Lupe Fiasco's second album, out today, is called "The Cool." When you make a statement like that, it begs the question: How cool is Lupe Fiasco? Let us count the ways.
On his 2006 debut, "Food & Liquor," the Chicago MC (né Wasalu Muhammad Jaco) was cool by association since he was Kanye West's protégé. He also earned cool critical acclaim and the embrace of the hipster crowd with his inventive rhymes on tracks like the pensive skater jam "Kick, Push." Some observers also thought it was cool that he was a Muslim who didn't shy away from his religious identity, even though it wasn't the focus of his music.
Fiasco builds on that promise exponentially with the triumphant "Cool," which gets extra style points for bringing back the idea of the headphones hip-hop album. Dense lyrics reward repeated listens. Textured tracks - with help from disparate producers like Soundtrakk and Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump - go in dramatically opposed directions but still sound good side by side. Fiasco seems to have chosen his guests based on their creative merits instead of mutually beneficial brand marketing. Plus he employs Snoop Dogg with nary a mention of weed or a whiff of misogyny; that's cool.
But perhaps what's most refreshing about "The Cool" is Fiasco's strict adherence to raising the level of conversation about hip-hop itself. He's as interested in the negative themes in contemporary hardcore hip-hop as he is in the socioeconomic underpinnings that helped create them and turn them into saleable commodities of urban realism.
Fiasco uses his cerebral but accessible lyrics to examine all angles of the games being played out on neighborhood street corners, in corporate boardrooms, and at strategy sessions on front lines in all kinds of wars around the globe. (Technically, it's a concept record about "the life," but it's not necessary to grok the characters to enjoy the record.)
The pinnacle of these examinations is "Dumb It Down," which finds Fiasco ramping up the dreamy metaphoric imagery on the verses as various voices - friends, executives, fellow rappers - plead with him on the clever choruses to try rapping about his bling, his rims, or his desire to douse chicks with designer champagne. Each is concerned that rap fans might realize smart can be cool and that they actually have options. (The best bit involves a thug MC excoriating Fiasco's "boring" flow and then asking to be on his next single.)
There are only two things that aren't so cool about Fiasco's sophomore release. At more than 75 minutes, the album runs on a little long, and the excision of the more repetitive, midtempo tracks wouldn't have done any harm. If most year-end top-10 lists hadn't already been compiled, this would be a cool addition.