Last September, Lupe Fiasco introduced music circles to a distinct mix of skateboarding, Islam and the gang culture of Chicago’s West Side. His stunning debut album, Food & Liquor, showcased exceptional lyricism and proved that his “cool nerd” persona was far from a gimmick.
In drawing on his diverse points of reference, Lupe was able to craft a collection of songs that both raised the bar for the next generation of rappers and reaffirmed the importance of socially conscious music. With multiple Grammy nominations and magazine covers, as well as membership in a supergroup with Pharrell and Kanye West, Lupe has reached an enviable level of mainstream recognition.
But the past year also saw the passing of his father and the long-term incarceration of a close friend and business associate. Many rap fans also have been clamoring over his unfamiliarity with a certain golden-age classic and his alleged inability to skateboard. Despite these personal obstacles and industry-related pressures, Lupe set about recording an ambitious follow-up record.
The album, titled The Cool, is a concept-driven record that challenges the music industry’s fixation with money, sex and violence. The album’s concept centers on Lupe’s theory of social change, to which he credits Cornel West.
“You have to make those things that seem cool uncool,” he said yesterday before his performance on the Diag. “You have to make it hip to be square, and then you might see, on some level, small, tiny 180s start occurring.”
The Cool is a continuation of the story in “The Cool,” a song from Food & Liquor. The character, also known as “The Cool,” is a deceased street hustler who has risen from the dead and returned to his old block. In his appearances on The Cool, the phantom hustler is depicted in sharp contrast with the dope-boy archetype that is celebrated or championed in much of today’s rap. Lupe turns the dealer into a “half-rotten zombie” forced to reflect on his life as a gangster and his resulting denial from heaven.
As the album progresses, “The Cool” is joined by “The Game” and “The Streets,” characters Lupe uses to personify other negative aspects of street life.
“They’re like these monsters they developed out into these real kind of creepy figures,” he said. ” ‘The Game’ has dice for eyes and bullets for teeth, and ‘The Streets’ has dollar signs for eyes.”
Though the album doesn’t drop until Dec. 18, Lupe seems to have created a critical opus in the vein of Masta Ace’s Slaughtahouse and other classic concept albums.
To effectively carve out the idiosyncrasies of his characters, Lupe found inspiration in a variety of influences. In addition to the aesthetics of Johnny Cash and post-rockers Explosions in the Sky, Lupe gravitated toward the eccentric blues of Tom Waits.
“Tom Waits was heavily influential on this album,” he said, “just in the abstractness of his storytelling and his ability to create the scene. So I took some of that and put it into some of the records.” Lupe described the resulting sound as having a “cinematic, comic-book appeal.”
In a stratified hip-hop world, where materialistic mainstream giants are pitted against righteous underground rebels, Lupe serves as an alternative to both factions. His unique approach to addressing this dichotomy is captured in his latest single, “Superstar.”
The song itself is a catchy meditation on life in the spotlight, but a closer listen reveals a subtle political commentary: “Most of us don’t want it to fade / We want it to braid / Meaning we want it to grow, meaning we want it to stay / Like the governor called and he told him to wait / Un-strap him from the chair and put him back in his cage.”
The video for “Superstar” again focuses on this juxtaposition. Lupe said he uses the grandiose direction of Hype Williams to create a “very clean, very Hollywood” image of himself as a rising “superstar.” But the video also reflects the underlying message of The Cool, as it features cameos from “The Streets” and “The Game.” With a focus on bringing his art to an ever-expanding audience, Lupe succeeds in providing fans and peers alike with a refreshing brand of hip hop.