How Lupe Fiasco kicked down barriers and pushed expectations with Food & Liquor

The year was 2006. Turn on hip-hop radio and you would hear songs like: Yung Joc’s “It’s Going Down,” Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers,” Dem Franchise Boyz’ “Snap Yo Fingers,” Nelly’s “Grillz,” T.I.’s “What You Know,” Chingy’s “Pullin’ Me Back,” Field Mob’s “So What,” Sean Paul’s “Temperature,” Young Dro’s “Shoulder Lean,” and Chamillionaire’s “Ridin.” These ten songs rounded out Billboard’s Top 10 most successful Rap Songs of 2006; based on yearlong chart data. Do you notice the common thread, there? Save for the lone Jamaican, Sean Paul, all of the artists are straight out the South, and make Crunk-inspired music. Not to be pretentious by any means, but those songs only served one purpose: a good twerk in the club. Which is fine… but they certainly weren’t the most stellar examples of fine lyricism or depth of content. After all, hip-hop started as a means of fun and entertainment. However, very quickly, being slick on the mic morphed into being a genius with words. For every 10 or so club-ready hip-hop songs, there’s at least one or two deep, lyrically ingenious songs. 2006, and the early 2000s in general, was way over its quota of vapid, club-ready hip-hop. It’s no surprise that in 2006, Nas would go on to declare Hip-Hop is Dead. Enter Lupe Fiasco.

For many people, myself included, our first introduction to Lupe Fiasco was on Kanye West’s 2005 track “Touch the Sky.” Almost as-if passing the torch, Kanye, as he would often go on to do, gave then-newcomer Lupe his space to shine. A fitting place, seeing as Kanye too was at the forefront of the movement to bring revitalize hip-hop via route of more thought-provoking topics in his music. Many talk of how Kanye is egotistical and big-headed, but look over how often he gives breaks to new artists, or collaborates with his peers who are clearly more talented rhymers than he is. Lupe Fiasco was both a newcomer and a better rhymer than West.

Lupe had quite the set-up. Not only was he featured on a Kanye West single, but Jay-Z came onboard as an executive producer of his debut set, Food & Liquor, and even featured on a track. With the cosign of Mr. Carter and Mr. West, you’re going to have the attention of the hip-hop community for sure. That he did. So what did he do? He kicked and pushed.

Lupe released his first single, “Kick, Push,” – an odd choice, perhaps, because it’s not about something typically attributed to hip-hop: skateboarding. At its heart, its a love story that showcased Lupe’s knack for impeccable storytelling and lyrical skill. It did the job; it brought attention to the project and while it was no means a huge hit, Lupe Fiasco was on the rise.

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Released on September 19, 2006, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor introduced us to an artist who had something to say, and one-of-a-kind way of saying it. Lupe’s flow, on every song, is striking. More often than not, his verses are laden with internal rhyme, littered with alliteration, assonance, consonance and meticulous rhythm. Listen, for example, to the first verse of “I Gotcha;” in honor of the 10th anniversary, I used the verse to teach my English class poetic devices this week. The fact that he is able to achieve all of that, still make sense and have a meaningful message is beyond impressive.

Each song on Food & Liquor introduces us to a different side of Lupe. From its introduction, we learn about Lupe’s background: his goal for the project, his Muslim faith and his love for his grandmother. On “Real,” while not a standout, he opens the set rather straight-forwardly: he’s going to give us “something real.” The next track, though, is a less-immediate (emotionally), but equal in message, predecessor of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Lupe raps about the strife within his hometown of Chicago, while the chorus encourages “we just might be okay.” In the verses, Lupe goes laser-specific with his examples of hypothetical characters who are going through it but, as the hook says, “just might be okay.”

Following these two tracks are the first single, “Kick Push,” and The Neptunes-produced “I Gotcha” on which Lupe delivers a rapid-fire, tongue-twisting, aforementioned flow. “I Gotcha” is classic hip-hop braggadocio in theme, but its delivery is truly worth of such bragging rights. Meanwhile, “The Instrumental” shows us the more thoughtful Lupe. As the album progresses, we learn that Lupe likes to make up characters, often nameless, to exemplify the themes he plans to focus on. On “The Instrumental,” he is talking about materialism and the puppet-like nature of many people in the world today, “he sits and watches the people in the boxes,” he raps, referring to our many devices which control our world today. While, in 2006 there were no smart phones, Lupe was either psychic or he was simply referring to our TVs and computers. Either way, this message has become a more prominent one in recent years because of smart phones and the push to be a little less connected and a bit more individualistic, a trait Lupe prizes.

The next song is one of the most heartfelt, heartbreaking songs on the album – hell, to ever be recorded. “He Say, She Say” makes clever use of point-of-view to introduce two more characters, a mother and son, who are speaking to a deadbeat father. The song details the effects that an absent father has on a child, specifically a boy. First, the verse is performed from the perspective of the mother, then by the boy. It is essentially the same lyrics, with only pronouns switched, but the meaning becomes all the more heartbreaking when thought of from the boy’s perspective. Certainly an important topic, Lupe shows his versatility and social consciousness with this touching track.

On the surface, the next track, “Sunshine,” seems to be merely a flirty love song, but some fans persist that Lupe is throwing it back to Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” with this song. The widely held belief (just check the Genius page) is that the “girl” in “Sunshine,” just like in Common’s classic, is actually hip-hop. Personally, I’m not really seeing it, but still, “Sunshine” shows Lupe’s lyrical skills in the way he masters sounds, metaphors and the ways he plays with language in general. The fact that such a seemingly simple song can make people search for a deeper meaning is a testament to his power: we expect so much from him now that we can’t just take his songs for a simple face-value.

“Daydreamin’,” one of my personal favorites partly due to Jill Scott’s feature, has an imagery laden first verse and a satire filled second verse, mocking the expectations of what hip-hop should be. Honestly, it’s just a feel good song with fantastic production. We move from a daydream swiftly into a nightmare: “The Cool.” Inarguably the best and most impressive instance of his impeccable storytelling skills on the album, “The Cool” reads like a modern-day, hip-hop version of an Edgar Allen Poe classic. It details a story about a young hustler in search of “The Cool,” who is killed but escapes his grave to go back to the scene of his death.  It’s amazing how, in just under 4 minutes, Lupe is able to weave such a vivid, detailed story. If you’ve never heard it, do yourself the favor and take a listen. The song became so revered that its storyline continued as the theme of his sophomore album, The Cool.

“Hurt Me Soul,” one of the more soulful tracks on the album, as its title suggests, sees Lupe going through the world’s many problems that hurt his soul. It begins with his own qualms about hip-hop, from which he comes to the conclusion that his job is to listen to the world and give voice to its struggles. Such problems include: prostitution, drug abuse, hunger, police brutality, war, poverty, broken education systems, slavery, religion and Jay-Z, drought, unemployment, the KKK, incarceration, gangs, corruption, deadbeat dads (again), the news, child warfare, Israel vs. Palestine, terrorism, oil trade, sexualization, materialism, eating disorders, theft, deforestation, alcoholism, illness, prescription drug addiction, abortion, deportation, spyware, homelessness, fake friends, pedophile pastors, and ghost-writing. It’s a lot to tackle in one song but somehow he does it in just under four and half minutes.

Next up is the Jay-Z feature, “Pressure,” is about rejecting the pressure to conform and be an individual. It’s likely not on purpose that, following the song where he questioned his love for Jay, Jay appears opening the next track and providing a verse to end it. Perhaps in an effort to keep up with Lupe’s intense wordplay, Jay delivers a entendre heavy verse, not to be outdone. “Pressure” acts as a bridge to the next track, the album’s most controversial: “American Terrorist.” We didn’t know then, but Lupe has gone on to become a controversial voice in hip-hop. His political views have certainly kept him in the headlines. “American Terrorist” was the spark to that flame. Lupe details American-made atrocities, a.k.a. instances of America acting as the terrorist to others; taking advantage. It is not exclusively about Muslims by any means, it also references the plight of Black, Asian, and Native Americans. From the European’s takeover of the Natives’ land, to the slave trade, gold rush and railroads, America terrorized different groups for the sake of it’s “Dream.” Lupe provides quite an eye opening look from his unique perspective. Not to mention the lines about a poisoned water supply has an eery resemblance of Flint, MI.

The album ends with the indecipherable “The Emperor’s Soundtrack”, and a darker sounding continuation of the lead single, “Kick, Push II,” only alluding to Lupe’s future penchant for continuing his narratives over the course of multiple songs, as he would go onto do on his next sophomore set.

While Food & Liquor was not a hugely successful album commercially, it was an artistic triumph and a milestone in hip-hop. It introduced us to an artist who would challenge the confines of the genre, and challenge the lyricism of all of his peers. In a post-Lupe world of hip-hop, the bar was set high and everyone had to come harder. While he is severely underrated on the mainstream level, Lupe is highly respected in the hip-hop world for his  lyrical skill. Food & Liquor, released 10 years ago this week, planted the seed and entrenched the roots for hip-hop’s lyrical rebirth. He kicked down the barriers of hip-hop and pushed our expectations of lyrical greatness. “Kick, Push,” indeed.

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