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Lupe Fiasco - The Cool Print E-mail
Friday, 01 February 2008
ImageThough it goes against the received wisdom that great works of art are only the product of years of developing skill, learning theory and experiencing life, a quick look at the history of pop music will show that some of the form’s definitive moments have come from artists only a few years removed from high school. From Bob Dylan writing “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a scruffy 21-year-old (a task so audacious that a 1963 Newsweek article falsely reported that Dylan had stolen the song from another songwriter) to Brian Wilson writing and arranging the Beach Boys landmark Pet Sounds at the age of 23 to Michael Jackson issuing Thriller at the age of 20, the pioneering works in the pop music idiom have often come from kids, not those who have spent their lives perfecting the craft of songwriting. And though the perception remains that young artists don’t have the gravitas to have their work be taken seriously on the same level as the grizzled old man fraternity of Hemmingway, Scorsese and (now) Dylan, young artists often create great work simply because they don’t know what they can’t do. Those are the perceptions that Lupe Fiasco battles against with The Cool.

Now 25, Lupe Fiasco already has one critically adored album to his credit, having burst on the scene as Kanye West’s most high-profile prodigy with 2006’s Food & Liquor. Now, hardly a year later, he’s already made reflective, self-serious follow-up, an album designed as his commentary on fame, faith and the culture of hip-hop. No doubt Fiasco has had an emotionally exhausting few years to meditate on, as he has gone from a virtual unknown to a hip-hop hot property, dealt with the death of his father and a close friend, and watched his mentor and business partner be sentenced to jail for 44 years. His answer to these various triumphs and traumas is to release a daringly ambitious concept album, further developing a story hinted on a track (“He Say, She Say”) from his debut by introducing characters named the Streets and the Game to step in to parent an impressionable inner-city youth. The result is thought-provoking, thematically confused and surprisingly pop-minded. It’s the kind of album only a young artist would dare to make. Opening with an almost unbearably pretentious bit of beat poetry and ghetto truisms, “Baba Says Cool for Thought” starts the album off on a questionable note, serving as a primer for an album that is both absurdly self-important and strangely humble. In particular, Fiasco seems to be struggling with being simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the hip-hop culture in which he competes. As such, he uses the spiking strings and splashy beats of “Go Go Gadget Flow” as a template over which to both boast of and demonstrate his exceptionally dexterous wordplay, then says he can’t believe his own hype on first single “Superstar.” That track, with Matthew Santos doing his best impression of Coldplay’s Chris Martin with his mellifluous vocals on the chorus, finds Fiasco going through the motions of fame, insecurely clinging to stardom despite the hassles and alienation of waiting in lines and airports. With a big old school beat and funky electric guitar groove, Fiasco is back boasting about his bling, his car and multicultural tastes on “Gold Watch,” only to resolve that he values his self-esteem and unswerving creative spirit most of all. On paper, it sounds like a cloyingly empowered statement. On record and with the right spirit of confliction, it sounds just fine.

No doubt, Fiasco spends quite a bit of time on his soapbox, whether creating a standard overcoming-the-odds story in “Hip-Hop Saved My Life” or creating parallels between the impressionable youths who become Islamic terrorists and the ghetto kids who become American thugs in “Little Weapon.” Even better is “Intruder Alert,” with Fiasco crafting a trio of vignettes of desperate characters (a woman dealing with rape, a drug addict struggling with self-loathing and an immigrant sneaking across the border to provide for his family) that fit perfectly with his pensive piano hook. To his credit, just when things are getting a bit too heavy with the blues guitar loop and swirling strings of “Gotta Eat,” he offers an addendum that he’ll reveal on his next album whether his protagonist leaves his life of crime.

Despite the ponderous nature of the writing, The Cool is clearly Fiasco’s coming out party as a pop tunesmith. Piano and strings are his calling cards this time around, and his ear for brooding synth hooks and darkly atmospheric textures carries much of the tone of the album. Still, there are lighter moments. Singing like a more nasal Stevie Wonder, the playful electric piano riff of “Paris, Tokyo” is a guilelessly breezy piece of pop ephemera that would probably cross a line for anyone who takes their gangsta cred too seriously. Joined by British alt-rockers Unkle on “Hello/Goodbye (Uncool),” he evens kicks out a startlingly urgent piece of post-rock angst, with the arrangement building from a dark piano figure into a dark tangle of distorted guitar histrionics and furious drum rolls. Snoop Dog even drops by to deliver the hook on “Hi-Definition,” a giddily cluttered patchwork of dance beats and blaring synth textures that is pure ear candy.

Whatever the case, the underlying concept (most of which is spread over five tracks) is undeveloped, at best. The most clear example of the narrative is found in the title track, a gorgeously ethereal mélange of ominous piano chords, swooning choral vocals and swirling strings that serves as a backdrop for Fiasco’s clever personification of fame as a woman whose allure pulls him away from the things that are most important in his life. Continuing the theme is “Put You on Game,” a dark exploration that allows the Game character to loom large as an all-powerful entity that preys on the weak and vulnerable and keeps them locked in a struggle that will allow them to stay alive at the price of their souls. Otherwise, it’s hard to know exactly what Fiasco is trying to say, something that doesn’t bode well for his plans to adapt the album’s themes for a comic book.

Ultimately, The Cool falls short for the same reasons that nearly all high-concept pop projects do. It’s nearly impossible to fit a compelling narrative that has enough character development and thematic unity inside a normal album format, a paradigm far more abstract than film for literature. Still, taken on a song-by-song basis, The Cool is a success by nearly every other measure. The hooks are memorable, the writing is provocative and the arrangements are varied enough to reward repeated listens. At the end of the day, it’s not a classic on the same level as the great wunderkind breakthroughs, but The Cool is suitably audacious effort from a man who is still young enough to make this many glorious mistakes.

Centered mostly on somber piano figures, washes of moody synths and fuzzy patches of strings, The Cool has an appropriately blurry sound over which Fiasco can drop his spirited rhymes. That said, what the album sacrifices in sharp textural edges it makes up for with luminously large tones that sound pretty much the same regardless of stereo quality. Though the production is appropriate, there simply aren’t many sonic details that aren’t immediately obvious.

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