After Atlantic Records delayed Lupe Fiasco’s third album, Lasers, one too many times, the rapper’s ever-loyal fans took to the streets to pressure the label to release it. If they could have heard the final product in advance, though, they might not have bothered. A parade of every gaudy pop-rap trend of the moment, Lasers was the kind of half-hearted crossover record that Fiasco always claimed to be above, and even he struggled to defend it. Though he initially cast Lasers’ pop grabs as a challenge to the system from the inside, effectively trying to pass off a Vanilla Ice album as Public Enemy, he eventually distanced himself from the record, claiming in an interview shortly before its release that his label forced some of its songs on him.
Had Lasers been Fiasco’s final album, as he once promised it would be—he’s been teasing retirement for almost as long as he’s had a career to retire from—it would have marked a compromised end to the rapper’s once-promising career. If nothing else, though, the commercial success of Lasers and its B.o.B-styled singles gave Fiasco the standing to make an album he could stand behind. Trading Lasers’ Top 40 moves for a purer hip-hop focus (this time he’s sampling Pete Rock and CL Smooth instead of Modest Mouse), Food And Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Part I returns Fiasco to the hard social commentary of his first records. Even the album’s convoluted title testifies to the lack of market testing or label intervention: This time, it promises, Fiasco has been left to his own devices.
The difference is night and day. Food And Liquor II feels more inspired than its predecessor from the start—not just in its florid production, a substantial improvement over Lasers’ big-box synths, but also in Fiasco’s rapping. Fiasco sounds reinvigorated, and especially in the album’s ripping opening stretch, he’s a riveting presence, sprinting through verses with a mischievous balance of conviction and dry humor. That’s not to say his songs always hold up to scrutiny. “Bitch Bad” requires some baffling leaps of logic to tell what may be the most low-stakes cautionary tale ever put to wax. (Its takeaway is that overexposure to the B-word could potentially result in mild misunderstandings.) And on “Lamborghini Angels,” Fiasco bites off more than he can chew, struggling to tie a verse about the science/religion divide to an exploitative account of priest pedophilia. (“Told him take off all your clothes and put your penis next to mine / Now the little boy think it’s normal cause they do this all the time,” he raps on the record’s ickiest verse.) But even Fiasco’s best work has been marked by rhetorical overreach. What matters is that this time he seems more interested in entertaining than provoking, a merciful reversal from the joyless conspiracy-mongering of Lasers’ political tracks. Two years after his fans protested Atlantic Records, Fiasco has belatedly given them the album they were fighting for.