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Lupe’s “The Cool” avoids the sophomore slump

Corbin Hicks | Friday, January 25, 2008

Lupe Fiasco was given the tough task of following up a debut album that was produced by Jay-Z and nominated for a Grammy. While the hip-hop artist doesn’t deliver a classic this time around, it’s safe to say that he has exceeded expectations.

Since releasing his debut album, much has changed in the life of Lupe Fiasco. Gone are the incessant comparisons and references to skateboarding. Fiasco has had to deal with a bevy of recent personal struggles and obstacles – including the deaths of his father and his good friend, rapper Stack Bundles. Also, his mentor, business partner and close friend Charles “Chilly” Patton was sentenced to 44 years in prison after a conviction on drug charges. These have not been the best 12 months for Fiasco.

However, it hasn’t been all negative. Average listeners and critics alike hailed his debut album as an instant classic. He almost effortlessly became an icon for lyricism and the poster child for a return to the founding ideals of hip-hop. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, he has established himself as an epic songwriter and has leapfrogged other up-and-coming Chicago MCs, such as Rhymefest and Bump-J, in mainstream accessibility and critical acclaim. No small feat for a rookie in the music business.

Lupe Fiasco’s follow-up effort, “The Cool,” shakes off any fears of falling victim to the sophomore slump. The album begins with a spoken-word intro that discusses the subjectivity of things that are tolerated in our society. Fiasco claims that what may be “cool” for one person could strike fear into the hearts of others. This track is followed by a solemn tribute to his incarcerated mentor.

The grave seriousness of these first two tracks is eased somewhat by the up-tempo, double-time rhythm used in “Go-Go Gadget Flow,” where Fiasco proclaims that Chicago is the “best city in the whole wide world.” The brooding theme returns on the next track, “The Coolest,” and we begin to see a trend that is littered throughout this album. Obviously, Fiasco has been dealing with some personal demons, and his songwriting reflects these struggles. The subject matter on this album is very dark, but it is not unbearable as the music alternates between the lively and the moody.

The next song is “Superstar,” which was the album’s first single. Most of the Notre Dame student body remembers this as one of the unknown songs that Fiasco performed when he stopped by for “The Show.” The next track is “Paris, Tokyo,” which has an old-school, A Tribe Called Quest vibe to it. In this song, he explains all of the different kinds of places that he would take a special lady.

These places include Paris, Tokyo, New Orleans, Brazil and various other exotic locations. Next is perhaps the song that stands out the most. “Hi-Definition,” which features a guest verse by Snoop Dogg, is by far the most commercial attempt on the album. It is not bad by any means, but it throws off the continuity that the album has built up so far.

After “Gold Watch” are two of the best storytelling tracks to ever come from a rapper. “Hip-Hop Saved My Life” is a detailed description of the life of an aspiring rapper and the journey that they endure in order to reach stardom. By the way, if you hear a song with a screwed-up hook that goes “Stack That Cheese” in the next six months, you know where it came from.

“Intruder Alert” goes where very few rap songs go. In the span of the song, Fiasco covers three topics that are considered taboo, expounding on the vulnerability and heartache that certain situations cause people who become engulfed by tough circumstances.

The first verse deals with a female rape victim, the second verse discusses a drug addict and the third verse talks about a father sending his infant daughter to the United States so that she can have a better life. These topics could be stand-alone songs, but the fact that he is able to combine all three of these emotional stories into one song – that is actually an enjoyable listen – speaks to the wonders of Lupe’s songwriting abilities.

The rest of the album is solid. The subject matter varies drastically from child soldiers to the average day of a cheeseburger, but it still maintains the album’s somber undertone. His versatility makes this effort thoroughly enjoyable and the tough subject matter easy to digest. Lupe’s latest might not win a Grammy, but it’s worth a spin.