“I think the world, and everything in it, is made up of a mix of two things: You got your food... and your liquor.”
Food & Liquor was one of many albums I missed prior to my middle school awakening, a lanky backpacker in bloom with a scowl at almost anything not done by Daniel Dumile or Sean Daley. I remember my cousins stuffing The College Dropout in their dresser drawers, with that bear mascot on bleachers that reminded me of the gym at Eugene Burroughs. I never forgot the way Weezy leaned against the Rolls, Tha Carter II boomin’ from the Xbox library, back when you could burn CDs straight to the hard drive and play them over any game. And you had to know T.I. was the King of the South, but King was nowhere near my blue Walkman; I was on my Fall Out Boy shit, with the homie Ronald sliding From Under the Cork Tree to me like my first high from the white boy wails of emo pop-punk. And I bought two copies of The Cool, giving it as one of the only Valentine’s presents I’ve ever copped. (It didn’t work, really, but Lupe was the GOAT to me by then.)
The backyards of my Maryland knew nothing of CTA or Harold’s six-piece with mild burying the bones. Chicago was a place on TV to me, but Lupe Fiasco bore the Westside in every vein, calling himself Cornel Westside and Chitown Guevara to back that. Food & Liquor is street shit down to its moniker; you hear the block politickin’ on the intro as Ayesha Jaco speaks her piece, you hear a son pine for his father on “He Say, She Say,” and the whole city turns to a robot destroying everything in its wake on “Daydreamin’.” I bet Backpack Michael would find that ironic, too obsessed with chasing the conscious in skateboards and Goyard trunks to read between the lines: Lupe was a gangbanger, too familiar with the street to keep playing in it or with the way he speaks of it.
Truly, it takes a weathered veteran on both sides of prosperity to illustrate these ghetto tensions with such a tenacity. As Lupe is a man of Allah — starting the album and taking many moments to seek Allah’s protection from the devil and d’evils — he never presents himself and his subjects as mere perpetrators of evil, but shifting bodies subjugated to the same star-spangled domination. He’s not one to spare the rod of anyone’s involvement in this machine, but holds a strong disdain for the White House regime and the triple-beam dreams on television screens. He dedicates “The Instrumental” to the latter, depicting a man’s struggle to release himself from the comforts and foolishness imparted by the idiot box while ignoring how he’s been weaned off his own power to think for himself. “American Terrorist” is a heavy indictment of the former, serving an extensive critique of a burning legacy of U.S. imperialism in contrast to the rise of Islamophobia in a post-9/11 context. It’s a hell of a record to drop in a mainstream rap effort only five years removed from the gaping gash left by 9/11, and far closer to the wound left by the war in Iraq.
Food & Liquor is as much a love letter to hip-hop as it is to Chicago. He executes this the best way possible: by rapping really fucking good for over an hour. We get “Real” as an examination of the duality of pain and pleasure, where the “real” is exposed to be the construct it remains, subjective to anyone’s hands as weaponry for the fight of good and evil. “I Gotcha” is Lupe’s take on flex rap as anti-flex rap, where conventional tropes are shed for exhibitions of sheer prose and technicality with an immediacy in its mission: “Come in, hip-hop, we’ve come to resurrect you.” On sparing the rod, Lupe is unafraid of presenting himself as the spoiled child in the mess on “Hurt Me Soul,” where he negotiates his relationship with God, his bitch of a girlfriend, and later his street dealings to learn the language and adopt the swagger of rap clichés that contradict his very beings. It’s a moment running the most risk of being overtly preachy, only to cover its own ass via the necessary reminder of the game we’re playing here. Lupe spent the entire third verse in the same rhyme scheme to place “all the world’s ills, sitting on chrome 24-inch rims.”
I knew not of the album or the weight it held, but I damn well knew the brilliant single choices. “Kick, Push” felt like the anthem for every young nigga who picked up a skateboard. I was a skate rat for about a week, after watching enough Rocket Power to catapult my own career as a four-sport athlete from my neighbor’s longboard on the very concrete outside that townhouse. Turns out, I was better in Tony Hawk Underground, but that song was one of many pivotal moments from my middle school listening. When MF DOOM taught me people could rap the way he did on “November Has Come,” Lupe Fiasco showed me that Black kids riding skateboards and liking robots was fucking OK. “Daydreamin’” meant much more to me than the Boost Mobile commercial it ended up in, its off-kilter lullaby giving me game through another war cry against televisions raising the kids, even as a television was raising me with both my parents in the house.
Food & Liquor grapples with such duality in an endless tussle, throwing everything at the wall and turning to any exit there is: a skate deal, the Qu’ran, a world tour, or enough liquor to fill the casket of Michael Young History in “The Cool.” The Chicago Lupe spoke of a decade ago — “crooked police that’s stationed by the knees / and they do drive-bys like up and down the thighs” — isn’t unfamiliar in the mirror now, but it’s much more susceptible to the vultures and the headlines. Schools keep closing. We know Laquan and Paul were taken by the arms of the state, and it’s as if the whole world’s counting the hundreds gone by the bullet. But there’s plenty of food: Kanye West, Noname, Jamila Woods, Chance the Rapper, Chief Keef, Dreezy, G Herbo… Chicago is the balance, the food and the liquor, no matter how the outsiders speak of the city while knowing nothing truly about how it’s happening and how to stop it. It’s cyclical, yes, but never hopeless and always beautiful even in its struggle: a tried-and-true philosophy hip-hop continues to employ in times of chaos.
I missed a lot of fire shit by a narrow margin, chained to the radio and MTV Jams before Limewire tore the streets up; odd, how that very P2P wave was responsible for Food & Liquor’s initial leak, throwing months of delays into the September 2006 release. (An OG told me the original bootleg is even better than the end result; I’ve yet to do the research.) I wish the 12-year-old me knew the words of Wasalu Jaco, to keep in his backpack in search of a real I had no definition of and have yet to define right now. I can’t even quote the album half the time, there’s too much fire shit to quote… I’m still unsure what exactly “The Emperor’s Soundtrack” is about, but it’s rideout music for anyone going through it and that’s all you need to know most times. This is rap music that transcends history, painting the ills of an era with a timeless brush. No matter the odd side projects, the label fuckery, the self-imposed Twitter fuckery… you can never take Lupe Fiasco away from the pantheon of God MC. I implore you to find some forgiveness; this album should certainly plead the case.