Having played with the idea for a few years, there seemed no better time than 2012 for Lupe Fiasco to follow through with a sequel to his heralded debut album, Food & Liquor. If partly a calculated move to win back disappointed fans in the wake of last year’s artistically compromised Lasers, the proposed Food & Liquor II at least came attached with an intriguing, ambitious concept: subtitled The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, with his fourth album Lupe promised to do no less than “tell the story of America.”
So he sets out, having brought the project to life, opening with the stormy “Strange Fruition.” The song is a striking portrait of disillusionment that sets a heavy, somber tone for the rest of the album. Over the next 60-plus minutes, Lupe proceeds to survey everything from historical injustices (slavery, the Native American genocide) to the black experience in America to the social impact of Hip-Hop music – making Food & Liquor II something resembling an “Uncool History of the United States.” Yet it remains a historical account of middling musical merit.
For all the complaints about the “preachiness” in Lupe’s recent music, few have zeroed in on how the issue runs a lot deeper than simply turning Fiasco into a less amiable narrator. His more forceful messaging has had the effect of blunting his typically skillful language (on the idea that all that glitters is not gold: “Get yourself a Camry/‘Ni**a said a Camry?’/Watch that ho depreciate and then you’ll understand me”) and clouding his artistic instincts: “Bitch Bad” attempts to serve as a conversation starter on the effects of misogyny in Hip-Hop, but never fully overcomes Lupe’s stilted flow or the track’s tinny approximation of a radio-friendly beat.
Beyond all the lyrical trickery and socially-conscious content, there was a time when Lupe was fully capable of making great, accessible songs. Which makes it more perplexing how Food & Liquor II – even in its better moments – struggles to turn a corner without being bogged down by scatterbrained thoughts (he switches between two different narratives within a single verse on “Lamborghini Angels”), saccharine sentiment (“Heart Donor”), or overwrought hooks (too many to name). The production, meanwhile, never settles into a cohesive sound, with the music jumping from wispy synths and processed strings to instrumentation fit for a fantasy adventure movie trailer (“Unforgivable Youth”).
There remain glimpses of excellence to be sure. Lupe retains a nimble flow and he sounds great rapping over more organic production – whether it’s the “T.R.O.Y.” homage “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)” or the smoky live band feel on “Form Follows Function.” “Cold War,” on which Lupe painfully and openly mourns the death of a close friend, is far and away the most powerful song on the album, and the one that evokes the most humanity (“Something about losing things / human beings / that reduces things to their most elementary”). And though rife with break-up clichés, “Battle Scars” is pretty hard to deny for an overt crossover record.
Each time Lupe Fiasco references a historic Black figure from the past on Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, you get the feeling that he’s looking around and picturing the episode of The Boondocks where Martin Luther King Jr. berates the present-day African American community before announcing his immigration to Canada. It’s a pity that Food & Liquor II conjures up no such similarly memorable moments of its own. It was always going to be a step up from Lasers, but Food & Liquor II ultimately fails to achieve much more than that.
Label: 1st & 15th, Atlantic Records | Producers: 1500 or Nothin’, The Audibles, B-Side, DJ Simonsayz, Soundtrakk