This week Daily Music writers look back at — and reconsider — less modern pieces of music.
On his 2005 track “The Food,” Common wonders aloud about sincerity in rap, questioning “if it’s for the art or for the dough.” It’s a critical distinction, staying away from the material mindset, and it’s one that was echoed just a year later by fellow Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco.
Fiasco has made a career out of distinguishing the “real” from the inconsequential. A Chicago-born Muslim, he visibly carries both of these characteristics with him, channeling their relevancy into a heartfelt characterization of himself. As a result, he has the voice, for he is a real one, embracing positivity and flipping negativity on its head, essentially functioning through purposeful compartmentalization. 2006’s Food & Liquor is the first sign of this. His studio debut operates in dichotomy — rebellion and conformity, sin and virtue, optimism and pessimism, good and bad.
In effect, he pulls off a rare feat, one we might today call the Kendrick formula, only before Kendrick. Exuding an air of cool, calm and collectedness in light of otherwise gloomy circumstances –– shattering perceptions of how to tackle obstacles that just might not be institutionally conquerable.
But, maybe they are. Because, maybe, Lupe can. Amidst characteristically grandiose production, with blaring strings and Jill Scott’s forceful hook, the poised Lupe shines. He neglects an idealized Chicago, instead describing a grimmer reality: “Now there’s hoes selling hoes like right around the toes / And the crackheads beg at about the lower leg,” he tells us. “There’s crooked police that’s stationed at the knees / And they do drive-bye like up and down the thighs.”
This locality lends itself to universal social consequence, and the result is home-cooked poetry that manifests as a unique brand of “cool.” With fresh retrospect this Chicago cool becomes more apparent. It’s the same self-assured cool that produced a president who pumps out Al Green at fundraising events and almost nails “Sweet Home Chicago” in the White House. The same worldly cool paved the way to stardom for Chance the Rapper (“Lil Chano from the 79th”), later acknowledging that influence by returning to help.
Though abstract in nature, what begins earnestly quickly turns — appropriately — preachy. In “Real,” it morphs into adversity-defining (“Just Might Be OK”). “Kick, Push,” shrouded in production similar to that on “Daydreamin’,” comes across as a coming-of-age tale (“When things got crazy they needed to break out, they’d head / To any place with stairs, any good grinds the world was theirs”). Humanizing the youth through skateboarding anecdotes, Fiasco, in turn, continues an impossibly subtle yet effective narrative of hope.
Food & Liquor, Fiasco and the collective ethos behind both is helplessly, yet positively foundational in nature. For many, the magic of Food & Liquor is just how formative it proved to be. It enlightened and resonated with those inside and, most impressively, those outside. Through it all, Lupe had the proverbial swagger, in a time when it was culturally relevant to exhibit — no, trailblaze — such a thing.
Even at its most vulnerable, like the dead ends and brokenness of “Hurt Me Soul,” there’s substance, comforting overtones and lingering glimmers of confidence. Accompanied by a sound (though eventually repetitive) that proves ahead of its time, the rebelliousness — the cool factor — anchors Food & Liquor. A timeless album that examines while it tells, it thrives in the organic, making it engaging for nearly every genre of listener.