By Alex Suskind
February 25, 2019 at 03:36 PM EST
@visionaryphototeam

Music history is pockmarked by artists disdaining the very albums that put them on the map. Debut records, in particular, loom large. It’s not surprising: first impressions are hard to shake, particularly for those uninterested in repeating themselves. But few have the kind of lukewarm relationship Lupe Fiasco has had with his own first entry: 2006’s influential, skateboard-adoring, lyrically ambitious Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor. Considered a Rosetta Stone for a generation of conscious rap fans — that underground subgenre that attempted to counter the b—s-and-bling mantra of mainstream hip-hop — F&L’s legacy has remained secure among the Chicago rapper’s rabid fanbase even if its creator’s feelings on it pinball between acceptance and apathy.

Born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, Lupe Fiasco had been heralded as hip-hop’s savior long before he dropped his first studio album, thanks to the critically lauded Fahrenheit 1/15 mixtape series plus endorsements from Jay-Z and Kanye West. But then F&L leaked months before its actual release, forcing Lupe to record new material. When the official version came out, its stats were misreported by Billboard because Best Buy hadn’t turned in its sales numbers. As Fiasco told the Village Voice at the time, “You had blogs and websites [saying], ‘Lupe Fiasco flops.’ Then two days later, they gotta put up another one, ‘Oh, the grandiose performance of Lupe Fiasco,’ and all the wording’s changed. So it’s just whatever. It just shows the facetiousness of the music business.”

You could tell how slighted Lupe felt by the whole endeavor. In the years since, he has continued to perform hit singles off his debut while hedging on the project’s status as an undisputed classic. “The album set the tone for a lot of what you hear today,” he admitted in a commentary track he posted to mark the project’s 10th anniversary. “I don’t think it’s a classic to be honest, but that’s just me, the guy who made it. It’s not really for me. It’s for you all.” No one loves a backhanded compliment about Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor more than Lupe Fiasco himself. (At least that’s better than what he once said about Lasers.)

So, when the now-38-year-old Chicago MC first announced that he would be performing F&L in full for the first and only time, it was a bit surprising, particularly for an artist who tends to revel in doing the exact opposite of what listeners ask of him. He gave a quasi-explanation to his decision in the show’s press release: “The fans have been asking for it for a long time and the time finally felt right,” he said in a statement. “This album speaks to a really interesting, but special time in my career, and it’s cool to be able to share that in a new way with everyone.”

There wasn’t anything new, per se, about his sold-out set at the Novo on Saturday in Los Angeles, other than Lupe finally giving the people what they wanted by performing a spirited, lyrically faithful recreation of his debut work. Right at the top Lupe hinted at the outsized footprint the 2006 record holds to his listeners. “Sh— you think this means something to you? It means something to me,” he said, after tearing through versions of “Real” and “Just Might Be O.K.,” followed by a punchy take on “Kick, Push” and its famed horn riff. While Lupe mostly stuck to music throughout the evening, he did take some time to share a couple behind-the-scenes stories about the album’s making. “I always wanted to do a song with Pharrell and Chad [Hugo] and they charged me soooo much money — this one joint alone is worth its weight in gold,” he said about “I Gotcha” and its Neptunes-produced beat.

Later, Lupe led an energetic singalong to the Grammy-winning “Daydreamin,’” mercilessly teased a Jay-Z cameo before bringing out a talented 13-year-old Compton-based MC named C Bleu to freestyle in place of Hov’s verse on “Pressure,” and had his 14-piece backup band provide some additional instrumental kick to extended versions of “Hurt Me Soul” and “American Terrorist.”

In concert, and more than a decade after its release, F&L felt as captivating as ever. But it’s still hard not to watch a Lupe Fiasco show in 2019 and think of what might have been. He is a gifted lyricist and knows how to captivate an audience. Yet Lupe also exists in a strange ether — an arrested development of being an underdog, his unrealized destiny of superstardom never quite fulfilled despite the early hype over his arrival. In another universe, this throwback show would have received the nationwide tour treatment that Nas’ Illmatic got in 2014.

But for Lupe, maybe icon status was beside the point (“Wanna believe my own hype but it’s too untrue,” he rapped on 2007’s “Superstar”). He was always too evasive, too tempestuous to really embrace that role in the first place. No matter. Who needs superstardom or a certified classic when your goals are different from those who listen to you? As he said toward the end of Saturday’s set, “So much of [Food & Liquor] was done before I came into being a man, so sorry if it sounds a little adolescent. I had two choices: I could have gone into the streets or made a song about skateboarding, but here I am.”

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