Hip-hop is subject to scrutiny and revisionism these days, as the outside world increasingly takes note of fringe acts with something constructive to say. In this climate, Lupe Fiasco, Chicago's pre-eminent socially conscious hip-hop maestro, returns with fourth studio album Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1.
Ostensibly a sequel to 2006's criticially lauded debut Food & Liquor, the record with the unwieldy title is familiar territory for Lupe Fiasco fans. The vociferous rapper again weaves a politicised narrative of disparate topics with a disillusioned finger on the pulse of all that is unhealthy about contemporary American society and culture. This album is largely a rerun of that debut, railing against the "same shit", as Fiasco himself observes on 'ITAL (Roses)'. Wasting no time, 'Strange Fruition' lambasts the systemic racism and structured inequality he perceives. Fiasco presents a nuanced take on hip-hop culture too, critical of the excesses of mainstream rap. 'Bitch Bad', for example, is a swirling diatribe against misogyny inherent in colloquial language and reinforced norms.
There is confidence and clarity in Lupe Fiasco's purposeful rapping. The complex (and controversial) 'Lamborghini Angels' showcases his verbal dexterity as a storyteller, with dark imagery of exorcisms and sex abuse brought vividly to life over a bewildering three minutes, and underpinned by the irrepressible syllabic flow of Fiasco's declamatory rhymes. He loosens the intensity only sporadically, as on head-nodding album closer 'Hood Now', an examination of hip-hop culture going mainstream.
Lupe Fiasco has always sought mass appeal, and Food & Liquor II is no exception. The trouble is that such mainstream concessions do not play to his strengths and tend to be one-dimensional. Incongruous and hollow, 'Heart Donor' stalls the album's momentum, but the sweeping 'Battle Scars' shows he can construct a pop hit when he so desires, as Fiasco trades vocal contributions with Australian pop/R&B singer Guy Sebastian on a commercial earworm.
Unfortunately, Food & Liquor II's lofty ambitions are tempered by its rather bloated nature and this is compounded by a sameness in sound and tempo; tracks at the tail end ('Cold War', 'Unforgivable Youth') fail to make the impact they warrant. And while slick production concentrates attention on Fiasco's message, staid beats frequently fail to carry the weight of his incisive lyrics.
Though Food & Liquor II exemplifies Lupe Fiasco's anti-establishment stance and lyrical conviction, it is not as definitive as the subtitle might suggest. Typically ego-fuelled (consider the indulgence of the entirely black cover art), he avoids preachy moralising, but his missteps render the album merely tepid. More quality-control should be expected from Part 2.
Review by Killian Barry