There is no shortage of things to talk about when it comes to Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool. The album’s Cornel West-influenced conceptual theme, its comic book-esque narrative, and its unexpected guest spots from Snoop Dogg and UNKLE are all fascinating aspects of Lupe Fiasco’s sophomore effort. But strip away the construction and outside contributions of The Cool, and you’re left with a lyrical opus from one of hip hop’s most brilliant mouths. Lupe’s consistent delivery of profound and clever lyrics in a slick and nimble fashion is what makes The Cool a captivating album.
Simply put, Lupe never lets his form or flow compromise his content. Consider him a bridge between the lyrically-dense style of Aesop Rock and the precise, rhythmically attuned flow of Juelz Santana. The aptly-titled album opener “Go Go Gadget Flow” is an instant aural pleasure, but the wordplay is what makes it satisfying. Over a chugging percussion track and staccato violin stabs, Lupe delivers his rhymes at a dizzying speed: “They race in a circle like they raisin’ a gerbil / I race in a circle like I’m raisin’ a horse / I’m racin’ a Porsche while they racin’ in place / They race in a cage I race on a course.”
When asked to trace his predilection for innovative rhyming, Lupe often cites a sophomore album by another prodigious MC. Nas’s It Was Written, released in 1996, is widely touted as the rapper’s lyrical peak. On the surface, the two albums have much in common: an intense focus on lyricism, a shift away from the youthful exuberance of their debut albums and the creation of alternate personas. But delve into the albums’ content and you’ll find that The Cool is nearly the inverse of It Was Written. Whereas Nas transforms into Nas Escobar and raps as a glorified street hustler, Lupe creates the characters of “The Cool,” “The Game” and “The Streets” to critique the very same hustler aesthetic.
While Nas namedrops Tony Montana and “Goodfellas” within the first six bars of It Was Written, Lupe takes a critical look at the heavily influential Mafioso images: “These fools are my fuel so I make them cool / Baptize’em in the water out of Scarface pool / And feed’em from the table that held the Corleone’s food.” These lines are rapped from the perspective of “The Game,” the album’s female antagonist that personifies the oft-alluded concept of the hustle “game.”
As you can expect from an artist as clever as Lupe, The Cool is not simply a blatant exercise berating materialism or a direct statement against the glorification of sex, drugs and violence. Lupe instead relies on a surrealistic narrative as a platform for his critique. The main character, Michael (pronounced “my cool”) Young History (referred to as “The Cool”), is familiar to most Lupe fans. As revealed by Lupe in pre-album interviews, Michael is first introduced on “He Say She Say” and “The Cool” – two songs from Lupe’s debut album Food & Liquor. On “He Say She Say,” we learn of Michael’s childhood as a gifted student with an absentee father. On “The Cool,” Michael is a ghost of a hustler that has dug his way out of his grave and returned to his old block.
The inter-album connection is solidified on “The Coolest,” a track from The Cool that finds “The Game” and “The Cool” describing ideal candidates for a life of crime: “Younger, outstanding achieving up-and-comers / The ones that had deadbeat daddies / And well to do mommas / But not well enough to keep’em from us.”
The last line is uttered in a menacing, monster-like tone – one of the many details that emphasize the conceptual nature of The Cool. In his attempt at a narrative, Lupe shies away from skits and straightforward narration, instead favoring a subtle story line. While his approach is refreshing, he occasionally strays from the plot and puts his characters’ exploits on hold. In addition to these periodic lapses in continuity, the other possible flaw is a marked change in production. The soulful bangers of Food & Liquor are largely traded for a more cinematic sound, one that privileges scintillating piano and string-based melodies over hard hitting drums.
Details aside, The Cool is an important album. Lupe’s mastery of style and substance, combined with his incisive social commentary, are exactly what is needed in an industry suffering from lowered standards. The young MC repeatedly hints at his next album being his last, a proposition that fans of The Cool will surely protest.
Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 stars
Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool