There’s a tiny thing I miss in Hip Hop, as opposed to my previous musical staples, and that’s being able to sing along. I love singing and, despite my unpredictable voice, when I like a song I WILL sing along to it, consciously or unconsciously. It’s a part of my appreciation, and a deeper immersion into the music.
With Hip Hop this is harder. I’m still getting used to the rhythms and the different jargon, and well let’s face it, I’ll never be a rapper. So I find myself singing along with the instruments and MOVING more to the music. It really hit me with this album, where I regularly found myself happily dancing and bouncing around in my chair while I listened.
Where Be served us a supersized helping of Soul and R&B and Game Theory continued that but surprised me by throwing in a Radiohead tune, this week’s installment had me actively going “Whaaaaaaaahahahahat is that doing here???” Yes, it is once again a “family friendly” offering (apt description of the last two albums by a reader), and yes, this will change. But I needed to fall in love with the genre before I would be able to forgive it it’s… warts. Besides, the fact that Hip Hop is family friendly shouldn’t count against it anymore than if it is more adult in theme. Anyway, I think Cmonies has successfully seduced me into falling in love with Hip Hop, using only three albums. Bravo sir!
I think this is the most diverse album I’ve heard so far. Lupe Fiasco pulls his inspiration from very diverging genres and his subject matter too, though familiar, focuses occasionally on something more distinct, more personalized than purely an ode to/dirge for the hood. I guess the same can be said for the previous albums, but the outings here are more deviating than what I’m used to.
Also check out that cover guys, as you’ll see it fits perfectly with the retro-futuristic vibe we’ll find in some of the music.
As usual, all orange titles are clickable!
The intro almost daunted me as it tapped into one of my unfaced fears: angry lady rappers. I know I’m going to have to confront them sometime, but there can be something very aggressive and intimidating about a female rap artist. At least to me. Fortunately, this lady is not angry. It is in fact Iesha Jaco, Lupe Fiasco’s sister, who introduces us to her brother and this album.
She calls out the state of youngsters in Urban America, and that the days of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King have ended. Youths are not idealistic anymore, but are only concerned with clothes, rims, shorties and violence, keeping the hospital wards filled with GSW victims and the funeral homes in booming business.
In contrast there is this person “evolved from the hood” who is trying to turn “the fiasco to good”. Cue Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, aka Lupe Fiasco, with an Islamic prayer and his philosophy:
I think the world, and everything in it
Is made up of a mix, of two things
You got your good, y'know, and your bad
You got your food, and your liquor
And there we have our album title and the main philosophy. Iesha’s rap is underlayed only with the cheerful whoops and yells of people meeting up on the street, then a wistful tune complements Lupe’s dedication to his grandmother before flowing into the lavish opening orchestra. The very grandiosity has quite a thrilling effect.
From that slightly heady beginning we jump to something that is altogether more driving and urgent. We have an unavoidable guitar riff borrowed from the intro of Harvey Mason’s How Does It Feel (please check that out, the gruff vocal posturing cracked me up, especially combined with the album cover), and this gives it a dash of disco, without going near the campiness of the rest of the tune. It’s extremely infectious, with a clapping, energetic feeling and a great hook sung by Sarah Green.
Lupe speaks of the disillusionment of people who find out their pursuits are actually not real, but empty and destructive. What stood out to me was that Lupe seems to have a feeling of responsibility because he has it better than most. If he is able to keep his homies out of trouble by giving them some rims or sneakers, he’ll do so, but he also wants to give people something of worth.
Humphrey’s Overture, by Paul Humphrey, has a trumpet fanfare somewhere in its intro. It also has some subtle laser sounds and that nice swampy Shaftish vibe. Lupe takes these elements and dials them WAY up. The fanfare is repeated every few bars, there are MOAR LAZURS, faux-futuristic squiggles and doodles and even airplanes zooming overhead. The cacophony works, but it’s borderline. One more bleep or boop could have sent it spinning into the realms of Just Too Much.
What we’re dealing with though, is a hustler taking stock of his situation. He has listened to the devil on his shoulder a few times too often, turning him into a guy that puts on a different face when he goes home to see his mama, and worried about the little brother, practicing his swagger in the mirror, who so much wants to follow in his footsteps. And doesn’t the brazen, over-the-top medley of noise suit the slightly defiant optimism of this man, who tries to convince himself that they “just might be ok”? Gemini features on the hook, as if desperate to make the whole sound sunny.
4| Kick, Push
I really love this track. It is nothing more or less than a love song to skateboarding. We follow a young kid as he gets on a skateboard for the first time, promptly falling off of course. He perseveres and becomes a proficient roller, skating around his city and being chased away everywhere. He meets a girl he likes but he is hesitant of commitment:
He said I would marry you but I'm engaged to these aerials and varials
And I don't think this board is strong enough to carry 2
She said boy I weigh 120 pounds, now
Lemme make one thing clear
I don't need to ride yours I got mine right here
So they skate on together, forming a clan and still being chased from parking lots to apartment block stairs. I love how Lupe portrays the sounds and experience of skateboarding, the rhythm of the Kick, Push, Kick, Push, Kick, Push, Coassssst in the chorus, and:
Ca-kunk, ca-kunk, kunk
His neighbors couldn't stand it, so
He was banished to the park
The whole is supported by quite a dramatic orchestral background again, the strings of which are sampled from Filipino singer Celeste Legaspi’s Magtaksil Man Ikaw or Bolero Medley. Again, the rather smarmy cheesiness of the sample doesn’t seep through in the track. It just gives me the vicarious feeling of the freedom and rebellion of skating, without actually trying to get on a board. Knowing me, I would surely break a few bones if I did.
5| I Gotcha
We have some illustrious guest stars here, in the form of Pharrell Williams on vocals in the hook, and The Neptunes producing. He credits them sure enough:
And so to sign off, this beat I rhyme off
Is from the Thelonious P and Hugo Mind Boss
One hell of a compliment to Williams, calling him Thelonious P. Here Lupe seems to be presenting himself as the real shit, the genuine article, someone who has battled his way up and is proud of it.They use a lilting, playful piano melody together with a tight, choppy beat, and is that an accordion I hear in there?
This is where the outside influences become really diverse. We’ve already had seventies disco and Filipino crooners, and now Lupe intersperses the verses of the rather inaccurately named The Instrumental with a chorus that includes pieces from Nestle, by the alt-rock band Far.
We’re going for the futuristic vibe again, with slightly eerie synths and a plodding bass beat. The subject is a television obsessed man, and his obsession seems to drive him mad. But it might as well be about media-addicted society as a whole:
He just sits, and listens to the people in the boxes
Everything he hears he absorbs and adopts it
Anything the box tell him to do, he does it
Anything it tell him to get, he shops and he cops it
Josh Matranga assists Lupe on the choruses of this rather haunting track. It tends to stay with you.
This was the heartbreaker of the album for me. It doesn’t sound like it though! The sweeping keys, brass and strings are lifted from the seventies lounge of Burt Bacharach’s The Last One to Be Loved, giving it a mellow, agreeable flow. Gemini and Sarah Green both join in again to heighten the soul.
The lyrics deal with a mother and son, who have been abandoned by the father who can’t be bothered to stay involved. The mother kicks off, painting a portrait of a little boy who used to do well in school, but is now flagging and getting into fights. His friends ask if his dad is sick of him because he never comes to pick him up. Sad as that is, it really tugs at your heartstrings when the little boy repeats her words:
I don't deserve to get used to that
Now I ain't asking you for money or to come back to me
Some days it ain't sunny but it ain't so hard
Just breaks my heart
When my momma try to provide and I tell her 'That ain't your job'
You know the world is out to get me, why don't you give me a chance?"
Tragic stuff. Let’s lighten the mood by looking for the same Burt Bacharach hook in The B-52’s Mesopotamia. Hint: first appearance at 1:36.
This track, on the other hand, is full of romance and optimism. It is the story of having seen someone a few times in the club, and finally getting up enough courage to go up to them and ask them out. And it works! You leave the club together, go for a drive and she tells you that she has been waiting for you to make your move.
She says "that I've been waiten for you"
And I know you been chasen me too since they kidnapped me from a castle
I been thinken of you
I told a firebreathen dragon "he best not harm me" or he be sorry when he meets my one man army
And thou has come ta rescue me
My knight in shinen armor yes you be
It is brimful of the hope and optimism of first love. Lupe takes the scissors to the violins, keys and some of the electric elements of Diana Ross’s lag-ballad Friend to Friend, alleviating the halting effect with a sprinkle of bells. It’s relaxing, summery, romantic.
We step into a reverie next, structured completely on I Monster’s languid Daydream in Blue. It’s less floaty and ethereal than the original, but the theme is there from beginning to end, and it’s used literally in the chorus, sung by Jill Scott. Lupe does make it sound a bit more spacey again, and the bombast from the rest of the album creeps in almost without you noticing it.
The dream itself is surrealistic and not altogether pleasant. We are steering a gigantic robot through the streets of the hood, and as we observe, the whores, drug addicts and felons encroach further and further up the huge body. As the orgies and debauchery increase, he can’t help but turn away from his source.
Me and my robot tip-toe 'round creepin
I had to turn my back on what got you paid
I couldn't see half the hood on me like Abu Ghraib
But I'd like to thank the streets that drove me crazy
And all the televisions out there that raised me
He can’t bear to carry his background around with him as a millstone around his neck, but he is still grateful for what it has driven him to be.
10| The Cool
Submerged synths greet us on The Cool, leading into this spooky track. We have an old friend helping out on the chorus and production, in the form of Kanye West, giving him an appearance on three out of the three albums I have reviewed so far. The synths and the tight snare rhythm and even some of the guitar riff are taken from Dexter Wansel’s Life on Mars, which in itself is quite a cheerful seventies sci-fi pastiche, but Lupe alters the mood completely for this ghost story.
A drug dealer is shot dead and buried. However, he claws himself back out of the grave and goes wandering back to his old neighborhood, where the hoppers are trying to sell to him and end up threatening him with the same gun they shot him with.
Put it to his head and said "You scared ain't ya?"
He said: "Hustler for death. No heaven for a gangsta."
The story is full of morbid details, like his coffin being flooded with whiskey, him having to use his mouth to dig himself out and swallowing the grave dirt when he can’t spit it out. I found it quite a bizarre little tale.
11| Hurt Me Soul
The next song seems to combine the evolution of a rapper with the degradation of society. The opening interested me greatly, because it laid bare some of Lupe’s beginnings:
I used to hate hip-hop... yup, because the women degraded
But Too $hort made me laugh, like a hypocrite I played it
A hypocrite I stated, though I only recited half
Omittin the word "bitch," cursin I wouldn't say it
Me and dog couldn't relate, til a bitch I dated
Forgive my favorite word for hers and hers alike
But I learnt it from a song I heard and sorta liked
It hints a bit at the peer pressure that must come with growing up in urban America. The chorus highlights the tragedies and horrors of the environment with the drawn out track title forming practically a wail. The soulful orchestral handling with the playful keys keeps it from becoming too heavy.
Another high profile guest star shows up as Jay-Z takes a verse of Pressure off Lupe’s hands. I must admit that the lyrics are (even) more cryptic for me than what I’m getting used to but I’m going to take a whack at interpreting it anyway.
I may be totally wrong but in my understanding we’re speaking of ways to make a living, from making jeans in a sweatshop to hustling, to being a rapper. Jay-Z has something to say about it too, having come so far:
So the pen is mightier than the sword my lord
My first picture was a line-up, now I'm on the Forbes
And I still remain the artiste through these all
But the most important thing is your motivation, what or who you are doing it for. To back this they use the driving bass of the disco instrumental Pressure Cooker by Thelma Houston. They even add an eagle overhead, leaving the rest virtually unchanged for an adventurous, enterprising feeling.
American Terrorist has a powerful message of anti-intolerance, and it’s refreshingly directed at all the partaking parties indiscriminately.
camouflaged Torahs, Bibles and glorious Qurans
the books that take you to heaven and let you meet the Lord there
have become misinterpreted, reasons for warfare
we read em with blind eyes i guarantee u there's more there
the ink of a scholar is worth a thousand times more than the blood of a martyr
He even managed to find a positive point in the ongoing recession!
now the poor ku klux man ...can’t burn his cross cause he cant afford the gasoline
The musical setting is again very unexpected, the Spanish guitar trills and riffs having been taken from the rambling latin-jazz The Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever. The chorus features Matthew Santos and the tempo gives it a nervous, breathless energy.
As we near the end of Food and Liquor we get another glimpse of Lupe Fiasco’s philosophies and codes.
Only fear God
Know the weapons of the weak
The weakness of the hard
And never fall asleep
Never fall asleep, because it is a dangerous world out there and nobody is immune to falling prey to the expectations of others, of conforming to your environment.
The accompaniment is deliberate and rather threatening, even though the sweeping synths are a harsher take on the guitars from the soaring and absolutely beautiful rock classic Between the Walls by UFO.
15| Kick, Push II
Kick, Push II brings us back to our group of skateboarders and life has not been kind to them. They are full of scars from their lives till now, from violent or absent parents to having to beg for some money to buy a gyros. But they still have their escape:
You kick, push
Over your shoulders you swore you'd never look
Cause wasn't nothin' there but the blackness
Life wasn't too attractive
It has the same blend of classical strings and keys with a strong snare beat that we have seen in many of the tracks, tying an otherwise somber tune nicely into the whole.
And that brings us round full circle! Because Lupe Fiasco uses exactly the same music as the Intro and the 12 minute+ Outro is actually a thanks and dedication track. Although I must admit the shout-out to Dave’s Quality Meats among all the producers, moms and musicians has me do a double take no matter how often I hear it.
I really enjoyed the diversity of this album, the way it took us from growing up in the hood to skateboarding to first dates to daydreams and ghost stories, and musically from the cheesiest of lounge crooners to campy retro-space-disco to fusion jazz to soaring rock.
I may try a less safe option for my next post… because I’m no longer worried of being scared off. I won’t be able to shake Hip Hop ever again.