For those old-fashioned folks still buying CDs (myself included), Lupe Fiasco’s debut, Food & Liquor, offered more in the way of liner notes than the typical modern hip-hop record: instead of opting for a glamorous photo booklet, Fiasco used it as an outlet for social commentary, a flipbook of sorts documenting a boy’s descent into gang violence in a trigger-happy society. “Be like Dick; Shoot a gun,” shouts the mock poster on the wall, typifying the sort of not-so-thinly veiled social message that Fiasco pursues on his ambitious sophomore effort, set in blissful contrast with the brilliantly flashy, pop production.
Of course, Lupe Fiasco has never been mistaken for a typical rapper. A devout Muslim, Fiasco’s lyrics have run the gamut from skateboarding narratives to Japanese manga references, and get this: he was turned off by the vulgar nature of Public Enemy and N.W.A. albums. And if Fiasco’s underlying moral message occasionally veers in anti-violence cliché territory, it’s forgivable. In fact, he should be commended for rapping about far more than just himself (although he does that too on “The Coolest”, a majestic anthem in which the rapper declares, “I love the lord / But sometimes it’s like that I love me more!”). Descriptions of Food & Liquor were littered with phrases like “throwback to hip-hop’s glory days” and The Cool proves that it wasn’t a fluke. Lupe Fiasco, flaws and all, is a savior for the positivity movement in rap, the likes of which haven’t been heard since the pre-Kanye era. I’d point to Blackalicious’s 2002 masterstroke, Blazing Arrow.
“During the time that the album was being cooked, in my head it was a very dark kind of period,” said Fiasco of the album’s less-than-sunny inspiration. “A lot of loss. I lost my father, I lost my business partner to prison, and I lost some friends. It was a very dark period.” The truth is said darkness really only affects about half the album, most notably the poignant “Fighters”. Matthew Santos’ lone voice builds into many, delivering an utterly gorgeous chorus hook (“When the fighters are all around / All the lovers are underground / No one will save you anymore”) over an affecting synth riff. Coupled with the lyrical odes to a departed father and grandma, along with redemption sentiments (“I hope that God forgive us / All of us sinners / Turn us back into beginners / Put us up where the winners go”), the whole affair could border on cringe-worthy in the hands of a lesser emcee, but Fiasco’s raw sincerity is enough to soften even a coldhearted cynic (myself, of course). In fact, this rare vulnerable moment makes such a touching confusion that one wonders why the forgettable “Go Baby” is tacked on afterwards, a purely unnecessary afterthought.
The theme of violence is epitomized on “Little Weapon”, featuring a surprisingly fantastic production from Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump (yeah, you read that correctly). The intense crackling percussion and moaning voices are apocalyptic to the core, over which Fiasco ponders the potentially fatal influence of videogame culture: “Imagine if I had to console / The family of those slayed / I slain on game consoles.” Meanwhile, the UNKLE-produced “Hello/Goodbye (Uncool)” finds the rapper spitting imagery of “thousands of soldiers trained to never miss their targets” over the ruthless rap-rock assault.
However, concept albums are often constricting by definition; thus, is it really a shock that many of The Cool’s finest moments arrive when Fiasco abandons the album’s themes and simply lets his ADD tendencies run wild? The production team (half the time, it’s Soundtrakk) is the real star on tracks. “Gold Watch” is pure gold, during which Fiasco rhymes (“Go-yard bags and green Now `n Laters / Monical magazines and Japanese Manga” — these are a few of his favorite things) over an unintelligible sample of a woman speaking that might sound more at home on Panda Bear’s hard drive, so bizarre it’s actually brilliant.
Film buffs should chuckle at the title of “Paris, Tokyo”, a love letter to the joys of traveling, set to a jazz-hop backdrop evoking A Tribe Called Quest circa 1991. Like Andre 3000 before him, many will wish that Fiasco refrain from singing his own hooks, but who needs nitpicking with a groove like this? Then there’s first single “Superstar”, the obligatory ode to newfound fame, laced with crowd and camera sound effects and topped with another sublime Matthew Santos hook. “Go Go Gadget Flow” is a highlight as well. It’s been a mere year since the hip-hop star’s last album, yet this exuberant energy burst still serves to effectively prove two things: that Fiasco’s rhyme flow has come miles since his big break guest spot on Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” in 2005, and that he really is “back on my grizzle like a bearskin rug.”
Unfortunately, at such a lengthy runtime, a bit of filler is inevitable, and The Cool becomes another quite good 70-minute album that could have been a damn flawless 50-minute album with a bit of editing. In the iTunes era, is it morally just to simply reedit that 50-minute album yourself? Or should we just be satisfied that Fiasco ditched the 12-minute ‘thank you’ list after the last album? “Dumb It Down” is a biting imitation of inferior rappers — “Make a song for the biches, nigga / Dumb it down!” — except that the subject matter is essentially a repeat of “Daydream” from Food & Liquor, and the music is ironically “dumbed down” to a dull beat and colorless synth backdrop. Similarly, “The Die” (one of three songs featuring GemStones), an unremarkable ode to gangster life, brings nothing new to the album.
So, if excess is Lupe Fiasco’s blessing and curse on The Cool, is too much better than too little? The rap star is not merely one of the freshest in the genre, but also among the most versatile, balancing such a colorful array of subject matter (the grim and the humorous) with the most diverse production canvas this side of Organized Noize. The Cool nods to the past with one step firmly set in the future of hip-hop; in Fiasco’s words, it’s a “sure shy, firecracker, extravaganza, fantastic, super size, with extra cheese.”