A representative synecdoche for Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. I resides on the LP’s second track, wherein Fiasco treats gangster rap’s favorite motifs to a piece-by-piece dismantling. “Pills make you stupid and liquor do the same thing,” he raps. “Ferraris too expensive and they way too hard to maintain.”
While the probity of these verses is laudable (as is the high-stepping beat and effortless flow in which they’re couched), they share a problem that troubles the whole of Food & Liquor II: They just aren’t that much fun. Rhymes about fiscal responsibility and the relative advantages of the Toyota Camry might be good for the world at large, but they’re the sonic equivalent of being forced to eat your spinach.
Blame Fiasco’s runaway talent for creating this problem in the first place. Since leveraging his associations with Jay-Z and Kanye West in order to earn rapid renown in the mid-aughts, Fiasco has built a robust commercial career by applying the aforementioned skills to the laudable, if sometimes onerous, genre of “conscious rap.”
While possessed of a wit every bit as dexterous as those of his mentors, Fiasco has gravitated toward themes foreign to mainstream hip-hop. His breakout single (“Kick, Push”) offered a heartfelt paean to skateboarding. He has repeatedly taken a contrarian view to hip-hop’s obsession with material wealth and has called for women to be afforded greater respect in hip-hop culture.
Food & Liquor II picks these themes right back up where Fiasco left them at the end of Lasers, his third studio effort. As per his habit, Fiasco has festooned the LP with pitch-perfect production. “ITAL [Roses],” “Audubon Ballroom” and “Brave Heart” feature symphonic compositions reminiscent of the supersized soul music on Kanye West’s Late Registration.
The album’s latter half, rather than fading in intensity, gives way to Fiasco’s equally meticulous experimental bent. “Cold War” makes a solid case for being the LP’s most compelling track, even as it presses upwards of six minutes and treads water in its own sea of samples.
With Fiasco crowning these compositions in effortless verses, Food & Liquor II has to work pretty hard to avoid brilliance, which it unfortunately does.
Other “conscious” rappers—like Killer Mike, or Jay-Z/Kanye West in their more contemplative moments—manage to get away with a preaching tone thanks to their essential belief in the moral necessity of survival. When Fiasco tries to take a similar tack, he forgets that hip-hop’s tendency toward boasting serves as both wish and fulfillment. He uses his rhymes to denounce, rather than celebrate, and his verses fall flat as a consequence.
One of hip-hop’s most brilliant rhetorical innovations is its regard of personal desires as a matter of course, and not necessarily in conflict with the empowerment of the community at large. Unlike Nas or Jay-Z, who let private esurience and public interest exist side-by-side lyrically, Lupe Fiasco can’t help but place his moral convictions in the unappetizing guises of disapproving frowns and wagging fingers.
As a result, Food & Liquor II winds up being an example of irksome content, couched in immaculate form.