With his debut album Food & Liquor, it is clear that Lupe Fiasco wants his name to be known in the hip-hop world. His arrangements are layered with sweeping string sections and sensationalistic sound combinations which, while at times overwhelming to the listener and distracting from the lyrics, are often strong showings from this talented young rap artist.
A Muslim MC that hails from Chicago and prefers narratives about skateboarding to self-glorifying claims of drive-bys and sexual conquests, Fiasco got thrust into hip-hop mainstream through guest appearances on Kanye West's smash hit "Touch the Sky" and raving praise from such big names as Jay-Z.
Food & Liquor comes out of the gate blazing for the first few tracks, but can't sustain its momentum through the entire album. It occasionally stumbles and frequently showcases beats that barely elevate themselves beyond the mediocre. Only a brief and ultimately pointless appearance by Jay-Z on "Pressure" and the smart political commentary of "American Terrorist" garner much current interest. The sauntering "The Cool" and the unforgivably contrived "The Emperor's Soundtrack" just don't carry the same raw energy that Fiasco appears to be capable of. Sure, this is a debut, but he needs to be more consistently able to surprise his audience with his ingenuity.
As mentioned earlier, Fiasco clearly wants to be known. Many of his songs have a very dense, majestic feel to them, and he tackles lyrical content that's unusually fresh, especially for rap music. However, "I Gotcha" finds Fiasco finally failing to resist temptation to fall into rap cliché, filling the song with self-gratifying boasts while vocally strutting his ego through each verse.
But sometimes the grandiose beats work, like with the powerful guitar-string section combo of "Real" and the eminently sublime single, "Kick, Push." "He Say She Say" likewise displays Fiasco's storytelling chops over an equally emotional violin-led beat. The lyrics, which center around a desperate plea for a father to be more devoted to his son, are a prime example of the kind of grace possible in a hip-hop record, something all-too-often overlooked about the genre.
There are a few oddball tracks, as well. "The Instrumental," which in fact is not actually an instrumental, is backed by a drum-heavy beat that sounds more akin to a Linkin Park song, with a very breathily-sung chorus section.
Rap music, arguably more so than most other musical genres, calls upon the personality of the musician to set him apart from his colleagues. Fiasco's studio presence is clearly there, and it is a vibrant one, but he must learn to channel it better and more consistently. What starts off as a decidedly momentous rap record sinks slightly into hip-hop tedium towards the end. But the torrid intensity of the first handful of tracks nearly earns the album's asking price on its own, and in a genre just screaming for an artistic revolution, the promise Fiasco habitually shows on Food & Liquor may be enough for some to make him a name to watch out for in the coming years.