2006 was a polarizing year for hip-hop.
A quick look at Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs from that year offers a reminder of the climate at the time: Yung Joc’s “It’s Goin’ Down,” Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers,” Young Dro’s “Shoulder Lean,” and Ludacris’ “Money Maker” ruled the airwaves.
Into the mix waded a bespectacled, Muslim, karate-practising twenty-something from Chicago.
On September 19th, 2006, Lupe Fiasco made his full-length debut with Food & Liquor, an album loaded with expectation after a scene-stealing appearance on Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky” and a smash single in “Kick, Push.”
The reviews were solid – at times, even reverential.
A.V. Club called it “one of the decade’s most audacious, original hip-hop debuts.”
Pitchfork wrote, “Fiasco’s a self-proclaimed entrepreneur wading against a current he can’t seem to condone: Hip-hop circa 2006. His first album’s the work of an MC in love with rap’s freedom of expression but at odds with its current landscape.”
Rolling Stone gave Food & Liquor four stars, writing, “Without dipping his toes into violent imagery, wanton obscenity or other hip-hop clichés, Fiasco reflects on the personal and the political, and reminds fans of everything hip-hop can be.”
In many ways, he was the opposite of everything that was popular – and as critics wrote, exactly what was needed.
Though he’s had his share of hits (The Cool, Tetsuo & Youth) and misses (Lasers) since, the discussion around Lupe often returns to his seminal work.
On its ten-year anniversary, allow us to revisit Food & Liquor, track-by-track.
A quick, self-serving story about how I first encountered the album:
I was in ninth grade, and the closest thing to an actual hip-hop album in my possession was Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere. (This was before iPods and MP3 players became ubiquitous and infinitely expanded my rap collection.) At home, hip-hop was more or less verboten – or seemed that way – so covert YouTube sessions and episodes of BET’s 106 & Park became my source for music.
Along came Lupe.
I was determined to get this album. Too young to drive anywhere, and not wanting to ask my parents to take me to the record store, I biked across the city to HMV one late afternoon to pursue my prize.
I felt a rush returning home – soaring from the thrill of new music to devour, mixed with the element of danger of being discovered with that “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label on the album cover.
That night, I listened to Food & Liquor front-to-back on my Discman – and then listened again. The album’s opening seconds – a spoken word piece by Lu’s sister, Ayesha Jaco – sucked me right in, transporting me to the West Side of Chicago.
“Food & Liquor stores rest on every corner/ From 45th and State to the last standing Henry Horner/ J&J’s, Harold’s Chicken, good finger lickin’/ While they sin, gin, sin sin at Rothschild’s and Kenwood Liquors/ The wino’s crooked stagger meets the high stride of the youth searching for the truth/ They rebel and raise hell across alleyways and in classroom settings.”
What kind of album opens like that? I’ll tell you one thing: you’re not getting anything else like that in 2006 — not readily available at the record store, in any case. I was mesmerized.
2. “Real” feat. Sarah Green
The production brings you in right away. Booming percussion, soaring strings, and a bevy of sounds bombard the ears, as Lupe spits the album’s opening bars.
The second verse might be the standout:
“Life ain’t meant to come around twice/ Yeah, that’s why I gotta get it right/ They said I got it honest now I gotta give it light/ But sleep on it, that’s why God give you night/ I mean, I had a dream that, God gave me flight/ Too fly for my own good so, God gave me plight/ If I wake up in the morning now I gotta give ’em sight/ Make ’em see, break ’em free, ain’t a G, show you right.”
“His style shifts and changes on the drop of a dime and he works his breath control effortlessly,” Andreas Hale wrote for HipHopDX in 2006.
Seven minutes into the album, and we’re off to a good start.
3. “Just Might Be OK” feat. Gemini
Things only get better here, with one of the album’s strongest songs.
Gemini (now Gemstones) makes his debut on this one, providing a powerful chorus. (The chemistry these two had was truly special; it’s a shame they went their separate ways.) Lupe rides the beat so smoothly, weaving in and out of the song’s refrain, rapping about trading in his “kufi for a New Era” and how he “backflipped on the mattress they slept on me on.”
“I’m cool, I don’t foretell best/ I ain’t nicest MC; I ain’t Cornel West/ I am Cornel West Side, Chi-town Guevara/ Malcolm e(X)orcise the demons, gangsta leanin’.”
A quick aside on how so many of the songs (including “Just Might Be OK”) were produced by 1st&15th members, rather than big-name producers:
“[Arista] was playing us Scott Storch records and Just Blaze records, but Chilly was very big on making sure that no other producers were over me and Boogz,” Prolyfic tells Fake Shore Drive.
“Right before we lost the deal, Chilly got knocked, and that’s when [Jay Z] stepped in. Jay wanted to get Kanye and Just Blaze involved in the project, but then he heard me and Boogz and was [like], ‘Okay, I guess we don’t need the Kanyes or the Just Blazes.’”
“We recorded Food & Liquor like five or six times, actually,” he continues.
“I mean, just in the course of a few years, we were on our own and it was mainly just me and Lupe working on it and constructing the record. We would record five records and the best of those records would make it to the next round to battle another five records. Then those records would become Food & Liquor – and then we had the leak […] And it was really crazy for me because most of my work was on the leak. See I got truncated down to three tracks on the album, when I originally had 7 or 8 tracks.”
4. “Kick, Push”
A song that needs no introduction – and one that took the unlikeliest of paths to becoming a global phenomenon.
“It was never [supposed] to be a single, never meant to be a single,” Lupe tells SKEE TV. “It was for a skate shop called Uprise for a skate DVD and then it just took a life of its own.”
By “a life of its own,” of course, he means a pair of Grammy nominations and a string of freestyle imitators that followed.
“He said it was something so appealing/ He couldn’t fight the feeling, something about it/ He knew he couldn’t doubt it, couldn’t understand it/ Branded, since the first kickflip he landed/ Uhh, labeled a misfit, a bandit/ Ka-kunk ka-kunk ka-kunk, his neighbours couldn’t stand it.”
I’ll put the production of this one – courtesy of Soundtrakk – up against just about any hip-hop song, in terms of favourites.
5. “I Gotcha”
The fact that Lupe was able to secure a beat from The Neptunes (later dubbed Producers of the Decade by Billboard) on his debut album gives you an idea of the hype that surrounded him at the time (at least within the right circles). That year alone, The Neptunes produced Beyonce’s “Green Light,” Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, Ludacris’ “Money Maker,” Pharrell’s In My Mind, Sleepy Brown’s “Margarita,” and Snoop Dogg’s “Vato” — pretty decent company for Lupe. The production is tight, too.
I owe it to Lupe for introducing a 14-year-old me to Banksy in this song as well:
“All with no high, I do it so fly/ Banksy’s attack, helicopter with a bow tie/ I love my city, really hope that God bless it/ Have my mind moving faster than that hog in the hedges/ Welcome all of y’all to my dark recesses/ This is where I keep the bars like bathtub edges/ My Ivories and my Doves my Levers and my Zests/ This takes half of your bubble bath to match the freshness.”
There’s one thing I lament when seeing Lupe and Pharrell’s names attached to the same song: we should’ve got more Child Rebel Soldier. Remember “Us Placers” and the supposed supergroup that was forming along with Kanye? What a tease.
6. “The Instrumental” feat. Jonah Matranga
If you ask me, it’s an interesting concept that was poorly executed. Lupe’s rhymes are clever, and the allegorical nature of the song is interesting, but Mike Shinoda’s production doesn’t do much for me here, nor does Jonah Matranga’s contribution to the chorus.
Take “The Instrumental” out of the equation, and you’ve got a pretty tough album to criticize. (Of course, this is all subjective, but I welcome you to disagree with me.)
(Interesting side note: there’s a whole other debate about which version of Lupe’s album is better: the leaked version or the retail version. If you’ve heard some of the songs that got scrapped because of the leak, you might agree. To my surprise, “The Instrumental” was part of the leaked version too, not just quickly slapped together to add something fresh.)
7. “He Say She Say” feat. Gemini & Sarah Green
One of the album’s most compelling moments: the combination of those strings, Gemini and Sarah Green’s voices together, and Lupe’s stellar songwriting create the most touching song on Food & Liquor – and one that’s firmly on the list of the most touching songs in hip-hop, for that matter.
“You see what his problem is: he don’t know where his pop is/ No positive male role model to play football and build railroad models/ He’s makin’ a hole, and you’ve been diggin’ it/ ‘Cause you ain’t been kickin’ it/ Since he was old enough to hold bottles/ He wasn’t supposed to get introduced to that/ He don’t deserve to get used to that.”
It’s interesting how Lupe’s first and second verses can be nearly identical (save for a change in pronouns), and yet, a shift in perspective from mother to son makes it all work.
(Going back to the leaked version/retail version debate, it’s interesting to note that if it weren’t for the leak, and Lupe subsequently changing the album, we wouldn’t have “He Say She Say” on Food & Liquor. Quite the thought.)
As far as love songs go in hip-hop, “Sunshine” is pretty slick.
“Never met her before, but I think I like her like a metaphor/ It’s hard to get.”
Again, it’s an example of Lupe’s storytelling ability. He’s able to take you right into the nightclub, and then the car, putting you in his shoes throughout the whole song. Somehow, the falsetto chorus works.
9. “Daydreamin” feat. Jill Scott
Here’s another one that wasn’t originally in the plans for Food & Liquor – funny, because it went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Urban/Alternative Performance in 2008.
Here’s what Lupe told The Village Voice about the song:
“It still happens to this day. You’ll be on set, and it’ll be like, cue the smoke! OK, now look tough! Gimme anger! Gimme anger! Now hold up the chain! It’s to the point now where it’s the thing to do. As a rapper, you have a chain on in the video, and it’s like look at me! It’s ludicrous. If you look at that through this positively conscious eye, you know what that means. At the end of the day, it means nothing. You look at the G-Unit album cover when they were shooting, it’s like come on, man.”
10. “The Cool”
The foundation for Lu’s entire sophomore album – surprising, given it appears it wasn’t originally in the plans for Food & Liquor. (Yup, another song missing from the leaked version. In its place was a song called “Real Recognize Real,” which loosely mirrors Lupe’s verse on the BET Cypher with Papoose and Styles P.)
It’s still a little surprising to me that Kanye West produced this one – go back to 2006, and you’ll see ‘Ye wasn’t making anything else that sounded like this: it’s a long ways away from pitched-up soul samples.
I’ve mentioned Lupe’s storytelling ability already, but it’s on “The Cool” that it really shines.
“He came back/ In the same suit that he was buried in/ Similar to the one his grandfather was married in/ Yes, he was still fresh to death/ Bling, two earrings, a chain layin’ on his chest/ He still had it, ’cause they couldn’t find it/ And the bullets from his enemies sat like two inches behind it/ Smelled the Hennessey from when his n—as got reminded/ And poured out liquor in his memory; he didn’t mind it.”
Who else thinks to write about a hustler coming back from the grave? Only Lupe.
11. “Hurt Me Soul”
Another touching moment on Food & Liquor.
Sometimes Lupe gets criticized for being preachy, but on “Hurt Me Soul,” he digs deep and calls himself out just as much as anything around him — “all the world’s ills,” as he describes it.
“Now I ain’t tryin’ to be the greatest/ I used to hate hip-hop/ Yep, because the women degraded/ But Too $hort made me laugh, like a hypocrite, I played it/ A hypocrite, I stated, though I only recited half/ Omittin’ the word ‘b—ch,’ cursin’ I wouldn’t say it/ Me and Dogg couldn’t related to the ‘b—ch’ I dated/ Forgive my favourite word for hers and hers alike/ But I learnt it from a song I heard and serrta liked.”
“People are hypocritical. That’s just human nature. I embrace my hypocrisy,” Lupe tells Pitchfork.
“You have this weird juxtaposition of good and bad. That’s why I named my album Food & Liquor, because it’s a mix; everything’s not always what it seems. I really embrace that.”
12. “Pressure” feat. Jay Z
One of the more interesting stories about Food & Liquor is how Jay executive-produced the project, despite Lupe not being on Roc-A-Fella.
“Just him being attached to [Food & Liquor] opened up a lot of doors,” Lupe tells A.V. Club.
In fact, the two have known each other since the early 2000s – Lupe was around for the making of The Black Album.
The relationship reached its pinnacle with “Pressure,” the ultimate co-sign, in a way: Jay Z featuring on an artist’s debut album. (We’ve seen it with Kanye and J. Cole before, but in both cases, those artists were signed to Jay – making Lupe’s collaboration all the more impressive.)
“Made me a ripper, deliver like river/ Content a little more thicker, slicker/ Yeah, and they said oil and water don’t mix/ Now they all down at the beach washing off the fish.”
“I went to sleep listening to his album Reasonable Doubt,” Lupe tells METHODSHOP.
“So [Jay’s influence is] definitely there, overtly. I look at it like almost paying homage to him on a certain level. Like, retracing his steps to learn and adding on and doing it better, but you can never outshine a master.”
To Lupe’s credit, Jay has spoken glowingly of him on several occasions, including with Cornel West.
“Rap is entertainment, but it’s based on our realities,” Jay told West.
“At some point, there has to be some sort of truth and some sort of integrity, some sort of pride to making music, and that’s what I love about Lupe.”
13. “American Terrorist” feat. Matthew Santos
“The ink of a scholar is worth a thousand times more/ Than the blood of a martyr.”
The most political Lupe gets on Food & Liquor – a critique of the Bush administration and its presence in the Middle East.
“There’s a war in Iraq; there’s no way that they’re ending that,” Lu told Pitchfork in 2006.
“The war in Afghanistan is still going on. There’s no way that’s going to end anytime soon. You can complain about it, you can throw rocks at it, but you really have to come to the conclusion that this is a really twisted place sometimes and some stuff you’re not going to win.”
“The books that take you to heaven and let you meet the Lord there/ Have become misinterpreted, reasons for warfare/ We read ’em with blind eyes I guarantee you there’s more there.”
The song becomes wider in scope in verses two and three, dealing with globalization, corporate colonialism, and racism in America – heavy stuff for any artist to take on.
14. “The Emperor’s Soundtrack”
Another of Food & Liquor‘s strongest tracks – in good part due to the production alone, which is straight-up anthemic.
Lupe’s always been given credit for his penmanship, but sometimes it’s the way he flows that’s more memorable.
“I told you I was sho’-uh/ Screamin’ out FnF ’til the world blow up/ They said I was so finished/ I told ’em it’s show business/ Meanin’ it’s no business ‘less Fiasco’s in it.”
(After the considerably heavier “American Terrorist,” it doesn’t hurt to have a palate cleanser like this either – nothing too complex, just dope. Period.)
15. “Kick, Push II”
The thematic B-Side to “Kick, Push” is memorable in its own right. Interestingly, it wasn’t originally meant for the album.
“’Kick, Push II’ started out as a mix-tape record. I actually did it for MySpace,” Lupe tells A.V. Club.
“You just got this blank story of the one character and what he goes through, and you’re introduced to his girlfriend and his crew, and then ‘Kick, Push II’ gives you more of a personal understanding of who those people are.”
“What’s the use of pushin’? You ain’t pushin’ none of this/ If I kick it with y’all I’m just pushin’ for a bid/ But what was on his mind, and pushed him to the lid/ Their best customer wasn’t cookin’ for her kids.”
In a way that only Lupe can, he digs into the psyche of each character and reveals the layers behind what makes each of them tick. In the process, it makes the original “Kick, Push” even more special.