Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, rapper Lupe Fiasco mixes sentimentality with harsh attacks on the hand that feeds him in his sophomore effort, The Cool. He attempts to do it all, and he more or less does, but it ends up feeling bloated and heavy-handed.
Meant to be a concept album of sorts, The Cool chronicles a life of poverty, fear, and the desire for social acceptance. Fiasco attacks these issues and more in an almost non-stop onslaught. The title is not only indicative of the thirst for social status that he decries, but the jazzy, relaxed vibe he embraces aesthetically. He even alludes to Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, when he begins “The Die” with the words, “I present the death of the cool.”
On Food & Liquor, Fiasco proved himself a talented satirist, but one of the problems with The Cool is that it’s often difficult to tell when he’s being introspective and when he’s getting nasty. “Gold Watch,” for example, focuses on branding, which could be a sly dig at someone like Kanye West, who’s called himself “the Louis Vuitton Don.” On the other hand, Fiasco plugs his own geek-chic accessories, like Mont Blanc pens, manga and green Now-and-Laters. If this is meant to be a slam on this all too standard practice, he hardly has room to criticize, as he’s teamed up with Reebok — who, though they claim to be worker-conscious now, got caught in nasty sweatshop accusations awhile back. If this is merely self-reflective, it makes his other criticisms hold less weight. The appearance of Snoop Dogg on “Hi-Definition” has a similar effect. Fiasco is known for his disdain of violent and vulgar rap artists — and here he features a man who co-wrote “Gin and Juice,” one of the cardinal party rap anthems.
Several of his complaints could use more direction. “Put You On Game,” strong as it is musically, feels simply like a list of problems. In “Intruder Alert,” he tries to connect a woman who’s been raped with a drug addict and an immigrant, but lacks a strong thread to tie these issues together. “Hip Hop Saved My Life” tells the story of a Houston rapper who gets out of the street life by turning to rap, but he points out the mediocre quality of the work and the sacrifices required by his family to help him get there. Whatever its ultimate point is, it’s lost.
That said, when he’s at his most focused, Fiasco’s aim is deadly, as heard most clearly at the heart of the album. A trip-hop-like ode about an epidemic, purportedly AIDS, “Streets on Fire,” featuring Matthew Santos, sounding like a Coldplay-inspired Adam Levine, hypnotizes. Immediately after it, “Little Weapons” follows a concept that actually works when approached from a broader spectrum: weapons in the hands of children. He targets not only the literal (child soldiers, gang members, school shooters), but the fictitious (video games).
As with Food & Liquor, Fiasco’s weakest material is his most sentimental. The first verse of “The Coolest” almost reads like the plot of a Lifetime movie, “Paris, Tokyo” comes off sounding like a romantic comedy, and “Fighters” oozes sap in its every word. Scrapping these, along with the less focused tracks, could have helped what feels like a lugubrious playing time. However, his youthful optimism is an important part of Fiasco’s personality, and without it he might have been too much war and not enough peace, particularly for a rapper who prides himself on his disdain for violence. But there are ways to sound endearing without sounding overdone.
As a thoughtful rap album, The Cool succeeds — but it also benefits from the fact that the competition isn’t exactly steep. It feels like Fiasco merely tries to take on too much here, and he does it in a way that is more of a lecture than an invitation for dialogue or thought, like an angry parent or a politician. It’s not that Fiasco has to “Dumb It Down,” or that he has to start rapping about his exploits. It’s just time for him to learn how to sound less like a preacher and more like a peer.