Being a "conscience rapper" is undoubtedly the most thankless job in the music industry. The title in itself is a loaded epithet that carries an overwhelming amount of baggage, crammed to the tilt with pretentious rhetoric. As with most sub-genres, the spectrum of substance-laden rap covers more ground than its reputation would lead one to believe.
In recent years, the Mount Rushmore of conscience rappers have deviated from their self-imposed archetypes: Talib Kweli banded with Philadelphia soul singer Res to mount pop tunes under the guise of Idle Warship; Common's Grammy nominated collaboration with Pharrell Williams, Universal Mind Control, was deeply rooted in dance music; Yasiin Bey adopted an aesthetic steeped in MF Doom influenced abstraction; and Stic Man's independently released solo debut largely revolved around "getting money," albeit via reparations and small business ownership. Each of the aforementioned recording artists still occasionally carve out time to document society's ills, but finger wagging certainly doesn't encompass the entirety of their catalogs.
The contemporary face of conscience rap, deservedly so, is the dreadlock-straddled scowl of Lupe Fiasco. His fourth full-length album on Atlantic Records is uniquely conservative in its firm aversion to sex, drugs, and violence – the holy trinity of modern American entertainment. Whereas his conscience peers toss red meat to the lion's den by vilifying the prison industrial complex and sharing cliff notes on Iran-Contra decades aft, Lupe's disdain on Food and Liquor II is far more pervading. In fact, he doesn't enjoy much of anything. Lupe hates gang culture, government, swingers, Peach Ciroc, fiscal irresponsibility, Columbus Day, urban radio, cable television and the 400 series Ferrari currently gathering dust in his garage – and that's just within the first ten minutes of the album. Therefore, the project's merit is ultimately predicated on one's threshold for Lupe's unrelenting misery.
Food and Liquor II is cloaked in an unlikely air of authenticity due to Lupe's antics beyond the studio. It's becoming increasingly difficult to separate Lupe Fiasco from Wasalu Muhammad Jaco. In the weeks leading up to the album's release, he managed to engage in trivial public spats with Pete Rock, DL Hughley, Chief Keef, Roland Martin and Spin Magazine. Needless to say, the righteous indignation consuming the record appears to at least be coming from a genuine place. But oddly enough, Lupe's earnestness dehumanizes him. It's not easy to relate to someone that expresses disgust for seemingly every aspect of a Western culture, which presumably most of Lupe's target audience are soundly immersed in.
Despite its loyalty to the same breed of sappy hooks and alternative-tinged production that earned his previous album, Lasers, universal admonishment, Food and Liquor II is a respectable effort. Ironically, the missteps are the most fascinating elements of the album. There is a noble attempt on Lupe's behalf to televise his melancholy portrayal of the revolution, stubbornly bulldozing his narrow-minded ideological doctrine through songs that have the potential to nestle comfortably amid Z-100's rush hour playlist.
The nauseating Pop Warner choruses featured on "Battle Scars," "Audubon Ballroom," and "Unforgivable Youth" are egregious as anything from Lasers. Unlike Talib, Common, Yasiin, and Stic Man, he isn't content with preaching to the choir. Unfortunately, this approach frequently lures him away from his greatest strength of cryptic wordplay, which obviously isn't the most efficient vehicle to relay a pertinent message. Lupe is at his best when effective weaving convoluted bravado ("Form Follows Function") and rapping dense narratives ("Cold War"). That's not to say all Lupe's soapboxing is for naught. "Heart Donor" and "Lamborghini Angels" are extremely well-executed heartfelt records, but the gravitas feels somewhat deflated sandwiched between their unbearable counterparts. It begs the question of whether Food and Liquor II would have benefited from more songs like the optimistic "Hood Now," celebrating the resilient nature of Black America, rather than wallowing in its plight.
Throughout the album Lupe places himself in the company of Tupac Shakur and lays claim to "Esco Music". Perhaps he's confusing their legendary polarity for the sweeping antipathy he's experienced over the last five years. In order to be the people's champ there has to be a constituency willing to root for your success. At this particular juncture of his tenured career Lupe Fiasco is hip-hop's unequivocal Antichrist. His tattered public image consistently neutralizes any message he strives to get across. But he's also still a very talented rapper capable of churning out transcendent art and inspiring debate – Food and Liquor II is a step that direction. The terrain is littered with peaks and valleys rather than the bottomless abyss of cheesy synthesizers and corn-fed Skylar Grey duets we've come to expect. That's progress.