Lupe Fiasco‘s much-awaited album Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Part 1 hit iTunes today (cop it right here) and to give it an auspicious launch, Lupe organized a little exhibition at a Soho gallery space–a “Listening Experience”–to introduce his artwork to an assemblage of music press types, Okayplayer included. Upon entry to the space, visitors passed framed and illuminated quotations from James Baldwin and social historian Howard Zinn, who proved to be the twin muses of Lupe’s Food & Liquor philosophy. Inside was a classic white gallery space, built out with a curved wall on one end to serve as a screen for a series of video projections; blonde school kids in stars and stripes party hats give way to muslim children reciting the Q’uran, the rapture of a megachurch congregation cuts to Oprah giving away a car, the cartoon fiend from the “Night On Bald Mountain” segment from Fantasia is superimposed on an American flag and perhaps most disconcertingly of all, campaign images of President Obama and Mitt Romney at the podium hover superimposed over each other, creating a flickering, vibrating Rom-bama composite face as selections off the new album play in the background. A bar at the other end served food and–well, liquid anyway if not liquor–in the form of boxed water.
Eventually Lupe himself entered and stood before the crowd in John Lennon glasses, black tee and fatigues, baby dreads poking out from under his knit tam, to introduce the record to the assembled critics on his own terms. Lupe kicked off with another nod to the late Howard Zinn, explaining how his involvement with a documentary based on the scholar’s famous A People’s History of The United States has shaped his thinking and informed many of the themes on the new LP. “Don’t think too much about the Food & Liquor part” he explained. “I want you to think about the Great American Rap Album part. Not because I think I’m great. Because it’s my attempt to tell our great American story from my perspective.”
“Strange Fruition,” the first full song on the record (after the spoken word intro of “Ayesha Says”) illustrates this theme nicely, updating Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” for the new millenium with phrases like “Oh, would you look at how they swing…but I cut myself down.” Overall his rappity-rap seems to have taken on a more mature poetic quality, letting phrases like “The system is a slab”; “two-headed voice from the eagle on the staff” and “baptise yo’ mind, let your brain take a bath” stand and resonate on their own, without the over-literal explication he sometimes indulges in. After the song fades, Lupe shares that the passage “I can’t pledge allegiance to yo’ flag” came from his real-life parents admonition to understand what he was alleging himself to, and how the fact that strange fruit was written by a white man and made famous by a black singer, represents for him the overlapping histories of America.
Speaking coolly, candidly–playing off people’s expectations about his strong political views and with quite a few laughs at his own image–Lupe continued to walk us through the entire record. Some lyrics, like his take on the flooded market of cocaine rap (“Can we get a break from the cocaine and the kilos…yeah, n**ga, we know”) or references to his own infamous comments characterizing the POTUS as a terrorist, are self-explanatory. In other places, he shared personal anecdotes about his inspirations and motivations. The Malcolm X tribute “Audubon Ballroom” was conceived while reading Baldwin on the steps of the Louvre museum in Paris, for instance and the all-black cover draws, Lupe claims, from a vivid memory of being in the womb (“Complete and utter ignorance but also complete and utter potential.”) All in all, the “Listening Experience” serves to underscore the personal investment Lupe has in the record, Food & Liquor II representing not just a step up from Lasers in terms of artistic growth but maybe a different beast altogether, in the sense that it is a complete vision rather than a product formed of label politics. Whether it will be taken up by the underserved youth who Lupe clearly wants to reach with his ideas–the outro to the LP declares “It’s Hood Now”–remains to be seen. But wherever this little craft of “rappity-raps” (Lupe’s own description) and sweeping ideas about social change travels, it sets off today and Lupe has given it a proper send off into the rough seas of American pop culture.