Do We Like This? Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album

Lupe Fiasco’s fourth album, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, was released Tuesday. To mark the occasion, two Grantland contributors from different generations offer their complicated feelings on the latest from one of music’s most polarizing figures.

Hua Hsu: When both Chief Keef and D.L. Hughley dis you, when Pete Rock feels “violated” by you, when your attempt to spark conversation on misogyny and the B-word morphs into a kind of sub–culture war, when you name something The Great American Rap Album and then announce your retirement shortly before its release, when a rundown of the past season of your life becomes a muddle of hyperlinks, then clearly it’s no longer just about the music. Full disclosure, if it wasn’t already obvious: My interest in Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album is totally born out of the Charlie Brown raincloud that floats above it. We live in an opinion-heavy time, for sure, but how did someone so innocuous end up becoming the most dissable rapper around?

Food & Liquor II feels like one of the most antiestablishment records in recent memory. Not antiestablishment in a generically sociopathic, 50 shades of everything’s fucked way, but antiestablishment in a slightly more thoughtful way — drone strikes, “Pakistanis throwing stones,” the ruins of Detroit, America as “big motherfucking garbage man,” etc. There’s a nagging, hectoring quality to it, as though he’s trying to turn back all the multicultural good vibes of the past four years, remind us of all the Serious Issues obscured by questions like who to vote for. While others drape themselves in flags, Lupe is turning away from it (“Strange Fruition”), and hip-hop — culture, the nation, etc., as a whole — is healthy so long as someone ventures so far astray. So Food & Liquor II is relentless, dreary, never changing, uplifting only insofar as Lupe sees his own storytelling as a way of keeping you “off Maury” (the weepy “Heart Donor,” which I initially misheard as “Hot Donut”).

That’s also one of its problems. In his most ambitious moments, Lupe writes op-eds rather than reportage. There’s the economical, B-word moratorium “Bitch Bad,” the sing-along N-word think piece “Audubon Ballroom,” the inside-out history lesson of “Unforgivable Youth.” If you’re predisposed to Lupe’s worldview, these are anthems, but if not, then the reason Lupe catches so much stick becomes clear: Nobody likes a scold, and much of Food & Liquor II has a kind of “Black Poet” tone-deafness to it. It’s like a constant stream of bad news on a friend’s feed, punctuated by a seemingly non-judgmental “Just saying.” Which isn’t to say we should shrink from the problems of the present simply because they make us feel bad: I probably agree with Lupe on a lot of things and I actually admire his out-of-time stubbornness, like the time he name-dropped Grace Lee Boggs contra Hughley. But when he says he’s merely a “conduit” — “a John Q just on cue for you” — it’s not quite right. The truth won’t set us free, and Lupe is sure to remind us of that. He’s issuing judgments, asking questions so that he can answer them himself. That’s why, for the undecided, the most resonant thing here is “Hood Now,” a knotty, playful celebration of contradiction, paradox, and that thin line from “Cornel” to Kanye West.

Rembert Browne: To continue with “Hood Now,” the album’s final track and true standout, this is the Lupe Fiasco that I found myself obsessed with after listening to his debut album six years ago. It’s Lupe as storyteller, not “Lupe the preacher” or “Lupe the philosopher” or “Lupe the professor” or “Lupe the knower of answers to all of life’s quandaries.” Those are the manifestations of Lupe that I can always pass on. But when he’s in full creative storytelling mode, there are few people more talented and few people I’m more excited to hear string words and metaphors together in an ingenious manner.

This is the Lupe we got on “Kick, Push” (a tale of young love between two outcast skateboarders) and “He Say, She Say” (the heartrending story of a deadbeat dad, told from the perspective of a mother in the first verse and a son in the second): a guy who sheds all pretense and instead invites the listener to go on a four-to-six-minute trip with him.

On “Hood Now,” he tells a story by way of deconstructing the word “hood.” It’s littered with clever allusions and double entendres, but what he actually describes is what the word can mean based on the context, and then (most important) what the word usually means once you’ve cut through all the layers.

It’s an interesting exercise, because “hood” is one of those words, like “urban” and “street,” that means everything and nothing at the same time and takes on shockingly different definitions depending on the speaker. Just as “urban” is used to denote everything from “city-dweller” to “young” to “black,” Lupe highlights a variety of connotations. Taking the first three chunks of lyrics, sometimes, “it’s hood”:

What do you do when it’s so unequal?
Wear Michael Jordans with your tuxedos
It’s hood now
It’s hood now
Yeah, yeah
It’s hood now

Sometimes “you’re hood”:

Public school system only teaching parts
So the school of hard knocks is what make you street smart
You’re hood now
Hood now
Yea, yea
Hood now

And other times, you’re “in the hood”:

Open fire hydrant ‘front the liquor store
Coolin’ perm ads all on the billboards
You in the hood now
You in the hood now
That’s right
You in the hood now

It’s extremely subtle, and that’s the whole point. He then goes on to transition from this to his second claim: Things in our culture becoming increasingly “hood” equates becoming influenced or impacted by blacks. And, to Lupe, this is a good thing. Lines like:

Ivy League was running really well then
They slipped up and let Cornel in
It’s hood now
It’s hood now
Yes it is
It’s hood now

Fashion shows, with fancy clothes
You see Mr. West right in the front row
It’s hood now
It’s hood now
That’s what it means
It’s hood now

At the Oscars, P on the sticks
And the winner is … Three 6
It’s hood now
It’s hood now
Uh-oh…
It’s hood now

You had Elvis Presley and he was crackin’
But guess what? Here comes Michael Jackson
It’s hood now
It’s hood now
That’s right
It’s hood now

And you know me, I don’t vote
But the White House, you already know
It’s hood now
It’s hood now
Yes sir
It’s hood now

In my mid-twenties, this song leaves me impressed. But 10 years ago my response would have been a jaw permanently stuck on the floor. It’s important that there are still rappers out there that can have that type of impact on the most impressionable consumers, the late teenage crowd who hasn’t fully figured out what they believe in. Lupe is still one of a handful who are capable of this, and “Hood Now” serving as the final track can’t help but make one excited for what’s to come, regardless of the hit-or-miss-ness of the prior 15 songs.

But there still are those 15 other songs, and as much as I’d like to ignore the majority of them (not “ITAL (Roses)” — that is also a very good song) and pretend like “Hood Now” is the first leaked single of an album set to drop in five months, it’s not. My issue with the album as a whole is not that it’s bad. Because it’s not bad. Not even close. My problem, which very well might be a personal problem, is that after 72 hours of listening to Food & Liquor II, I’ve yet to find a mood or a setting that is conducive to enjoying it.

The combination of music, mood, and setting have long been a package deal when discussing what I enjoy, but I’m striking out left and right when it comes to Lupe’s fourth disc. I’ve listened to it in my car, on the open road, in traffic, during the daytime, at night, sitting at a desk, while walking, through headphones, blaring from speakers, alone, surrounded by strangers, among friends. I’ve done all of this and I still haven’t figured out a way to truly enjoy the album, which is boggling my mind, given that I know it’s not a bad album. Is it the songs? Is it Lupe? Is it me?

What say you, Hua? Are you having a similar issue? Am I right in saying this isn’t a bad album, but there’s something wholly uninviting about it that makes the listener want to acknowledge its existence and then quickly move on? Or are we just too old to be talked to like we’re children? Please say things, I’m tired of talking.

Hsu: I think you’re describing something important up top, how your years-ago “obsession” with Lupe made you want to follow along with his stories, allegories, etc. Maybe the difference here is that the listener is being told what to take away from the material, whereas we would prefer to be surprised or unsettled in subtler ways. Personally, I love ambiguous, vague things, and while I sympathize with a lot of what Lupe’s saying, it was the approach that didn’t hook me. It could be an age thing, and maybe I’m just being fussy, since it’s not like all the people dissing Lupe are really quarreling with his ideas, which must be extra-maddening for him. I agree that “Hood Now” stands out. As you point out above, it’s clever and smart, and to me it’s a rare moment where it sounds like they were actually having fun.

Maybe this is what happens when the subject of your work is something enormous like “America” — something on which we all have an opinion. Over the past few years, it feels like America and its symbols — the flag, the White House (as Lupe points out on “Hood Now”), the mythology, the name itself — have been reclaimed or at least tweaked by young folks that might have previously felt alienated by all that. Can you imagine something like that Lana del Rey/A$AP Rocky “National Anthem” video in the 1990s? I was drawn to Food & Liquor II because of its ambition, its desire to stake some claim(s), and because I always find it fascinating when people feel so misunderstood. But it seems we both feel a little jaded about it all.

Browne: I guess my eternal struggle with Lupe is whether it’s better to promote a misguided stance than no stance at all. That’s my relationship to Lupe vs. rap. Something I roll my eyes upon hearing because it almost seems forcefully radical vs. something where I don’t roll my eyes at all because the triviality of the content isn’t worth the energy it takes to roll an eye. I’m still not sure how I feel about the divide, but what I do know as fact is that every community needs their rabble-rousers, their loudmouths, and their people that put beliefs first, job security second. For that alone, I’m thrilled this album exists, if for no other reason than to balance out an infinitesimal amount of the uneducated, borderline-illiterate trash that can become popular should it have an above-average beat.

Filed Under: Rap, Rembert Browne

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

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