Who is Lupe Fiasco these days? He's certainly not the same person he was when he was recording his critically heralded sophomore album, The Cool, in 2006 and 2007. But we all know that. That sentiment has been brought up time and time again, especially when his third LP, Lasers, is the subject of discussion. This review is not to compare the Chicago MC to who he was in the past, though. Since then, he's certainly lived his fair share of life and realized what's important to him and what he wants to shed light on with his voice. Fiasco has every right to say what he wants, and it seems like he does just that on Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, his fourth solo studio album out now through Atlantic Records. Through his approach to songwriting on it and explanations of its lyrics (like these videos he did with RapGenius.com recently), an undying sense of importance is placed around the subject matter in the songs. That isn't a bad thing by any means; it's always refreshing when an artist has something to say. However, lyrics aren't everything.
On his debut album, 2006's Food & Liquor, Fiasco was a nice mix. He had a healthy proportion of songs with carefully thought-out, "conscious" topics ("American Terrorist"); songs that appealed to the core of hip-hop consumers ("Pressure" feat. Jay-Z); songs that had mainstream appeal ("Daydream"); and songs that translated his own unique, trendsetting flavor ("I Gotcha"). On The Cool he had all of that, plus he infused an even more unique sonic edge and proved he could make a hit without straying away from his sound ("Superstar"). On 2011's Lasers, it's safe to say he was out of his element. Whether by his own choice or the label's, Fiasco laid verses on songs that would have made more sense had they been given to other rappers.
This all leads us to now, to F&L II. On this album, Fiasco is again off-balance on his artistic beam. But this time, the balance is more in his favor. He seems to have had much more creative control in this project than with Lasers and therefore made something he’s more proud of. That’s a relief and a blessing—no one wants to listen to something the artist isn’t happy with. However, the attention is too strongly allocated in one direction this time around as well. While Lasers' focus was arguably on mass appeal, F&L II's is on the lyrics. Although laced with thought-provoking content, its lackluster production and song-crafting drags Fiasco’s latest release down. But if your interest in him spawns from a love of his lyrics, you're in luck. This is the album for you.
F&L II starts off strong. With the spoken word poetry of "Ayesha Says (Intro)" and the attention-grabbing lyrics of "Strange Fruition (feat. Casey Benjamin),"—"Now I can’t pledge allegiance to your flag, 'cause I can’t find no reconciliation with your past"—the first two tracks show that Fiasco has points to prove and minds to open. The sophisticated rhyme schemes of "Strange Fruition" are not only a reminder that this album has depth, but that Fiasco can rap too. He can rap really well.
"ITAL (Roses)" contains one of the best beats on the album. Although a bit crowded with words, the chorus is catchy.
"Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)" echoes why Fiasco became popular in the first place. The trademark almost-but-not-quite off-beat flow, the poetic rhyming of syllables and of course, the meaningful lyrics, are all there. Minus the controversy surrounding it, the song shines bright and was a good choice for the album's first single.
The hook on "Audoban Ballroom" is a defining point at which Fiasco lets listeners know that his choice on words is no holds barred this time around. You may find yourself rewinding this one for its shock factor, but don’t expect to do so out of love for the song itself.
Your position on the next two songs, "Bitch Bad" and "Lamborghini Angels," is probably the reason you are either interested in this album or could care less about it. Like much of the album, these singles boast lyrical content that makes you think about our use of the word "bitch" and our admiration of materialism, respectively—but they appeal directly to those who aren't after something to soundtrack the day. While the latter isn't too far from the Fiasco that fans came to know and embrace on his first two albums, "Bitch Bad" sacrifices flow and structure for meaning over a beat that sounds like it could have made it onto an old Rick Ross album. The song's popularity should not be overlooked, though. Fans love it, and that's extremely important. But its deficiency of parts makes it difficult to review holistically as a song.
If you don't like "Put 'Em Up" upon first listen, it will grow on you. This is one of the few moments on the album where Fiasco steps aside from his mission of enlightenment to kick some motivational raps with a hint of the braggadocio we used to get from him from time to time. If you're looking for a new workout anthem, this just might be it.
For the most part, the next seven songs are a blur. In comparison to the first half of the album, the second falls short. "Heart Donor" featuring Poo Bear is essentially a proclamation of Fiasco's approach to creating music and a statement about how he's here for the fans, but doesn't have much in terms of redeeming qualities. Aside from a wordplay-heavy first verse and different subject matter, the same goes for "Brave Heart," which also features Poo Bear. Select lyrics aside, "How Dare You" featuring Bilal, "Unforgivable Youth" featuring Jason Evigan and "Cold War" featuring Jane don't offer anything exceptional either. These are songs that feature vocalists on the hooks, beats that aren't memorable and verses by Fiasco that are outshone by ones on the first half of the LP.
"Battle Scars" falls right into the second half slump, except it's a bit catchier than the aforementioned. Catchier doesn't mean better, though. The song was originally a single for its featured Australian crooner Guy Sebastian, and it should have remained just that. Its lyrics have deep meaning, but "Battle Scars" is very much a modern pop song. It's in the same vein as Eminem and Rihanna's 2010 hit, "Love The Way You Lie," but lacks the appeal needed for steady Top 40 radio play in the U.S. This isn’t the turf Fiasco should be trying to tread.
If stream-of-consciousness style rhyme schemes are of interest to you, you might like "Form Follows Function." However, the song's bland production and lack of structure drags Fiasco's cadence on to the point of boredom.
The outro, "Hood Now," is a nice change-up from the rest of the album. Although repetitive, Fiasco's opinions come through pretty clear. With lyrics like, "Fashion shows with fancy clothes. You see Mr. West right in the front row," “At the Oscar’s, P on the sticks. And the winner is: Three 6,” and "Diamond chains was for kings and queens, but since we got to ‘em they’ll never be the same," this track is quite possibly the most blatant statement on popular urban culture that F&L II has to offer. But it leaves the mind to wonder: if it weren't for some of these things being part of the progression of the culture, would the 30-year-old Grammy Award-winner be where he is now?
Quite possibly the best song on F&L II is the iTunes bonus cut, "Go To Sleep," which Fiasco originally released in August 2010. Compared to others it lacks lyrical depth, but it makes up for that with a completeness that feels like a Lupe Fiasco record should. From the background harmonies, to the way he glides over the synthy production, to the well-crafted chorus, it all works. "Go To Sleep" isn't included on copies of the album bought outside of iTunes and it was likely recorded long before the rest of the set, sure, but that doesn't mean it shouldn’t be considered.
If more of F&L II was crafted as well as "Go To Sleep," the LP would have been an all-around better curated project. The first half is a solid listen. The second, however, brings its stature down and leaves much to be desired. That's not to say the album should be overlooked, though. If you want to hear what Fiasco has to say and you don't care about the way he says it, with whom he says it, or through which means he says it, you will like this album. On the other hand, if you're looking for something more—for a carefully-crafted album that you can get lost in from start to finish and keep unraveling the layers of after you've already deciphered the lyrics–F&L II probably won't bring you zeal.
Either way, the LP isn't astounding or groundbreaking. As far as what's being said, we've all known Fiasco to be outspoken and socially aware. He's just shining more light on these topics this time around. F&L II is his exploration of what he feels is important to address in American culture, society and politics. Is some of it controversial? Sure. Eyeopening? Possibly. But this can't be the be-all and end-all to judging how good the album is.
I know I said that this review is not meant to compare Fiasco now to who he was in the past, but let's be honest: he may never get back the magic that he conjured up on his first two albums. Maybe he's seen too much. Maybe he's fallen out of touch with who he was as an artist. Maybe he's hit a legitimate rut in his artistic path and is doing the best he can to make the music his fans want to hear. Maybe he legitimately thinks what he's creating is amazing. Regardless, it doesn't matter. Lupe Fiasco is still here, he's still extremely popular and he's just released his second album in two years. That's more than can be said about most modern artists; and he's arguably saying more than most modern artists. But in the grand scheme of musical evaluation where all facets must be considered and judged upon as a collective, F&L II doesn’t hit the nail on its head. Whether you agree with this review just depends on what type of nail appeals to your tastes.