Let’s face it, we haven’t exactly been living in a high-water period for hip-hop lyricism. And while there might be nothing intrinsically wrong with this situation, even as we marvel at the musical enormity of our T.I. and Game records, we not-so-secretly pine for the emergence of an emcee who can simultaneously exhibit wit, intelligence, humor, and humanity. Lupe Fiasco may actually be a legitimate aspirant to hip-hop’s lyrical inner circle, so let’s do something out of the ordinary and ignore the fact that his beats kinda suck. Sure, this is Past Perfect, but as far as hip-hop in the 21st century, mediocre rappers are frequently afforded a free pass if their records are sonically up to snuff, whereas weak-ass beats often seem to be a death knell for promising rhymesayers.
From the heralded single, Kick, Push, listeners are entertained with a marvelously lush with its wistfully swelling strings, and Lupe’s beatmakers replicate that winningly nostalgic formula with near-comparable results on He Say, She Say and Hurt Me Soul.Of course, Fiasco’s accompanists don’t always know what suits him best, and so the naturally evocative young rapper gets shoehorned into ill-fitting shit like the buzz-killing rap-rock of The Instrumental and the overly busy Def Jux-isms of Just Might Be OK. An unfortunate number of the hooks are lazily unengaging as well, the worst culprit probably being The Cool, a track helmed by Kanye West that’s been belatedly added since the leaked prerelease version of Food and Liquor likely in a (misguided) attempt to boost its commercial prospects.
So, in short, we have a staunchly conscious emcee saddled with some incongruous beats and lukewarm hooks. Why is Food And Liquor so essential?
Well, flaws aside, Fiasco is actually an absolutely dazzling emcee and a genuinely nuanced personality, and both of these things are incredibly rare in the past decade of hip-hop. Even compared to Kanye—the star who first put him on the map and who’s managed to build a cottage industry on a similar persona of conflicted consciousness—Lupe is still more naturally believable and compelling. Rather than making a show of how he’s perpetually torn between sin and salvation, Fiasco uses his songs to carefully and searchingly work though some of the knottier and most nagging problems that plague not just himself but other folks as well.
Hurt Me Soul is the most obvious source of soundbites, with Lupe’s admissions of once hating hip-hop “because the women degraded” and once shunning Jay-Z for worshiping Gotti over God, but there’s also the flatly unromantic mentions of Habitat for Humanity and Section 8 housing on Just Might Be OK and the strip-back-the-bullshit way Lupe nails religious hope and hypocrisy on Close Your Mind by pointedly claiming that “the books that take you to heaven and let you meet the Lord there / Have become misinterpreted, reasons for warfare.”
And don’t let the whiff of polemics scare you off either, because Lupe largely rescues social awareness from the boring and pedantic bad name it’s earned in hip-hop’s underground, lacing even his least subtle moments of browbeating with jokes and sharp lyrical jabs that blessedly prove he always puts rapping before hectoring. Plenty of dullard emcees condemn the soul-crushing excess of the modern hip-hop video, but leave it to Lupe to nail the comic emptiness and ridiculousness of its most ritualized gestures, fake-commanding his charges to “look as hard as you can with this blunt in ya hand / And now hold up ya chain slow motion through the flames.”
Maybe there are a few too many rigorous “issue” songs for an emcee of Fiasco’s breadth and humanity, but Lupe ultimately resists pigeonholing as a good-for-you granola rapper through caustic wit and a willingness to embrace his individuality. “I warned y’all cornballs / I hush puppies” is at least Lil Wayne-worthy as punchlines go, but it’s hard to think of any popular rapper bold enough to turn a tale of hooking up in a club into a dorky metaphor of dragons and princesses in peril. Past Perfect? Maybe or maybe not — time will tell. But for now, this is one of the most essential, overlooked artists and albums since Nas released Illmatic. Indeed, it is.