately empty hook, while Lupe spits a few verses that have little or nothing to do with the sentiment being expressed in the chorus.

Some of the songs on the album's second half can be enjoyable if you're willing to admit that they are what they are: catchy, gloss covered pop singles created for corporate profit, but that still display a certain level of charisma and ingenuity. Jane $$$, who sings a chorus about the USSR government on "Cold War," sounds like an anonymous hook singer ripped from the second disc of Tupac's All Eyez on Me. But the concept of the cold war, which seems like an odd topic for a rap album, begins to seem clever when Lupe relates it as a personal cold war he wages everyday over the death of someone close to him.

Lupe gets pulled off his game on "Battle Scars," a pop song with a prominent chorus delivered by Aussie singer Guy Sebastian. He drops his intellectual  politically conscious style to deliver what is basically a dramatic breakup song that sounds tailor made for relationships we had when we were 16. The silliness of comparing that to an actual war, along with the reverent tone the song tries to take makes it so trite and melodramatic that you could be excused for assuming Avril Lavigne was one of the lead producers. Everything about it is so fake and sappy, straight down to Lupe emphatically shouting "Never!" on the final chorus.

Sebastian, for his part, is a fine singer but is indistinguishable from the army of corporate pop vocalists. It doesn't help that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Matt Mahaffey, the guest singer from "State Run Radio" off Lasers. Atlantic's formula seems to be so derivative that even Lupe's various guest singers start to sound alike from one album to the next.

Lupe's last hurrah comes on the closer, "Hood Now," which may sound lazy and repetitive to those who aren't paying attention. But the song is actually a brilliant demonstration of the gains made by African American society into a culture that was once dominated by whites. Among his examples are the Ivy League education system, professional basketball, and of course, the White House. "They gave us scraps/ some of it old/ we cooked it up/ and called it soul/ it's good now/ it's good now/ you like that?/ It's hood now," he boasts.

It all adds up to a record that's a real mixed bag. It's easy to want to root for Lupe; he's one of the few rappers today who stakes his reputation on delivering substance in his message. But he also made career decisions that led him to Atlantic Records and a severe commercial over saturation of his sound. His debut, the original Food & Liquor album, was characterized by low key beats that gave Lupe the space he needed to do his thing. Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, conversely, just doesn't capture the same authentic feeling, and bears little similarity to its predecessor save for the intro.

Though it has its moments, it still feels like a corporate piece of malfeasance with little goal other than turning profits. Atlantic Records seems to be the culprit behind this more so than Lupe. With such a deep well of talent, his best move would be to pull a Radiohead and form his own label upon the expiration of his Atlantic contract. He likely has the fortune and popularity to pull it off. But either way, fans of his first two albums, along with hip hop fans in general, can only hope his next record for Atlantic will be his last.

Score: 77/100

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