It hasn’t been a good year for Chicago. First, Bulls star Derrick Rose tears his ACL; next, the teachers union goes on a massive strike; and now, one of the city’s best-known rappers has released his second disappointing album in a row. Let’s be clear: “Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1” is not a great American rap album, or even a decent one. It’s an overlong showcase of Lupe rapping about trite topics over largely tepid beats, and it unfortunately bears more similarities to the catastrophically bad “Lasers” (2011) than to the original “Food and Liquor” (2006).
It was easy to forgive Lupe for “Lasers”—it was recorded in the midst of a heated dispute between him and his record label, and as a result he was very visibly not invested in the project. It was common knowledge that Lupe would put the ordeal behind him and return to the innovative, in-your-face rapping style that led to the success of his first two albums, “Food and Liquor” and “The Cool”.
Not so fast. “Food and Liquor II” starts off promisingly enough—“Strange Fruition” is a moody head-nodder, featuring angry, metaphor-laced lyrics that are quintessentially Lupe: “The belly of the beast, these streets are demons’ abs / I’m telling you that setup in them sit-ups is so sad.” Unfortunately, the album goes downhill from there, and “Strange Fruition” isn’t that high of a peak.
The most immediately apparent problem with “Food and Liquor II” is the beats. They aren’t as terrible as the ones on “Lasers,” but they are mostly either poorly written or shamelessly derived. “ITAL (Roses),” which is built on a beat that’s essentially a reconfiguration of the worst song off “Watch the Throne,” “Lift Off,” falls into the second category. So does lead single “Around My Way,” which uses a recreated version of Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s classic “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.).” However, the resulting track is uncomfortably close to the original. No wonder Pete Rock went on a Twitter rant after hearing it.
The large bulk of the rest of the beats is simply uninspiring, with “Heart Donor,” “Audubon Ballroom,” “Brave Heart,” and “Hood Now” being especially egregious offenders. As he did on “Lasers,” Lupe trades in the cinematically orchestrated, syncopated beats that drove “Food and Liquor” and “The Cool” for over-synthesized plodders that provide him with little rhythmic leeway. No beat on “Food and Liquor II” matches the intensity of “Go Go Gadget Flow,” the sleaze of “Paris, Tokyo,” or the punctuated jazziness of “I Gotcha.” One that comes close is “How Dare You,” which offers a wistful glimpse at what the album could have been if Lupe had actually attempted a stylistic follow-up to the original “Food and Liquor.” Dripping with piano rolls, violin riffs, and flute accents, the song is undeniably cheesy and heavy-handed, but at least it’s musically engaging.
In the past, Lupe could redeem a bad beat with his lyrical ability, but even his lyrics suffer on “Food and Liquor II.” For most of the album, Lupe eschews his classic storytelling style for scattershot thematic concept dumps that leave little lasting impression and often deal with considerably outdated topics. For example, “Around My Way” touches upon the Iraq War, the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal (also mentioned in “Lamborghini Angels”) and Hurricane Katrina. All of these topics predate Lupe’s 2006 debut album, which undermines his claim to being a socially conscious rapper. Moreover, Lupe’s move away from storytelling is disappointing because it eschews his best-developed artistic tool—his narrative voice. As earlier songs of his such as “Kick, Push” and “The Coolest” show, Lupe is capable of effectively relaying his artistic goals without explicitly talking about himself or real events. Unfortunately, this subtlety is swept aside on “Food and Liquor II.”
It’s also worth mentioning that many songs on “Food and Liquor II” feature overlong, lyrically inane choruses sung by a guest musician. This stylistic choice is nothing new with Lupe, even on his better albums, but lines such as “The icicles they grow / They never let me go / Scars are left as proof / But tears they soak on through” (as sung by Jason Evigan on “Unforgivable Youth”) are unusually cringe-inducing this time around.
“Food and Liquor II” is a disappointingly stale and unmemorable album for a musician of Lupe Fiasco’s caliber. To use a sequel analogy, listening to “Food and Liquor II” is kind of like watching “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”—it’s not going send you into a violent rage (see: The Phantom Menace), but it’ll make you’ll want to curl up, retreat to the originals, and forget anything ever came after them.