Lupe Fiasco—whose arrival on the rap scene was long delayed by label uncertainties (he was signed and dropped from Arista, at one point was slated to join the Roc-a-Fella dynasty, but ultimately landed on Atlantic) and an irksome internet leak (last year many of his record's tracks were disseminated in incomplete and unfinished form)—finally dropped his debut album, Food & Liquor, last fall. While industry watchdogs like the Source have deemed the modest-by-major-label-standards initial sales of Food & Liquor as a minor failure, the album has achieved tremendous critical love and a slew of Grammy nominations. All of this is fairly remarkable for a rap debut, but exponentially more remarkable given how fiercely creative and exhilaratingly unusual much of Food & Liquor truly is.

A lifelong Muslim who is admittedly "not the devoutest" and struggles with the friction between the strictures of his faith and the gleam of pop culture's confections, Fiasco undoubtedly brings a great deal of consciousness and conscience to his work. The son of two thoughtful and socially active parents (his father had the twin cool-making distinctions of being a Black Panther and teaching Kung Fu) in the perpetual frontline of American class disparity that is Chicago, Fiasco grew up with a psyche strongly bedrocked by his parents' wisdom but still presented with the darkest corners of hood life. Food & Liquor is the welcome and somewhat rare rap record that addresses and engages the hard-bitten truths of growing up in the hood without leaving the work at the level of grimy, granular recounting. On the album, Fiasco gets into much larger issues, both sociopolitically and in terms of the more human methods of dealing with poverty for children and young adults.

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One of these methods—and perhaps the one most pertinently reflected on Food & Liquor—is poor, young people's propensity for immersion in the escapism of fantastical pop culture. Since time immemorial, hiphop has had an intrinsic connection with the culture of comic books, cartoons, and movies—and Fiasco is maybe the most explicit example of this link since rap fans first stepped into the 36th chamber back in '93. Since name-checking the villain from Thundercats on his verse from Kanye West's "Touch the Sky," Fiasco has posted up firmly in the camp of rad art geekdom. On his album's cover, Japanese toys, the holy Koran, a copy of his own Fahrenheit 1/15 mix tape, and other ephemera of his cultural makeup swirl in a sort of cosmic atom of which Fiasco himself is the nucleus. The liner notes feature him wielding daisho swords, samurai style, and draped in a manga tee. All of this is important as a sort of reaffirmation of the power of four-color fantasy and superhero dreams in the nurturing and development of healthy hearts and minds in the belly of the beast. These issues are perhaps most clearly brought out on the album's first single, "Daydreamin'," where Fiasco imagines his project building transformed into a great, Battletech-style robot that he rides around in.

Food & Liquor's intro lays flat that the album's title derives from the fact that in most poor urban neighborhoods that is all you'll find—food and liquor stores to sate the residents most base and/or vice-driven needs while, one is to understand, offering no sustenance for their minds or souls. This is his very own more spiritually dimensional service station—"Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor." He also describes this elemental duo as metaphorical archetypes—essentially the good and the bad, the substance and the artifice, the light and dark sides of the Force. Over the course of the album, he illustrates the myriad ways of navigating these forces for those born into the American underclasses. The Grammy-nominated "Kick, Push" appears early in the album as a lush, sunny sketch of teenagers in love with both each other and the easy divinity of skateboarding. Once one reaches "Kick, Push II," the last proper song on the album, however, the trucks have become a means of physically, and thereby emotionally, escaping the more negative occupations of the hood. That Fiasco himself has found such an astonishing and affirming escape is truly inspirational. Make mine Marvel.

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