Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor, the young rapper's debut, is now recognizable as probably the best hiphop album of last year. It was an amazing confluence of major-label muscle (in terms of its strong radio and MTV push and its superstar guest list) and the sort of aggressive creativity too often relegated to releases with much smaller budgets and less visibility.
Like his professed MC idol, Nas (Lupe cites It Was Written as his favorite rap album of all time), Lupe employs a stylish but somewhat conservative flow, one that does shining service to his great lyrical ability but that also exists well within the boundaries of hiphop tradition. This means that, if he continues to produce excellent work, Lupe can be an important and enduring voice in hiphop, but it also means he might not elicit the same kind of excitement as MCs past and present who offer a more startlingly new voice and cadence (read: Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Lil Wayne, et al.).
Also like Nas, Lupe grew up in the hood but was never, by all accounts, an active agent of criminality, which puts him nominally outside the preferred narrative for today's rap superstars. In some ways, this places him in a position of greater artistic challenge, as he cannot simply extol/amplify his self and story in the mode of Jay-Z or T.I., but rather has to find conceptual angles from which to approach mainstream rap's primary thematic obsessions. On "Daydreamin'," Food & Liquor's second and superior single, he pilots a giant automaton built out of the components of his hood youth; he is as much a thematic ventriloquist as Nas rapping from the point of view of a gun.
Food & Liquor's remarkably subtle zombie-themed "The Cool" opens with the reanimation of a dead criminal who is adorned, inside his casket, with the trappings of his hood-rich lifestyle (Swisher Sweets, his chain, a bullet in his chest) and literally drowned in Hennessy. By the track's conclusion, its undead protagonist finds himself at gunpoint after an attempt at resuming his criminal tract, facing the very weapon by which he was slain, now in the hands of younger thugs. Despite the song's somewhat paradoxically going-for-self chorus, the implication is clear—the blindly self-satisfying criminal life yields a vicious circle of degradation and death. Beyond the literally sociological, however, it is easy to imagine Lupe's cautionary zombie tale as a statement on the arc of modern hiphop, and the potential cultural dead ends of the mainstream's love affair with the most soulless black stereotypes available.
Throughout his debut, Lupe manages to tread lightly and carry big ideas in the gold-fronted world of modern popular rap music. This artistic stratagem is well reflected in the relentless lyrical darts of "The Emperor's Soundtrack": "I dream my chain became a loose noose that was used to hang us/So now, my insane brain, my 32 teeth and two feet creep like it's Elm Street."
Ultimately, Lupe is positioned, perhaps more than anyone else today, to effect massive, positive artistic change in the hiphop mainstream. For better or worse, he has the most star-making allies a rapper could hope for—Kanye, Pharrell, and Jay-Z. And as he is only one record deep, he has not yet been ghettoized in the minds of the rap-loving public. Peers like Common and Talib Kweli are great MCs, but they have also, to varying degrees, been permanently consecrated in the mausoleum of "conscious" rappers, relegated to a different lane than true mainstream heavyweight contenders, easy for much of the music's fan base to ignore.
Food & Liquor is, despite its overly voluminous intro/outro and a quality-sagging middle third, an excellent record on all fronts—critically adored, industry honored (via the ever-questionable Grammys), and artistically heroic. His forthcoming sophomore record, The Cool (scheduled for a Halloween release), promises both potentially amazing artistic conceit (Lupe has repeatedly stated his desire to reunite Pink Floyd to guest on the record) and a well-threaded thematic through line (he has described it as an extension of the characters and themes put forth on the song of the same title). Here's hoping Lupe can parlay his potential into a victory, not only for himself but for hiphop.