The Chicago MC's latest proves to be a fine collection of a thinking man's idea of hip-hop, though the Food & Liquor tag he forced upon this release doesn't do him any favors.
Why the hip-hop community loves to embrace repeat record titles is beyond logical comprehension. Jay-Z's decision to follow up his second masterpiece, The Blueprint, with The Blueprint 2, an ambitious double disc that was widely chided for staining the Blueprint namesake, wasn't just criticized, it was utterly dismissed. Even The Blueprint 3, which wasn't a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, failed to live up to the original Blueprint hype. Dr. Dre had a little more success with his rebranded The Chronic when he released The Chronic 2001. But even though his sequel was able to produce a few smash hits, there was something a bit off-putting about resurrecting the Chronic brand, considering how much holy water was initially sprinkled on his 1992 debut. Just imagine if The Notorious B.I.G. were still alive today. We'd probably be on Ready to Die 6 by now.
The move is detrimental if only for much expectation it brings. Maybe these artists feel that using a title more than once is supposed to imply that these are more important records than the others that surround them. But even if that's the case, why set yourself up for the impossibility of recreating a past work of greatness? It instantly puts the listener on the defensive, looking for reasons to prove how the set doesn't deserve the name it was given, rather than looking for reasons to accept it as a new and completely removed-from-that-place-and-time piece of art. Or, in other words, if The Black Album would have been named Reasonable Doubt 2, would taste-makers and fans have christened it a modern day classic almost immediately?
Such is the dilemma with Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, a 17-song set of better-than-average introspective and culturally conscious hip-hop that might have stood a whole lot better on its own, had the rapper decided to leave the namesake of his brilliant debut behind. It's not that any of the tracks here are particularly egregious or flat-out bad -- it's just that when the Chicago native decided to throw this tag onto what was rumored to be his final album before retiring from hip-hop for good (he's recently reneged on that proclamation, citing a contractual obligation to eventually release more material), he should have known that longtime listeners would be rushing to see if this particular collection is worth the name it was given.
At his best, Fiasco is a wordsmith doing all he can to utilize the age-old hip-hop tradition of contradiction in his verses. "Bitch Bad", maybe the most interesting track of the bunch, highlights this element of his approach to enormous acclaim. Introspective and inquisitive are two words that are mere understatements here as the rapper takes on the subject of the word "bitch" and its impact on the perception of a modern-day woman. In addition to being a clever tome on how the word's commonality in most people's everyday lexicon is unjust and troubling, it's also a reminder of how inventive the guy can be in his structure. All told, it stands on par with the best Lupe Fiasco has ever been.
But outside of that, the rest of the tracks that paint Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 are just … pretty good. "Battle Scars", a duet that also appeared on Aussie Guy Sebastian's Armageddon, is without question the best of the rest, as it showcases the artist's knack for crafting a great pop hook, much like he did with "Superstar" five years ago. The piano-laden groove adds the texture it needs to be a bona fide Top 40 hit, and Fiasco's crisp broken-hearted rhymes illustrate the exact type of accessibility the track needs to gain commercial notoriety.
Single "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)" is cool with its jazz saxophone and old-school hip-hop flare, though the song suffers from a less-than-stellar chorus as the "Rich man / Poor man / We all gotta pay / 'Cause freedom ain't free / Especially 'round my way" refrain bleeds more cheese than it does poignancy. "Heart Donor", with Poo Bear, battles the same problem as Fiasco walks a tightrope of cleverness and cuteness with the latter barely winning out. And while sometimes that can be a good thing, it doesn't serve this particular heavy-headed artist well.
Speaking of that heavy-headedness, though, Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 also has its share of political statements that at times come dangerously close to being more preachy than prophet -- a bad sign for someone who has so much to say. "Strange Fruition", the Casey Benjamin collaboration, is angry and pointed, its aggressive backbeat adding to the corrupt message the song is seemingly trying to confront. It might work well here, though on others, like the tad-too-predictable "Audubon Ballroom" and the obligatory I'm-sorry-for-my-sins confession, "Brave Heart", the obviousness leaves any listener practically able to finish the rapper's lines before he even says them himself.
But that doesn't mean that Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 is all bad. In fact, it doesn't even mean that it's half-bad, or for that matter, bad at all. The only thing Lupe Fiasco is guilty of with this set is trying to recreate buzz around a namesake that initially helped him break into the hip-hop world's consciousness all the way back in 2006. On its own, this is a fine collection of socially inquisitive rap music that would have probably even served as a competent swan song, had Fiasco actually decided to call it quits for good.
Is it as much of a letdown as The Blueprint 2 was? No. But could it have been a bona fide Black Album, had the Chicago MC decided against using the Food & Liquor tag here, thus absolving the release at hand of all expectations that such a label suggests?
Unfortunately, we'll never know.