Having already secured critical acclaim for his debut, Food and Liquor, Lupe Fiasco could easily have continued as before and released more of the same on his next outing. As long as the strength of his convictions didn’t suddenly disappear without trace and the beats were just as good, the man was a shoe in for more of the same. Instead we were treated to an album that upon its release, I was sure was not going to be fully appreciated until the rest of Hip Hop caught up with it. With technology such as it is and the genre bending collaborations that are now a frequent occurrence, now is as good a time as any to re-introduce people to ‘The Cool’
Lupe was not a Hip hop fan from the get go. He detested the vulgar nature of many of its mainstays at the time and was instead drawn to Jazz. After finding his way back to Hip Hop he released a single as part of a ‘Gangster Rap’ group called The Pak. He hated the result and decided to do more with the platform he was given. This conscious decision, via the success of Food and Liquor, is ultimately why The Cool was way ahead of the Hip hop curve and not just another run of the mill “Drugs, Guns and Bitches” release.
As an album, the cool had the same impact on me as The Neptunes did when they made their way to the front of the queue. Except that they were astute in that they didn’t go too far over people’s heads so as not to alienate them. To me it seemed that Lupe on the other hand, had a vision and was determined to get as close to it as he could (see: as close as his parent label would allow). But Whether his creative freedom was complete or not some fans simply didn’t take the finished article.
By and large the critics on the other hand, were pretty much universal in their praise. Only a handful were a little put off by what they perceived as an arrogance but I don’t hear that at any stage of the album. Lupe lost his father and a friend during recording while his partner in (the business of) rhyme was sent to prison.
These experiences are ultimately what turned much of the subject matter towards the darker things in life. I don’t think masterpieces like Streets On Fire -a perfect commentary on the paranoia surrounding the state of the modern world (and part of the albums concept: read on)- or Little Weapon -a brilliantly constructed telling of children from across the world being forced, coerced or driven, to take up a gun… and the consequences- would have existed if these tragic circumstances didn’t happen.
Then there is what I consider to be Lupe’s lyrical crowning glory. A song that proved that there are some who will never get, or make an attempt to get, where this man is coming from. I must have listened to Dumb It Down about 12 times before I understood anything other than its hooks. However I think that Lupe intended this to be the case all along. The hooks act like the verses with all carrying the same structure while using a different spin on the same concept. That there is something wrong with inspiring men to be something other than gangsters and sportsmen. Or with inspiring women to get an education and aspire to be more than just another ghetto statistic. Or with putting some substance into songs instead of just a series of catchy hooks to gain radio play. I also think that Lupe was subliminally challenging others to take the same route he had already embarked on.
The intriguing part however, is the overriding concept connecting this album and it’s predecessor. The story of the young man on Food and Liquor’s He Say She Say is carried into several of The Cool’s tracklist and is played out in cinematic (and at times epic) style. It centres around a triangle of the aforementioned young man (The Cool), his all consuming female influence/love interest (The Strrets) and his nemesis (The Game). This is both the albums overriding strength, it’s only flaw and probably the reason why it went over more than a few heads. This though, does not take away from the relevance of almost all of the songs individual subject matter or the albums execution.
The albums beats also play out like an extended introduction followed by the main event and both parts are superbly done. The more accessible side is almost the calm before the storm. That storm begins as soon as Streets On Fire’s constant strings and dulled, haunting old school Drum and Bassish tones maraud your ears. The beats from then on in some way shape or form are of a type that back then, much of Hip Hop wasn’t yet attuned to. But as I said at the start, with things as they are now and new fans discovering Hip Hop through many unexpected associations, now is the time for rediscovery. Sonically The Cool would have been better off now than it was in 2007. His existing fans stayed loyal but commercially he never gained any new ones (not in terms of numbers anyway). Lupe could have been riskier with his choice of single as, apart from the obvious flaws at the top of the food chain, the tastes of fans are more flexible than they were even since 2007.
And to top it all off is the superb get together with UNKLE that is Hello/Goodbye. After all this talk of moral evolution, unlikely collaborations and concepts within a concept wrapped in a concept, I’m gonna be a hypocrite and leave you with my favourite line from the album….
“I love Street Fighter II I just really hate Zangief / only Ken and Ryu I find it hard to beat Blanka”…. (he knows me so well).