New York City and Los Angeles are constantly associated with glitz, glamour, and the good life, but the city of Chicago is the polar opposite. Drenched in the syrupy soul of yesteryear, the vibe of Chi-Town drips of nostalgia, without ever losing sight of the present. But as charming a city as Chicago is, it is also a city that is filled with broken dreams, violence, despair, and prayers for a reprieve from the madness, all of which are touched upon on native son Lupe Fiasco‘s critically acclaimed debut album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor. The album, which arrived in September of 2006, would announce Fiasco as one of the more prodigious and promising wordsmiths of the new millennium and was one of the rare debuts to live up to the hype that preceded it.
2006 may have been his mainstream coming-out party, but the story of Lupe Fiasco begins years earlier, when he was a member of the rap group, Da Pak. Signed to Epic Records, the group would release a buzz single, titled ” Armpits” before disbanding, leading Fiasco to venture out on his own and partner up with Charles “Chilly” Patton, forming 1st & 15th entertainment in 2001. Lupe’s reputation as a gifted lyricist, matched with Chilly’s connections in the music industry would prove to be fruitful, with the pair managing to pique the interest of L.A. Reid, who would sign Lupe and 1st & 15th to Arista Records as a package deal. Prior to settling on joining Arista, Lupe was also being courted by Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella Records, a negotiation that would prove to be historic and would later put him in position to win bigger than he’d ever dreamed. Having arguably the hottest rapper in the game, and one of your idols, shower you with praise and offer you a prime position as an artist on their label is the stuff of dreams, but that literally happened to the young Chicagoan.
“Jay-Z was like, ‘Yo, I want to sign you to Rocafella,’” Lupe recounted in a 2006 interview. “We turned that down because they couldn’t give us the situation that we wanted, which was a production situation as opposed to me just being signed as an artist. So we eventually signed to Arista Records as a production company. This is, like, 2002.”
With a record deal locked in, Lupe was on the fast-track to stardom. But L.A. Reid was dismissed as Arista’s president and CEO, causing Lupe to be dropped from the label. But he would quickly bounce back, scoring a a deal with Atlantic Records–and he began to craft the bulk of what was his debut album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor.
2005 would be Lupe’s chance to break through in a major way with his appearance on Kanye West’s Late Registration cut, “Touch The Sky,” and Lupe took full advantage of the opportunity, turning in a standout verse that even impressed Hov. Enamored by the sheer display of lyrical wizardry, Hov would hop on board as an executive producer of Food & Liquor, a co-sign that raised anticipation for Lupe’s debut. The first single, “Kick, Push,” became a sleeper hit among the alternative rap and hipster set, and with Food & Liquor‘s release date looming, all signs pointed to a potentially monster 2006 for Lupe Fiasco.
Until Food & Liquor leaked months early.
The leaked version of the album, which included potent material like “Theme Music to a Drive-By,” “Steady Mobbin,” and “Spaze Out,” would earn raves from anyone who managed to hear it, and become one of the more celebrated leaks in 2000s hip-hop up to that point. Airing his grievances, Lupe said “hey sh*t happens….an unmixed version of Food & Liquor got leaked yesterday….so i assume its on ******** and bittorrent and all that sh*t…its stuff like this that makes you wanna just be like fu*k it…lotta time and money and bullsh*t went into creating that album.”
But instead of becoming disheartened and allowing the leak to dictate how his debut album would be remembered, Lupe went back to the drawing board; recording new material to match with choice cuts already on the docket for Food & Liquor. With a renewed hunger and back in a creative zone, Lupe would begin to reshape and mold his magnum opus into a masterpiece, drawing from his Chi-Town stomping grounds for inspiration. “The store is where everything is at…Food to me represents growth and progression,” Lupe says in an interview. “You eat food and you get strength. You need it to live. Liquor is not a necessity; it is a want. It destroys you. It breaks you down. I can see why it’s prohibited in Islam…I’ve always felt like liquor represents the bad, the food represents the good, and everyone is made up of a little of both.”
Those two sides of the coin, the good and the bad, are on full display on Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, one of the most brilliantly realized debut albums in the last 15 years of hip-hop. “Real,” Food & Liquor‘s first selection, begins with Lupe musing “Lust, sometimes can override trust/She said that’s why she gave it up/My man said blood spilled out of everything he touched” before pointing out the rampant facades and lack of authenticity and feeling in the rap.
The energy and stakes on Food & Liquor are instantly ratcheted up on “Just Might Be OK,” which features an impassioned vocal performance on the part of 1st & 15th double-threat Gemini. Lupe gets busy with the wordplay, rhyming “It’s finna get heavy as heaven/I am Atlas at this manage to balance/Massive masses pull my back with out tilting my glasses/This was not pilfered from passages of OG’s/This is so me,” and inflicting punishment on intense production. The aforementioned “Kick, Push,” which would be released as the lead single from the album, would fail to light the Billboard charts on fire, peaking at No. 78 on the Hot 100, but would spark significant conversations about skate-culture and hip-hop and how the two worlds have collided in recent years. While Lupe Fiasco would catch flack for penning an ode to skateboard culture without being an actual participant, “Kick, Push” has become an anthem of sorts in that community and is regarded as one of the best all-around rap songs of recent years.
Despite initial reports insisting that Food & Liquor would consist solely of production by his stable of 1st & 15th boardsmen Soundtrakk and Prolyfic, Lupe would ultimately venture outside of his camp, tapping The Neptunes, Mike Shinoda, and Kanye West to contribute tracks to the album. A standout is “I Gotcha,” a jazzy number that was the second single released from Food & Liquor. Flowing nimbly over vintage piano keys and other live instrumentation, Lupe delivers the most commercially accessible tune on his debut that still sounds a quirky and enticing a decade later.
Broken homes and parenthood are broached on “He Say She Say,” an emotionally piercing cut that stands among the more superior compositions featured on Food & Liquor, while the Grammy winning salvo, “Daydreamin’,” which includes vocals from Jill Scott, is simply masterful and flawlessly executed. “Hurt Me Soul” is another heart-wrenching number that’s as wistful as a gust of Chicago wind and speaks to the hopelessness that plagues the rapper’s hometown streets.
For lyrics enthusiasts, Food & Liquor‘s main event was undoubtedly “Pressure,” which sees Fiasco going toe-to-toe with the God MC himself, but the duel of wits leaves a bit to be desired, making it one of the album’s more pedestrian, albeit respectable, selections. Closing out strong with scorchers like the Matthew Santos assisted “American Terrorist,” and the “Emperor’s Soundtrack,” Lupe Fiasco bookends his long-awaited debut with material that doesn’t disappoint.
When the retail version of Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor hit shelves on September 19, 2006, it was obvious the leak hadn’t drastically affected Lupe Fiasco’s numbers, with the album debuting at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 and selling over 81,000 copies within its first week. Failing to attain gold certification, Food & Liquor would not turn Lupe Fiasco into the superstar many had predicted, (he wouldn’t get closer until the release of his sophomore effort, The Cool, the following year), but it set a standard for Fiasco and made it clear that he wasn’t going to be a hip-hop afterthought; he was going to be an artist who pushed the genre and himself creatively.
10 years later and with five studio albums under his belt, Lupe Fiasco has had his share of missteps and lesser moments, but Food & Liquor remains one of the landmark rap debuts of the 2000s and proof that, when inspired and focused, the Chicago rhymer can deliver greatness. Even under less-than-great circumstances.