The ironic and telling part of Wednesday night's listening session for Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 was that there was neither food nor liquor, two standard facets of these events. Rather than blasting the album over barely audible house speakers while journalists and publicists chat about rap minutiae and industry inside baseball, Lupe hand-picked six tracks from the upcoming 16-track album to a small group of journalists, transforming the session into a de facto Storytellers and sharing the inspiration behind each song.
The tracks played tonight split the difference between polemics on U.S. policy and Lupe straight rapping his ass off. “Strange Fruition (The Art of Falling Off)” reinterprets Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” with soulful vocals over martial drums, sounding like vintage Kanye West mingling with Lux Luger. A commentary on race by author James Baldwin, one of Lupe’s major influences, bookends the track. ”The Ital (Roses)” addresses, in part, the rapper’s claim last year that “Barack Obama was a terrorist” over synth stabs, while the thumping drums and ominous, minor key synths of “Put ‘Em Up” shows Lupe at his most clever, nimble and dexterous (“Now I flip cars like the ribs on The Flintstones.”)
But as the rapper told us when we caught up with him at Beale Street Music Festival, “Form Follows Function” is, indeed, the highlight, with a smooth jazz sax and live band anchoring the rapper’s balance of unbridled confidence and constant questioning of the powers-that-be. Elsewhere, the warbled synths and handclaps of “It’s Hood Now” (produced by 1500 or Nothin', the same crew responsible for “The Ital” and “Put ‘Em Up”) make it ripe for an EDM remix, while “Unforgivable Youth” opens with an Ennio Morricone-styled buildup that had the rapper nearly jumping out of his chair. Here are 11 things you need to know before the album is released September 25.
Expect songs about “America and rapping”: Lupe elucidated the themes on F&L2 right from the start: “Songs about America. Songs about rapping,” said the rapper seconds after entering the room. “That’s it. America. Rap. Metaphor, similes. The Pledge of Allegiance, Statue of Liberty. The inspiration for the album comes from people like [historian/author] Howard Zinn, [journalist] Chris Hedges, James Baldwin. It’s me, as best as I can in my flawed, undefined, childish manner, trying to explain America and figure it out from my perspective. So it's raw; it's abrasive; it's naive. Then it's me just rapping my ass off."
Lupe remains ambivalent about his record label…: The longest, most deliberate pause of the night was after one journalist asked what Atlantic Records thought of the album. “I really don’t know what they’re thinking,” he said, diplomatically. “I can see what they’re saying and people love it. The first time we played ‘Bitch Bad,’ everyone stood up and clapped. At the end of the day, they still want a commercial product regardless of what it sounds like and what you’re talking about. It’s like, ‘Do we have a Top Ten on there, Lupe? 'Cause that’s all we really care about.’”
…But his major label exit strategy is all planned out: “I’m prepping myself now for the leap into straight artist-hood,” said the rapper. “I’ve done enough to appease a certain commercial balance and reach a new audience.” The rapper said he’s “85% done” with Great American Rap Album, Pt. 2. Skulls, the subsequent album, will be his last for Atlantic, completing his contractual obligation. “These last two records will complete that and then I’ll move on to something a little bit more esoteric, but still hip-hop,” said the rapper.
There is at least one “masterpiece” on the album (according to Lupe): “I don’t need any comments. I don’t need your 'Thank yous.' That isn't ego.” said Lupe before playing the Infamous-produced “Form Follows Function.” “This is the masterpiece. It’s my favorite record on the album.”
It’s a sequel, but not really: “This was never called Food & Liquor 2,” explained Lupe after a writer asked about its connection to 2006's Food & Liquor. "We only named it F&L2 so you would ask me, ‘Hey, is this like part two?’ It’s raw marketing.” Lupe did go on, though, to point out the connection. “Food and liquor—the duality of good and bad in the world—is still an overarching principle for me in life. So to reintroduce it, it still carries the same story that Food & Liquor has. But the real focus is Great American Rap Album. I'm not trying to make a revival."
Food & Liquor 2 was supposed to be a double album: According to Lupe, Atlantic Records didn’t want to release both albums on the same day, so expect Great American Rap Album, Pt. 2 early next year.
He really is into Howard Zinn: I ask about the new song “Roses,” which defends his “Obama is a terrorist” remarks by saying that he was quoting Zinn. After playing “Introduction” from Lupe's 2011 mixtape Friend of the People, in which Zinn condemns widespread U.S. military action, Lupe expresses his admiration for the left-leaning author. “He’s the smartest man I know. Way smarter than the president. Way smarter than all presidents.” Lupe proceeded to pull out his copy of "Howard Zinn Speaks" and quote a 1973 speech from Zinn condemning U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
The title for “The Ital (Roses)” was derived from a women’s rights strike: “It comes from this song that these women’s rights workers used to sing in the [early 20th century],” said Lupe. “They had a slogan where they’d say, ‘Give me bread, but give me roses.’ It was like, ‘We want to have the necessities in life, but we also want something that’s beautiful.’”
Most of F&L 2 was recorded at the same time as Lasers: Lupe had separate folders on his computer for Lasers and F&L2. “We hit this wall with the label and it was like, ‘I need to create something out of this headspace,’ admits Lupe, who told the crowd he listened to Lasers more than any of his other albums. “I hated [Lasers] because of the process. It’s like slaves who make sugar. It’s like, “Sugar’s delicious!” and a slave is like, “I hate sugar!”
His love of skateboarding was prescient: “I made ‘Kick, Push’ [in 2006]. The rest of the album wasn’t nothing about that, but I’m the ‘skateboard rapper,’" said Lupe. “Fast forward six years and the hottest rapper in the game is a skateboarder. But we’re completely two different people with a genuine love for the same thing.”
Ferraris are expensive: Lupe’s Ferrari collection has been well-documented, but exotic sports cars, as we learned last night, are not cheap to maintain. ”I didn’t know insurance was $25,000 a year,” Lupe told the crowd. “Did you know that?" (Spoiler: Journalists are poor. We did not know that.) "Jay-Z never told me that. Nelly never said that. It was like, ‘Just go get one.’ When you get it, it’s nice and fast but… get a Camry. You’ll be way better off, trust me. It’s that realization that once you get to this spot and get these things and then you look at them–and you still appreciate them–but then you get the other side of the story that hip-hop has never told you.”