Lupe Fiasco Sure Doesn't Live Down to His Name

By Serena Kim
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Lupe Fiasco's excellent and daring debut, "Food and Liquor," delivers a novel idea a decade after hip-hop's golden era: How about keeping it really real? Instead of boasting about multiple bullet wounds or harsh prison time, Fiasco raps about his neighborhood watch prohibiting dealers from congregating on his stoop. He describes an adolescence spent skateboarding with his rebel sweetheart rather than running drugs. He forgoes the obligatory name-checking of European liquor companies but shouts out Banksy, a British street artist with activist tendencies. The scope and originality of Fiasco's inspiration are mind-boggling; his references include the obesity epidemic and Abu Ghraib.

Sure, you could say socially conscious hip-hop has been done before, and done well by acts such as the Roots, Talib Kweli and Kanye West. But Fiasco succeeds where those acts have not: With his exceptional lyricism, wordplay and delivery, he's comparable to mainstream masters such as Jay-Z and Nas.

As with classic albums by those two rappers, just about every song on "Food and Liquor" is conceptual and visually complex. Entirely original ghetto archetypes experience surprising plot twists and discover hard-won truths. "The Cool" takes a page from Stephen King and depicts a dead hustler who uses his gold medallion to scratch his way out of his Hennessy-soaked grave. On "He Say, She Say," the same set of lyrics conveys two perspectives -- a single mom's and an abandoned son's -- on an absentee dad. But with a shift of a pronoun here and there, the verses fit together, like an M.C. Escher drawing with a beat.

This mom, along with other women, finally gets a fair shake on "Food and Liquor." Coming from a devout Muslim man, it's ironically one of the most feminist hip-hop albums. A woman's critical spoken-word poem serves as the intro, giving a female the first word. And Fiasco repeatedly fleshes out his female characters with sensitivity and depth.

On "Sunshine," he meets a beautiful woman at a club and simply enjoys talking to her. On a lot of other rap songs, female R&B singers are relegated to singing a mindlessly catchy hook, but on "Daydreamin'," Jill Scott's girlish coos are allowed to bloom into powerful womanly ecstasies.

It's a remarkable and risky album in every way, except for the production -- a conventional sonic style that dates the album rather than making it timeless. Fiasco gives too many chances to rookie producers who can't match the vision of the lyrics. The icky world-music vibe of "American Terrorist" undermines his message. And on "The Instrumental," the overly sincere, sweeping orchestral, rocked-out production borders on -- please say it ain't so -- emo. But you never know: Maybe emo rap is hip-hop's next golden era.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "I Gotcha," "Hurt Me Soul," "The Cool"

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