As far as songs go, few prove as challenging to sing as our national anthem.
It’s a technically demanding tune from first note to last, to be sure, beginning with a low bellow that quickly soars toward star-punching high notes, eventually swelling to a show-stopping crescendo that even the most seasoned performer can have trouble mastering.
Utah-based rockers Neon Trees spent a hot summer night setting fire to Tulsa’s legendary Cain’s Ballroom on June 19. Rounding out the aural palette were Smallpools, a lively L.A. powerhouse, and Nightmare and the Cat, a cadre of black-clad Brit/American alt-rockers. Neon Trees’ latest record, Pop Psychology, was the night’s flux capacitor, transporting all who were willing to a neon-soaked parallel universe.
Despite the album’s title, Lupe’s new effort is far from patriotic. Throughout, he speaks critically of America and the country’s past and present actions, or lack of action. Problems he raps about include world hunger, violence, poverty, questionable military action, child molestation, racism and more. He criticizes politicians, religious officials and even other rappers.
The main problem with Lasers was a lack of focus on the issues, but that’s not the case with Food & Liquor II. Apparent as always is Lupe’s way with words, as he uses slick metaphors and outstanding lyrical technique to convey his message. Also as usual, he avoids too many high-profile features, only enlisting the likes of Poo Bear, Guy Sebastian and Bilal. Production comes from producers like 1500 or Nothin’, Soundtrakk and The Runners.
The album starts strong with a spoken-word intro, and then kicks into gear with “Strange Fruition.” Lupe jumps right in saying, “Now I can’t pledge allegiance to your flag / ’Cause I can’t find no reconciliation with your past.” This first line perfectly sets the tone for the album that follows.
Singles “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)” and “Lamborghini Angels” give a perfect vision into what Lupe is trying to do with this record. In both, he touches on many of the aforementioned topics. The former features a sample of Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s classic “T.R.O.Y.,” and includes lyrics by Lupe about the flaws of so-called “freedom.” The latter samples one of his former mixtape tracks and digs much deeper, approaching touchy subjects like the molestation of boys by religious leaders.
In some songs, Lupe steps away from his criticism of America and focuses more on hip-hop. For example, “ITAL (Roses)” criticizes the way rappers portray life. He pleads with children to ignore the talk of fancy cars and jewelry, instead telling them to be “fiscally responsible.” While he probably could’ve said this in a way that would better reach the minds of young people, his message is clear. He also downplays violence, saying that there “ain’t no future in no gang bang.” Similarly, “Audubon Ballroom” includes criticism of contemporary rappers, but also conveys strong messages of Black Power.
At times, Lupe speaks on issues that are closer to home for him, including his struggles with the hip-hop game in “Brave Heart.” In this track, he raps about paying dues, difficulties with his label and his approach to music. In “Cold War,” Lupe gets emotional while rapping about fallen comrades — a harsh reality on the violent streets of the south side of Chicago.
Unfortunately, a few songs fail to fit what seems to be the message of the disc. Works like “Battle Scars” and “How Dare You” aren’t bad songs, but they are less issue-driven and, thus, seem out of place. Similarly, some of the songs have weak production, but this isn’t overly alarming, since Lupe has always carried more of a focus on lyrics. If anyone can salvage a weak beat, it’s he.
The way Lupe ends the album is as great as the way he begins it. On the outro, “Hood Now,” he speaks on how hip-hop and “hood” culture have entered everything from professional sports to The White House. While this may seem like a cheesy concept, it shows how far hip-hop, flawed or not, has come.
Although it has a few fuzzy moments, Food & Liquor II doesn’t disappoint. Lupe’s lyrical ability, passion, honesty and critical approach make for a great album. —Ryan Querbach