Food & Liquor II The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
, October 31st, 2012 11:26
There's nobody else, really. Doing stuff like this in hip-hop, I mean. Not now. Certainly not in the mainstream that Lupe Fiasco has cannily, and against the odds, infiltrated. Nor, I'm reliably informed, outside it - although I confess I'll have to take that one on trust.
It's a while, you see, since I could claim a passable acquaintance with rap's underground. A long while. It makes me wonder if that's why I like Lupe as much as I do. Is it merely a hankering for the High 90s style he evokes so artfully on the lead single, 'Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)'? A bebop horn loop; wry, topical lyrics underpinned by serious intentions; measured delivery at a medium pace... it's all there. Am I just nostalgic for the last time I was paying close attention? Could be. But as there's no point second-guessing one's own instincts, I might as well say that (a) I think the man is a flawed diamond, regardless; and (b) after the mild disappointment that was 2011's Lasers, he's bang on form again.
Not that he's given up on the shiny epic contemporary pop-rock-rap thing at which Lasers had a decent tilt. Hell, a boy's gotta eat. So 'Brave Heart' and 'Battle Scars' account for that. But this time, you get a proper Lupe fix as a reward for sitting through it. You only need to look at the title to see the target he's setting for himself. He's not kidding.
It was 'Bitch Bad' that first caught my ear. Now, this is a tricky business: taking on An Issue by attempting to project yourself into the minds and lives of others. (In this instance, the issue is the varying but equally undesirable effects upon girls and boys of employing "bitch" as a synonym for "woman".) Very tricky. There's a danger of ending up as Dewey Cox, quite literally talking down to your subjects. "Let me hold you, midget man, so the dog will stop licking your face..." Still, Lupe is trying, he's risking it - and who else is even doing that much?
'Bitch Bad' is a brilliant track - the best thing I'd heard by him, at that point, since the astonishing 'Little Weapon' five years back - and an imperfect treatise. Given he's aiming for both, it needs to be considered as both. I found it pensive more than preachy; an honest effort to grapple with a series of complicated questions. Female friends felt it strayed towards the didactic and simplistic, thought it not a little condescending. And still liked it. That takes a bit of doing.
Then I played the whole album, and heard 'Lamborghini Angels'. Now, this is why Lupe's out on his own. A whirlwind of images and ideas, it circles the theme of casting out demons, alluding to (one guesses) the Catholic Church abuse scandal, the lobotomising of "difficult" women, American military atrocities, The Ninety-Five Theses... it's rare enough, lately, to hear a rapper reference Martin Luther King Jr, let alone Martin Luther. He ties the whole affair up somehow, doesn't waste a breath, a beat or a syllable. And you can even dance to the damn thing. When he's this good, he's untouchable.
Which he isn't across the whole album. If he were, it would be one of the greatest things of any kind, ever. What it proves to be is an exhilarating, uneven, thought-provoking, over-egged, over-long, lucid, barnstorming, soul-infused hip-hop album of a type that, as I may have mentioned once or twice or five times, you just don't get any more. Except, of course, you do, and here it is.
There's no denying Lupe Fiasco's reach exceeds his grasp, but what of it? He's stretching himself; that's the point. He's trying to be a polemicist, an analyst, an historian, a documentarian and a pop star, detailing how the run-down street corner connects not only to the rest of the USA but to the whole of geopolitics, while throwing in the occasional rump-shaker. With that kind of ambition, no amount of talent will prevent you coming the occasional cropper. Chuck D famously declared rap to be "the black CNN", back when that was a claim worth making. (If you've seen CNN lately, you'd conclude that rap, whatever its faults, is at least in better shape than that.) Lupe Fiasco is something closer to the black PBS. God love him for it.