Lupe Fiasco is not happy. Food & Liquor, his heavily anticipated first album, just leaked to the internet in unmixed demo form, and he’s saying all the stuff that people always say when their albums leak: it’s not the final version, he’s going to have to go ahead and scrap and recreate the whole thing now that this inferior version is out there, it doesn’t have all its collaborations and skits and everything else in place yet, just wait until we hear the final version (whenever that might be). Lupe is more of an internet dork than the average rising rapper (which at this point is saying something), and so he seems to be taking the whole thing harder than the average rising rapper, not even sure the thing is ever going to come out now, convinced this is going to mess up all his label’s plans for him forever. This is all pretty ridiculous; as Byron Crawford said, every damn rap album ends up leaking anyway, and the label might as well just put it out as is because this version is going to be the one everyone wants.
I can second that, especially since this leaked version of the album is just about perfect (or at least really really good; I can get too caught up on my first couple of listens). Avid Gawker readers will probably be able to figure out why I’m generally pretty bummed out today, and Food & Liquor turns out to be pretty much exactly what I needed. In this unmixed forms, the beats are mixed low enough that they don’t overwhelm Lupe’s vocals, and there aren’t any distracting rapper cameos or big-name R&B singers cluttering the thing up, so I can focus pretty much exclusively on what Lupe brings to the table, and that turns out to be a whole hell of a lot. As a rapper, he’s nimble and thoughtful and gentle and big-hearted; he’s got a great ear for hooks and internal rhymes and a wicked eye for detail. He’s getting a lot of internet burn off “Kick Push,” the single, a strikingly gorgeous and disarming song about skateboarding, and he maintains that same wistful tone throughout the rest of the album, but it’s not like a skateboarding album or anything. As a persona, he’s fascinating: dorky bespectacled kid with backgrounds in both projects and suburbs, articulate and Islamic with the same fascination with ugly sneakers that Pharrell has, able to tackle complicated subjects in complicated ways instead of whittling things down to old backpacker binaries of money vs. soul or whatever. His throwaway lines are beautifully crafted (“There’s no honor amongst fellows / It’s harder than sitting with a blind man and trying to describe yellow,” “I am Atlas at this, manage to balance massive masses”), and it’s going to take a while to untangle all of them, but he always delivers them with this totally cool, conversational ease. On the harder tracks, which aren’t really all that hard, he sounds something like Juelz Santana if he’d suddenly been caught in some bizarre lab accident that made him about fifty times smarter. The rest of the time, he’s more like what everyone seems to think Common is, warm and incisive without losing the swagger that every great rapper needs. On “No Place to Go,” he’s great at describing the complicated relationship with rap that every halfway thoughtful non-asshole listener ends up trying and failing to resolve: “I used to hate hip-hop, yup, because the women degraded / But Too Short made me laugh; like a hypocrite I played it / A hypocrite I stated, but I only recited half, omitted the word bitch.” And when he gets political, which is often, he sometimes comes up with a line so packed and twisty that I’m not even sure where to put the slash-marks that indicate where one line ends and another begins: “Yes indeed, democracy’s a flirt in a miniskirt trying to give a handjob to the desert till it squirt Texas tea, then they give a condom to Congress to stretch and siege.” Musically, it sounds more like Chicago (or the Chicago I imagine, anyway; I’ve only been there a couple of times) than any rap album I’ve heard, the expansive, humid soul samples sweeping up all these strings and horns and guitar-burbles and turning into this constant rippling strut underneath everything without overwhelming it, something like the tracks Just Blaze made for Philadelphia Freeway but with most of the tense fury subbed out for calm introspection. There’s also an emo song, which should by rights be terrible, but Lupe is just so nimble on it and the synth noises are so pretty that it’s hard to be mad.
So yeah, anyway, this thing is pretty fucking great as is; it can easily hang with the Ghostface and T.I. albums as one of the best of the year. If Lupe keeps tinkering with it, he’s only going to fuck it up. The R&B singers who handle most of the hooks on the demo might just be placeholders (though the guy on “Ghetto Story” might actually be Ronald Isley or Charlie Wilson), but they do just fine. He doesn’t need to go and get Jill Scott, who might try to hog the spotlight and sing all over him and suck some of the energy from whatever song she ends up guesting on. He’s also talking about working with Three 6 Mafia. I’ve certainly made no secret of my love for that group, but it’s hard to imagine a worse pairing; Lupe’s gentle lilt just isn’t built to complement DJ Paul and Juicy J’s stormy, overwrought fuck-you-up production. And if Lupe thinks people actually want to hear skits, he’s playing himself. It’s funny; there’s been something of a trend recently of people who seem totally cool and normal and down-to-earth coming up in rap and then getting all powerful and turning into weird megalomaniacs with jewelry obsessions and doofy joint-venture ideas; think Kanye getting made up like Jesus for the Rolling Stone cover or Pharrell bragging about getting his own diamond cut. These guys can still do great work after making the narcissistic-celebrity leap, but that initial naive they’re-just-like-us buzz never comes back again. If Lupe keeps freaking out about this leak, he runs a risk of making the jump before his damn album even comes out, which must be setting some kind of record.