If you listen to rap music, I'm guessing at some point this summer, you heard something about Lupe Fiasco and his highly anticipated debut album Food & Liquor. If not, here is the quick back story: Lupe Fiasco is a Chicago rapper best known for being a practicing Muslim, skateboarding enthusiast, and Kanye West protege … although not necessarily in that order.
He first popped up on the scene when he took Kanye's "Diamonds" track and flipped into a political tale of enslavement and civil war in Sierra Leone on a fantastic track titled "Conflict Diamonds." One result of "Conflict Diamonds" was the song launched a bit of a pop culture obsession with the topic, culminating in Raekwon taking a trip to Sierra Leone to see for himself, as well as Warner Brothers producing a Leo DiCaprio film titled "Blood Diamond." The other result is that Lupe caught the ear of Kanye. West decided to not only do his own socially-conscious remix of the track (see below), but also to bring the young Chicago artist into the fold as his rap apprentice.
(It should be noted there is some level of controversy surrounding this whole "Diamonds" business. Kanye's first "Diamonds" track eventually became titled "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" to accompany the "Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)" which featured Jay-Z and appeared on Late Registration. Kanye's first track was all about how great diamonds are and how awesome he himself is (like a lot of his tracks).
After Lupe flipped it around and talked about kids getting killed over these "conflict diamonds," Kanye decided he liked the new approach and went that direction – shooting the video with that theme and rapping about conflict diamonds on the remix, blatantly and liberally borrowing from "Conflict Diamonds" in the process. Lupe is gracious about the incident now and I guess all is well that ends well.)
Once Lupe was in the mix with West, it was only a matter of time before the buzz started building. He did a mixtape track with Jay-Z ("Sittin' Sideways"), dropped a song on the NBA Live '06 soundtrack ("Tilted") and made a guest appearance on "Touch the Sky" from Kanye's Late Registration. He even made XXL Magazine's "2006 All-Stars" roster before he'd released his first album.
About that album. For all that Lupe has already accomplished in his young career, the controversy surrounding Food & Liquor is what people are talking about. It was leaked for the first time in March of 2006 and the quotes from Lupe painted a picture of yet another disheartened artist, victimized by rampant Internet pirating. Fiasco vowed to get back in the studio, retool the album, and finish remixing the tracks.
Then, in May, the new version was leaked amidst rampant speculation that the incident was a carefully orchestrated publicity stunt by Fiasco's distributor Atlantic Records. The leak was perceived as an effort to bolster interest in Lupe's first single, "Kick, Push," an ode to skateboarding that was (perhaps not coincidentally) airing on MTV right around the time of the leak.
Whether there is any truth to the intentional leak or not, Food & Liquor has become one of the most popular hip-hop albums out right now… except that it's not out right now. The official release date is slated for September 19, but it has been pushed back so many times that people are starting to wonder if Atlantic will ever put it out at all.
Lest you think that the controversy surrounding Food & Liquor outstrips the album itself, let me assure you that is not the case. Filled with complex rhymes, savvy wordplay, socially relevant commentary, and cohesive themes, Lupe's debut effort establishes him as one of the most talented and important rappers to come along in years. I can safely say once the official release drops, it will be the best hip-hop album of 2006. It might be the best rap album since Jay-Z's The Black Album.
I arrived at this conclusion in strange fashion, having put Food & Liquor on for its first few spins while shredding the Southeastern Conference on my way to a 13-0 season and a national title for LSU in NCAA Football 2006 (I don't have the '07 version yet). It was on my third listen that I came to a jolting realization: Lupe Fiasco has created the perfect album to play video games to. Furthermore, because this is true, he has quite possibly created the perfect album
I sincerely doubt that creating a perfect audio backdrop for gaming was Lupe's ambition when he went into the studio, and for all I know, that determination might offend him. After all, video games don't exactly scream intelligence, social activism, or art. At least, not traditionally. (I suppose you could make a case that they do indeed scream all of those things, but I'll save that for someone else.) But far from being a negative thing, this "Greatest Video Game Soundtrack of All Time" designation speaks to the overall quality of album in a way that simply calling it the "Best Album of 2006" or "A Hip-Hop Classic" never could. Let me explain.
When I play video games, I always turn the sound down. I typically find the audio component of gaming to be excruciating, particularly in the case of sports games, where the computerized announcers are so bad that I find myself actually getting angry (kind of like real announcers). So the music I play in the background becomes very important.
It needs to be totally sweet, for starters, but that almost goes without saying. My gaming soundtrack needs to feature interesting content, so that I have something to focus on when I'm stuck doing something boring, like playing defense (the worst part of any football game). It needs to remain upbeat enough to create a certain level of excitement – atmosphere is very important. Most importantly, it has to be consistent. This is where Food & Liquor shines like no album before it.
Lupe delivers the lyrics; relative unknowns like Soundtrakk and Prolyfic join Kanye, The Neptunes and Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park and Fort Minor fame) in creating an amazing tapestry of beats. But more than anything, it is the way this album flows that makes it so special. The album is 16 tracks and somehow it never features any dramatic outliers, yet it never gets boring. It sounds completely cohesive without sounding the same.
The singles are understated and unobtrusive, while the reminiscent "growing up is hard" tracks are rich with complex sounds, layered with horns and strings. Socially conscience and political tracks lose the sparse backpack tones and sounds more like aggressive battle raps. The level of subtlety employed in the making of this album is nothing short of a miracle. On top of that, there are no "must skip" tracks on the album, which is another minor miracle. Every song is a keeper.
On "Might Just Be Okay," Lupe tells the story of a troubled youth trying to make his way through life, yet he does it by absolutely crushing a Prolyfic track filled with drums and horns. It feels more like a brag track, yet it tells a haunting (albeit familiar) story. I'm not sure I've ever heard the "troubled youth" tale told this well and in this interesting of a fashion. On "The Instrumental," (also know as "Never Lies" on some leaked versions) he spends the whole song flipping metaphors to comment on the media, all while owning a Mike Shinoda track that sounds like it was meant to be the next Linkin Park single.
It is a song that could and, in fact, should sound like a gimmick, but it comes across as pure genius. Every cliche is tweaked just enough. Every song you expect to hear is somehow unique in its own way. And they are all beautifully produced, layered with complex, original lyrics, and sorted into a seamless collection. Food & Liquor is the Common album we've always wanted; a socially conscious, politically aware, eclectic album with no holes in it that embodies Chicago in every way. It is rich, filled with soul and heart, and appeals to people from all walks of life. This thing is a masterpiece.
Now, I'm sure there are places I could have honed in on this phenomenon – an hour-long car drive, a run through the city – but I'm not sure there is a better test for an album's overall quality than to see how it holds up while sitting around playing video games. By doing this, I realized how good the album actually is. And I realized that Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt, Rilo Kiley's More Adventurous, and Redman's Muddy Waters have just been unseated. The title of "Best Video Game Album" now belongs to Lupe. Even though he doesn't actually have an album. Yet.