Review Summary: Surprisingly, The Cool works despite its many obvious flaws
All eyes are on Lupe Fiasco for his second album proper, The Cool
, follow-up to his critically-adored debut Food & Liquor
and, so he’d have us believe, the second-to-last album before he retires. Though hip hop boasts a grand tradition of artists pretending to retire so their albums will be viewed more favourably, Lupe’s own boasts seem particularly audacious. In spite the industry-wide sales decline, he’s still only a second-tier artist sales-wise, and “most blogged-about rapper of 2006” honours aside, three moderately successful releases does not a legend make.
Is Lupe really so eager to peddle below-average sweatshop footwear that he can’t take a month out every couple of years to promote a new album? Perhaps we’ll never know. Lupe’s retirement idea, predictably, isn’t so much a “retirement” as a “not retirement.” He’ll remain closely involved in the business either way, whether as a performer or an executive, but on the evidence of The Cool
, he’s an artist who’d be sorely missed if he chose to leave it all behind. The Cool
is an ambitious effort in its own way, an attempt by the quintessential white rapper to show there’s more to his game than mere skateboarding and MySpace rhymes.
has been touted as a concept album of sorts, though Fiasco has moved to play down this association in the run-up to its release. The concept is in fact confined to a half-dozen tracks, and a few token references elsewhere. It revolves around a character named The Cool, first introduced on the tracks ‘He Say She Say’ and ‘The Cool’ from Food & Liquor
, a boy who’s abandoned by his father and instead turns to an odd couple, named The Game and The Streets respectively, for tough love and guidance. For an artist as obviously intelligent as Lupe, the concept is surprisingly awkward, and as Sesame Street as the imagery is, it still manages to confuse the hell out of your hyper-intelligent reviewer.
The five or so tracks that deal specifically with the story are quite a departure from the self-assured, bright-eyed pop that endeared Food & Liquor
to just about everybody, and seemed to have carried through with the release of lead single ‘Superstar.’ Instead, tracks like ‘Put You on Game’ and ‘Streets on Fire’ see Lupe slip way out of comfort zone. Replacing the jazzy, string-soaked arrangements of the album’s first half are spare, angry tirades again all the evils of street-life. The attempt to deal with more serious issues is commendable, but completely misguided. Lupe has the technical skills, as the metronomic brilliance of ‘Go Go Gadget Flow’ demonstrates, but when he falls away from playful and melodic, as he does on ‘Streets on Fire,’ his rapid-fire flow sounds remarkably lightweight, and any impact the song could have is negated by its total dreariness.
It’s almost depressing to say it, but The Cool
only really gets going when Lupe drops the pretence and concentrates on what got him noticed in the first place. The snide commentary on celebrity culture which runs through lead single ‘The Superstar’ is infinitely more engaging than any of his conceptual efforts. John Legend-clone Matthew Santos makes the first of his two vocal contributions, his sweet voice providing the infectious hook of ‘Superstar,’ singing “if you are what you say you are, a superstar / Then have no fear, the camera’s here.”
Street single ‘Dumb It Down’ takes a similar (but more blunt) knife to the masterminds of hip hop’s “race to the bottom,” where status and looking the part is valued above artistic and intellectual achievement; intentionally or not, it’s fitting that the track itself could have been one of the better cuts from 50 Cent’s Curtis
There are only a few guest vocalists on show, but it’s a case of quality over quantity, with likes of Santos, Pooh Bear, Sarah Green and Nouveau Riche frontwoman Nikki Jean in fine form. Santos’ forever-enunciated vowels in ‘Fighters’ are heaven to behold. Jean adds her smooth-like-honey tones to ‘Little Weapon’ and standout ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life.’ But it’s Pooh Bear and Snoop Dogg who team up for one of the album’s finest moments. ‘Hi-Definition’ boasts lightning-fast piano fills and a JT-aping sung chorus by the Bear (the imitation trend only affects the guys: Lupe still sounds like a more talented Kanye), while Snoop’s guest verse is one of the best he’s managed in years, kicking off with the charmingly homoerotic couplet: “Lupy, it’s Snoopy, let’s go out / Tip toe through the door, do it doggy style.”
If there’s something we don’t know, it’s probably better left unsaid.
‘The Coolest’ is the only one of the concept tracks to receive the full pop treatment, and it’s miles better as a result, easily ranking among the album’s top three tracks. As Lupe refrains, “the coolest nigga, what?”
, it’s as easy to engage with the story as it is to ignore it, while Chris & Drop’s string-laden arrangement swoops and swings with the aid of haunting choral vocals to give a cinematic feel to proceedings. ‘Paris, Tokyo’ calls to mind Food & Liquor
’s ‘Kick, Push’ with a lazy lounge chorus. ‘Go Go Gadget Flow’ sees him pay homage to Chicago, rapping, “I’m from a city in midwest, best city in the whole wide wide world.”
It’s not that
good, but it may explain Patrick Stump’s production spot on ‘Little Weapon.’ Surprisingly, it works. And, surprisingly, The Cool
works as an album despite its many obvious flaws: the pop tracks are as good as anything from his debut, and his attempts to branch out are at least hit and miss, with exciting tracks like ‘Little Weapon’ and ‘Dumb It Down’ breaking the monotony of his soapbox moments.