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- Published on Monday, 05 November 2012 03:33
- Category: More About Music
Lupe Fiasco is the modern poster boy for politically conscious music in the U.S., having come up with just the right recipe for crafting verses about income inequality and foreign policy that still sell well. His latest album, Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Pt. 1, delivers on more of his brash, anti-establishment stances, his well-delivered wordplay and sound commercial success (the album debuted on the Billboard Top 200 at number five and sold 90,000 records in its first week). It seems to have revived his spirit of authenticity following Lasers, widely considered to be a major stumble of the pop-rap variety, even by the rapper himself. Food and Liquor II, set up as both the follow-up to Food and Liquor I and the first part of The Great American Rap Album (with a promised Part 2), is bursting with full-speed changes from subject to subject, saxophone melodies, and vulgarity in the name of in-your-face social consciousness.
The entire album is beautifully set up by the stunning, roughly two-minute spoken word intro "Ayesha Says." Ayesha is Fiasco's sister, who similarly assisted in the intro for Fiasco's first studio album Food and Liquor I. Her poem is as wide-reaching in its scope as the collection of songs it precedes. She introduces the album by speaking to pain and turbulence on a globally connected level, from "Inglewood or Egypt, Bedstuy or Baghdad/Syria or Liberia, the West Bank or the west side of Chicago," a theme of America's story in the context of a global of suffering which persists throughout the album. She also continues where the first Food and Liquor left off in its discussion of food and poverty: "Better not wear that hoodie while shopping for a carton /Or whatever they sellin’ in your food desert." The term "food desert" is a phrase used to describe usually low-income, marginalized urban areas where general access to food for well-balanced meals is unavailable, grocery stores having decamped to suburbs or prices forcing residents into diets of primarily fast food.
Lupe Fiasco's own opening rhymes begin with a punch, launching into "Strange Fruition" with: "Now I can’t pledge allegiance to your flag/ Cause I can’t find no reconciliation with your past/ When there was nothing equal for my people in your math/ You forced us in the ghetto and then you took our dads." This song takes its name from the powerful anti-lynching poem/song "Strange Fruit," made most famous by Billie Holiday's rendition. Fiasco's aspirations are certainly epic in their proportions, presenting over the course of fourteen songs (not including "Ayesha Says" or the two bonus tracks) a picture of America that includes pointed lyrical takedowns of human rights abuses in Afghanistan, the drone wars, institutional racism and the drug war, only naming a handful. Food and Liquor II is practically Tolstoyan in the depth and breadth of what the Chicago MC attempts to portray. Lots of the lyrical successes come in his quick change-ups, or his rapid-fire lists, like "Straight hair, high heels and a handbag/Crucifixes, racism and a land grab/Katrina, Fema trailers, human body sandbags" from "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)" or his locker b/Lockerbie juxtaposition on "Put 'Em Up."
If anyone can actually deliver on a composition with this complexity and scope of purpose, it's Lupe Fiasco, who has just the right mix of imaginative talent, ego and radical politics to undertake part one of something so humbly titled the Great American Rap Album. The effort to capture a snapshot of America's voice, at once powerful and long-suffering, is one usually approached by novelists in the search for that Holy Grail called the Great American Novel, but here Fiasco offers a possible hip-hop answer to an age-old literary quest. Food and Liquor II glories in and condemns the contradictions of the American experience: to participate in the global imperialism of preemptive war and be intimately knowledgeable of deep human need, hunger and violence on the streets of our own cities. The sense of purpose in the album's construction is evident, not merely in the lyrics, but the cover art: all black. In an interview with NPR, Fiasco described the inspiration for this choice as Johnny Cash's song "Man In Black," in which Cash sings: "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town. I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he's a victim of the times. I wear the black for those who never read..."
The eagerness and intensity of Fiasco's inspiration and ego with this album is successful mostly because it matches the subject matter he's approaching. The sense of purpose with which he clearly set out in making this album found solid footing in narratives of human rights issues and stories of urban hardship. It may not be new material, but it's real material. Fiasco attacks his lyrics with the purpose of a progressive era muckraker setting out to make known the stories of exploitation and "downpression" (a Rastafarian term for oppression) and the purpose and historical expansiveness of his hero Howard Zinn. The variation of influences and references that went into this album is matches the amount of subject matter it strives to take on, from paying tribute to "Strange Fruits" and Johnny Cash to sampling Percy Faith. He also samples Pete Rock and CL Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," which stirred up some brief conflict.
One of the major themes of this first part of his Great American Rap Album is Lupe Fiasco's repeated indictment of hip-hop itself, of the materialism and misogyny that has become considered the hallmark of major label and gangsta rap acts. A recent rappers' quarrel between Fiasco and a fairly mouthy seventeen-year-old rapper named Chief Keef stemmed from Fiasco's disapproval of the themes that he perceives as having dangerously overtaken hip-hop music and the impacts he feels they have on the kids who listen in. "The swindled generation," as Fiasco names them in "Strange Fruition," is deeply influenced and shaped by the problematic materialism and bigotry of the culture in which they have been raised, something he directly narrates in "Bitch Bad."
"Bitch Bad" is one of the most high-profile songs of the bunch, an ambiguous, not-quite-there-yet attempt to examine the problematic elements of the term "bitch," which sparked a great deal of discussion when it was released as a single. The reactions to the song have been incredibly mixed: one critic calling it "mansplaining" and "counterproductive" and lots of others (lots of predominantly white male critics, for that matter) basically agreeing with the "Bitch Bad" backlash. On the whole, I'm in agreement with a different interpretation, that of Akiba Solomon, who writes at Colorlines that the song is flawed (most critically in the blame-game in which it engages when it comes to women's own roles in the use of the slur), but ultimately important in its call to action against misogyny.
"Bitch Bad" is a foray into largely under-examined arena for major label hip-hop (not completely unexamined as Mychal Denzel Smith evidences in his Atlantic article) - although the success of its well-meaning message about women and power is ambiguous and often misses the mark. Mainstream hip-hop (a category into which Fiasco simultaneously does and does not fall) and pop culture generally are in the early stages of self-regulation and interrogation of their own approaches to the idea of the "bad bitch,"and to the idea of girl power (mostly in the sexual sense), and remain largely retrograde in their articulated visions of feminism or almost-feminism. Nicki Minaj and other female MCs embrace the idea of being "bitches" as a power-grabbing move within the field of hip-hop, yet in the process engender a 90s-era interpretation of female power as a mimic of masculine ideals (for more on this see Julianne Escobedo Shepherd's piece on Minaj for AlterNet), while attempts at support for female empowerment by male MCs often veer off-course into slut-shaming enterprises. The premise on which Fiasco bases his arguments against the use of the term "bitch" includes a wrongheaded twist that fails to fully see and describe the experiences of women who internalize and are profoundly affected by the slur. It does, however, make complicated strides toward talking about the term "bitch" with something more than cocksure defiance, and with an eye toward the creation of cyclical misogyny through pop culture. As Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in his review of the song for The Atlantic, "And so imperfect as it may be, "Bitch Bad" is a needed piece in the on-going dialogue surrounding gender politics. It's a misguided step, and one that shows us just how far we haven't gotten, but there are valuable takeaways." It incorporates a great deal of misguided philosophies about female power and oppression, but I wouldn't have Lupe Fiasco take it back.
If the album as a whole could be accused of anything, it would be that it is trying too hard to push a thousand issues into fourteen songs, although the dizzyingly expansive nature of the interwoven themes the album tackles and the issues it contends with and includes is ultimately effective at conveying the impossibility of ever plumbing the depths of inequality and injustice. Lupe Fiasco doesn't creep around or sanitize the issues he addresses here, nor does he make them feel like they're issues being played and wrung dry for commercialized emotional value. (Although commercialization remains a central tension in the work and identity of Lupe Fiasco: his major label status doing constant battle with his anti-establishment rhetoric and radical politics, as noted by Sarah Godfrey when reviewing Food and Liquor II for The Washington Post.) Fiasco delivers on the wordplay and lyrical capability, best pulling off a quick-hitting combination of wit and lyric in "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)," "Lamborghini Angels," "Put Em Up," and "Strange Fruition." In fact, most of the album's best bits come in the first half or so, slowing down and becoming less punchy and losing steam in numbers like "Heart Donor," and "How Dare You," but nicely reasserting itself in "Unforgivable Youth," and the outro "Hood Now." While the album is undeniably political, it largely doesn't sacrifice its listenability. Many of the songs demonstrate that music need not be didactic and clunky to convey passionate social consciousness, although it takes real talent to make that happen.
Part 2 of the Great American Rap Album is expected to drop in early 2013.By Torie Rose DeGhett, Aslan Media Contributing Arts Writer