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Thoughts on Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor, 10 Years Later

  Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor  released on September 19, 2006. I was a 14-year-old black boy who, at that moment, didn’t quite fit in anywhere. But  Food & Liquor  quickly became the soundtrack of my freshman year of high school.

Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor released on September 19, 2006. I was a 14-year-old black boy who, at that moment, didn’t quite fit in anywhere. But Food & Liquor quickly became the soundtrack of my freshman year of high school.

I’m cool, I don’t foretell best
I ain’t Nicest MC, I ain’t Cornel West
I am Cornel Westside, Chi-Town Guevera
Malcolm X-orcised the demons, gangsta leanin’
He traded in his kufi for a New Era
Chose a .44 over a mortarboard
I ain’t a credited institute graduate
I ain’t from Nazareth
My conception wasn’t immaculate
I ain’t master no calculus
A good addition to the rap audience
I backflipped on the mattress they slept on me on.
— “Just Might Be OK (feat. Gemini)”

Hot take: Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor is an A+ album that could’ve been an A++ if not for its one glaring flaw: “Just Might Be OK” isn’t the first song after the intro.

I’m no A&R, I’ve never worked in the music business, and the only sequencing experience I have is with my iTunes playlists (which, it must be said, I’ve done plenty of since I got my first little iPod Shuffle way back in 2005.) But for the artist, the first album has to be a big deal, no? Every little detail matters. And – for what it’s worth – all my favorite rap artists made sure the first song on their first albums were their personal manifestos: “Can’t Knock the Hustle” is the first song on Reasonable Doubt, “We Don’t Care” is the first song on The College Dropout, the first words you hear Jeezy whisper on Thug Motivation 101 are “you gotta believe!” This is your introduction to the mainstream; no longer are you just a mixtape rapper or a guy with a little bit of street buzz. If the first song is weak, it’s semi-hard to keep folks interested.

Lupe’s first song? A-moderately-catchy-if-not-sleepy-song titled “Real.” The record is very okay. It has manifesto vibes, sure. “My man said he wanted something real,” Lupe starts. “Something he could recognize; something he could feel.” The message is fairly obvious: “real” hip-hop was at a shortage, and young Wasulu Jaco was coming to end the drought. I can sort-of understand why Lupe chose “Real” to lead off his moment in the spotlight.

There’s just one problem: “Just Might Be OK” does what “Real” sets out to do more effectively and with way more flair. And “Real” would’ve fit just fine as the song after “Just Might Be OK.”

“Just Might Be OK” hits you immediately, horns and drums everywhere, Lupe’s intensity one-hundred-times higher than it is on the song before: “We all in agreement with the wallpaper, happy with the color scheme – welcome to the crib!” This is our official welcome to Food & Liquor, a wake-up call to those who don’t yet know the future is now. Lupe Fiasco was coming for a crown he might not have totally deserved yet, but I didn’t mind. He didn’t need to go around calling himself the Best Rapper Alive like Jay-Z and Wayne; the proof was in the bars, and he knew he had plenty of them: “This is not pilfered from past-ses of OGs. This is so me.”

That song is a moment, period. It’s also one of his greatest songs – one of my favorite records, ever – and it’s truly a shame it gets semi-buried behind a song not nearly as good. It fits where it is, but it could’ve been a rocket had it been just one slot higher. Thank God its placement doesn’t submarine the album.

Now I ain’t asking you for money or to come back to me
Some days it ain’t sunny, but it ain’t so hard
Just breaks my heart
When my momma try to provide and I tell her, “That ain’t your job
To be a man”
She try to make me understand
That she my number one fan
But it’s like you’re booing from the stands
You know the world is out to get me ... why don’t you give me a chance?
— “He Say She Say (feat. Gemini & Sarah Green)”
Next stop was his block; it had the same cops
Walked right past the same spot where he was shot
Shocked that little n***** tried to sell him rocks
It just felt weird being on the opposite
They figured that he wasn’t from there
So they pulled out and robbed him with the same gun they shot him with
Put it to his head and said, ‘You scared, ain’t ya?’
He said, ‘Hustler for death. No heaven for a gangsta.’
— "The Cool"

Nobody told stories through rap records better than Lupe Fiasco. Absolutely nobody.

Ironically enough, Food & Liquor II is my least favorite Lupe project. The stories weren’t there anymore. It was like he’d given up on engaging us through narratives and figured the only way to get folks to listen was to preach. I don’t like being preached at. If I wanted an hourlong lecture, my dad had those in excess. And his lectures tended to be more entertaining than Lupe on F&L II.

“He Say She Say” manages to be painful and celebratory and angry and wistful all at once. Rapping from the perspective of a single mother raising a young son lacking guidance, Lupe’s first verse packs enough of an emotional punch for the song to end once she’s told the boy’s father off. But the second time around, hearing Lupe essentially repeat the mother’s sentiments from the perspective of the son – it’s never not heartbreaking. “I WANT YOU TO BE A FATHER! I’M YOUR LITTLE BOY, AND YOU DON’T EVEN BOTHER.” Close your eyes and imagine that encounter: this kid, no older than 13, yelling at his absentee father, vacillating between not wanting his daddy around and understanding that he needs his father if he’s to reach his full potential.

Fellow Lupe nerds know Wasulu weaved the narrative of Michael Young History through his first and second albums; Michael’s the little boy in “He Say She Say” and the decomposing resurrected hustler in “The Cool.” Michael’s origin story lacks necessary nuance, as there are plenty of young men raised by single mothers in adverse situations who don’t fall victim to the hood trappings to which Michael ultimately succumbs. But I’m ultimately being nitpicky; this is the universe Lupe created, and a lack of positive male role models has been the downfall of many black men all the same. I grew up in my mother’s home, but by my teenage years, my father was a constant, daily presence in my life. I can’t pretend him just being there didn’t make a difference. Yet in Michael’s case, even after his chosen lifestyle gets him killed, he’s still determined to run the streets. His streets.

If not for Lupe, I wouldn’t be able to wrap my head around it.

I put it on my grandmomma’s daughter
I microphone control with the soul of a slave humming ‘Wadin’ in the Water’
I author like D.W.’s brother, like a hustler
God, place me in your armor; I prescribe no partners
I do it for the hood like a parka
We tell my n***** not to shiver
Only time we quiver like an archer is
‘Cause we only fear God
Know the weapons of the weak
Know weakness of the hard
And we will never sleep
— "The Emperor's Soundtrack"

Over the past 10 years, catching Lupe’s extended metaphors and double entendres has become something of a hobby. “The Emperor’s Soundtrack” immediately became one of my favorites, simply because the metaphors and entendres don’t stop. I author like D.W.’s brother?! That bar is so clever that I missed it probably the first 19 times I heard this song, then felt like an idiot for missing it once I recognized what it is he did there.

In fact, I just learned a quiver is where archers store their arrows, which makes that line make complete sense to me now. This album is now 3,652 days old, and I’m still catching bars he wrote when I was 14 years old. The guy is incredible, truly.

Every Lupe Fiasco song (yes, even LASERS) feels like an exercise in linguistics, a test to see just how far he can make these words stretch and how many different definitions of those words he can work into whatever it is he’s aiming to convey. “The Emperor’s Soundtrack” is Wasulu at the peak of his powers. It’s a song befitting the moment: that beat gives vibes of an army’s march, with Lupe the Emperor sitting above it all. It’s the de-facto last song on the album and our final reminder that he is the best in the world at what he does. Post-“Kick, Push” and “Touch the Sky,” the kid had a bullseye on his back. Between the Kanye co-sign and the greatest rapper of all-time agreeing to executive produce your debut and critics looking to you to save an entire genre … that’s enough pressure to make anyone fold.

And somehow he not only met the hype, but he exceeded it. Salute the emperor.

Lórenzo J's Top 5 Food & Liquor songs

  1. "Just Might Be OK (feat. Gemini) -- see above.
  2. "...And He Gets the Girl (feat. Pharrell) -- not technically a F&L record, but it's the B-side to "I Gotcha," so I'm taking liberties.
  3. "The Emperor's Soundtrack" -- see above, again.
  4. "Sunshine" -- it's such a pretty song. Somehow saccharine and not super corny.
  5. "American Terrorist (feat. Matthew Santos)" -- "The ink of a scholar is worth a thousand times more than the blood of a martyr." Message.

Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor released on September 19, 2006. I was a 14-year-old black boy who, at that moment, didn’t quite fit in anywhere. But Food & Liquor quickly became the soundtrack of my freshman year of high school. I’m terrible at rapping, but I’ve always fancied myself a poet; I love crafting the perfect sentence, and it was clear this not-tough nerd from Chicago loved words just as much – if not more – than this not-tough nerd from the westside of Detroit.

The only album I hold in higher esteem than Food & Liquor is The Black Album. The only rapper I hold in higher esteem than Lupe Fiasco is Jay-Z. I still believe 2007 Lupe Fiasco is the greatest rapper of all-time, and I was ready to argue he belonged in the GOAT conversation had he followed his original plan of releasing a third album titled LUPEnd after The Cool and retired thereafter. Somehow one of the greatest lyricists of all-time is now underrated, despite the fact that he has two unassailable classics and a critically acclaimed recent release.

I’ve always rooted for Lupe. Even when he sticks his foot in his mouth, I continue to give him pass after pass, because the man is clearly brilliant. Sometimes that brilliance can be misdirected, sure. And maybe I’ll always view him through the lens of the 13-year-old who couldn’t believe what I was hearing on Late Registration (“But, before I say another word / I’m back on the block like I’m laying on the street”). But just hearing 2006 Lupe takes me back to a happier time in life, when all I worried about was making varsity basketball as a freshman and figuring out how to sneak my high school girlfriend into my dorm. Those were super fun times.

And Wasulu was there for it all.