It Just Might Be Okay
2006 was a strange time for hip-hop. The shiny suit era had ended only a few years earlier, but the genre was reaching new heights of decadence and braggadocios content. But much like the housing crash that would come just two years later, 2006 was about the time cracks started to show in the plated armor of music. Artists weren’t going multi-platinum on name value alone, and most musical outings tried their damnedest to fit the mold of “ringtone rap”. It was in that climate, among the “I Like That’s” and “This Is Why I’m Hot’s” that a spitfire MC from Chicago released his debut album, Food & Liquor to the masses, and was heralded as the “hip-hops savior“.
While the praise may have been a little premature, it wasn’t exactly unfounded. Food & Liquor was a highly anticipated project from a young rapper who’d not only made a name for himself on he local mixtape scene in Chicago, but was able to proclaim his budding stardom on a Kanye West track, garnering the attention of J-Hova himself, Jay-Z. “A peach fuzz buzz, but a bit on the verge”, he wasn’t wrong and it wasn’t long before hip-hop heads the world over wanted more from the skinny dude dropping anime references over one of Kanye’s best beats. Then the leak happened.
Leaked albums were nothing new, hell they were practically expected around 2006, the issue with Food & Liquor was that instead of a few unfinished tracks hitting a little ahead of schedule, the entire LP hit the streets, leading to some legal wrangling as multiple samples weren’t cleared. So F&L hit the shelf, where it sat for months as Lupe tweaked tracks and worked on new material. Songs like Tilted, which was featured on video games as a lead single were cut from the album entirely, and with it, any inclination of what the newly finished album would sound like. Now with Jay-Z on as an executive producer.
The eventual release was a sound unlike anything else in popular music at the time, but oh so familiar to backpackers and conscious rap fans. Introspection, big beats, and lyrical gymnastics lay side by side with spoken word intros and a stray guest appearance from a still technically retired Jigga Man. The first single, Kick, Push, the skateboard song, spun the tale of a sidewalk surfer that used the hobby as a means of escape, love and defense from the world around him. It was personal, specific, but could easily be used swapped for any metaphor which made you feel different but unique. Even if you’d never touched a board in your life, the story still took you in, and brought you on that journey. “I’m sorry young man, there’s no skating here” became the “princess is in another castle” stand in for a younger generation.
That was Food & Liquor through and through. For 16 tracks, Lupe walks us through his entire life until that point. A constant search for acceptance. The courage to be who he is, but also to be better, while understanding that he is just as likely to fall on his face in the process. The title, Food & Liquor, a reference to the bodega style stores in his hometown which both supplied the life essence of food, but the liquid tools of destruction under the same roof. Seeing winos enter the same door a school children, each looking to get the parcel of escape, be it candy or cognac. It’s in these songs that your hear the american dream, but also its deconstruction. This world wasn’t made for me, but i’ll play the hand i’m dealt.
It’s on the songs where Carrara Lu looks forward that you get the most from Food & Liquor. He’s still young in age, and in his career. There’s an optimism to his words, even on the darkest of subjects. On Daydream, he’s calling out the trapping of contemporary hip-hop, while also realizing the artists such as himself could be the catalyst for change. Just Might Be Okay, swelling with horns and drums, he careens through the beat with precision, and wells with pride at how far he’s come, admiring the path behind, feeling prepared for the road ahead. And we’re riding shotgun.
Food & Liquor is heralded for its realism and its imagination in equal measure. The Cool, the song about a zombified gangster coming rising from the dead to realize it all meant nothing is just as much Blaxplotation as it is cautionary tale. It’s a prime example of what made the album so special, but also a harbinger of what was to come.
No one loves Lupe nearly as much as he loves himself. You can hear the special snowflake proclamations sprinkled throughout the album, and it’s only with ten years of hindsight that we can pinpoint them with laser accuracy. We gave him the title of “savior” while also feeding the monster he was supposedly saving us from. In doing so, Lupe spat in the face of conventional wisdom. Tilted, which was cut from the album, was as close to a radio single a she was going to get. Next in line was the Neptunes produced track, Gotcha. For as good as it was, it wasn’t going to turn heads in 06′ era rap, and was likely Lupe’s first real feeling of backlash. He’d done that song “for them”, and it wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t be his last pandering attempt, and each one only got more transparent. Still, Food & Liquor is Lupe before the cynicism and self-aggrandizing.
In the ten years since its release, Lupe has dropped four more albums, and along with each one, a promise that it’ll be the last AND that it’s better than anything else out. Only one of those things has ever been true, and only one time. Although, Tetsuo & Youth was better than many expected. Food & Liquor was our first real run with a promising MC. He was never built for super stardom, but the entire world was in front of him, and you can hear it in every bit of that album. There’s an almost timeless quality to it all thanks to the same machinations that saw Lupe bucking the system. So before the conspiracy theories, before the beef with his label, resulting in a deified status among backpackers, there was Lupe Fiasco, and the little album that told us all we could make it, that we weren’t alone, and that we just might be okay after all.