Lupe Fiasco’s FL2: greatness and disappointment
Pham Binn reviews Lupe’s Food & Liquor II
Lupe Fiasco is the rap game’s most politically and spiritually profound artist. His rhymes regularly weave the lives of victims of American imperialism in places like Afghanistan and the West Bank together with the struggle of people in the hood to survive another day.
The single best representation of what Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 (FL2) is all about is the video for “Bitch Bad,” one of the most common phrases heard when the subject of women comes up among men and boys from the hood whether in the streets, in school, or on the job. As a man, I can’t count the number of times I’ve overheard, “that bitch is BAD” or “she a bad bitch.” It’s ubiquitous, and for women, it’s intolerable.
Lupe is neither preachy nor moralistic; for him, it is better to educate than to castigate, and he does so by masterfully untangling the contradictions of being a “bad bitch” from both sides of the male-female divide. What listeners hear is a subtle and nuanced exploration of a term that epitomizes the oppression dynamics of oppressed groups within oppressed groups (in this case, women in the black community). “Bitch bad, woman good, lady betta – hey Miss Understood” is the chorus; never has going so hard against the misogynist grain of rap culture sounded so good.
To top it off, the video takes shots at 50 Cent and commercial rap’s one-dimensional gangsta culture. Sugar Water is an obvious reference to 50 Cent’s lucrative Vitamin Water deal that made his net worth comparable to Jay-Z’s. The incorporation of blackface and tribute to communist singer-actor Paul Robeson at the video’s conclusion drives home the message that thug imagery (and plastic surgery for video models) is modern-day blackface. And who profits from it? A white man counting cash and grinning in the video’s opening shot.
A slim majority of the 16 songs on FL2 are political or “conscious” (the term used by hip hop heads). Tracks 2-7 are the strongest on the album, particularly “ITAL (Roses)”. They are by turns uplifting, angry, righteous, and always earnest.
Unfortunately, FL2 runs out of steam midway through, right after “Lamborghini Angels.” The next six tracks (8-13) lack the driven focus of the first seven political cuts. (This isn’t to say Lupe must do political tracks for them to be good – “Kick, Push,” widely considered to be his best and signature song, is anything but political.) These tracks feel lackluster, unanimated, and their disparate lyrical content is more stream-of-consciousness containing a grab bag of observations and one-liners than a coherent unfolding of a particular theme. Putting all of the meandering tracks together as a bloc leads the listener on an aimless and confusing journey without any memorable ideas or choruses.
“Battle Scars,” a love song, does not sound remotely similar to the rest of FL2. It sticks out like a black delegate at the Republican National Convention.
The closing three tracks – “Cold World,” “Unforgivable Youth,” and “Hood Now” – provide a welcome respite to the aimless thematic wandering and senseless oddities of the previous six tracks, although they are not particularly great themselves. “Unforgivable Youth” has some brilliant bars laced with irony describing an archaeological dig site that leads scientists in the future to conclude that our current civilization managed to end poverty and provide liberty and justice for all because of our advanced technology that makes it possible to adequately feed, clothe, house, and care for everyone.
For all of the above reasons, FL2 is both great and a disappointment. If Atlantic Records had released FL2’s first and second installments as a two-disc set as Lupe wanted it might have significantly altered the context and overall impact of tracks 8-13 for the listener, but that is speculation. Perhaps disc two will make the totality of FL2 a kind of one-two punch knockout combo and leave us seeing stars. Let’s hope.