Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Being Cool Is Serious Business: Thoughts On Lupe's Second Album

Lupe Fiasco is a conundrum: a mainstream rapper who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and doesn’t go to clubs. He raps about everyday people and their problems, avoiding the mainstay topics of clothes, cars and conspicuous consumption that enthral most of his fellow artists. It’s rare to find mainstream hip-hop that isn’t self-absorbed and narcissistic, but Lupe’s music makes skilful use of characters and narratives to explore real issues and complex themes. His style goes some way to making hip-hop relevant to the listener, not just another artifice of celebrity culture. In contrast, the slavish worship of Hennessy, Benjamins and custom Cadillacs make most his contemporaries seem about as important as Britney’s latest wardrobe mishap.

Of course, Lupe’s not scratching out abstract beats in his basement. His sound has a distinctly mainstream aesthetic. He’s also a very big deal, and as such, he’s susceptible to industry pressures. Sooner or later, he would have to indulge in some self-reflection and luckily for us, The Cool is it. His second album in, Lupe takes time to examine his place in hip-hop culture. This is standard writing material; it’s common for hip-hop artists to use music in order to question the nature of fame and the future of their craft. Don’t be put off, though: this isn’t another over-inflated ego whining about Coldplay or comparing paparazzi to the evils of Nazi Germany. Lupe’s anxiety is justified because he’s just so different to most of the other main players. Does this relative newcomer from Chicago herald the toppling of an old empire corpulent with material excess or is Lupe’s formula at odds with its environment?

First thing’s first: the hype you’ve been hearing is probably not true. Despite his anointment by Jay-Z and Kanye as the saviour of hip-hop, Lupe’s not revolutionizing the game. His music has an orthodox commercial sensibility; there’s no denying The Cool’s studio-room polish. Even more so than its predecessor Food & Liquor, the tracks on Lupe’s latest album sound ready for radio. For a supposed revolutionary, there’s not a lot of ambition on display to move in new directions. (If you’ve any remaining doubts about this, listen to “Hi-Definition” where Snoop Dogg makes a cameo appearance.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. Hype is rarely accurate and the mainstream scene is not changing overnight. Lupe is a talented artist but perhaps his potential is constrained by the weight of expectation and the need to fit in. No mean feat in a mainstream scene that’s harsher than a cheerleading clique from Orange County. I just hope this doesn’t pose too big a problem. For as much as Lupe rebels against industry pressure for him to “dumb it down” in the searing synth-and-bass-laden track of the same name, perhaps it’s the album’s first single, “Superstar”, that uncovers his true anxieties: missing out on mainstream acceptance by refusing to cash in. “Superstar” is optimistic and determined; the vocals of Matthew Santos soaring above stadium keyboard while Lupe tries to “believe his own hype”, ultimately wishing for a world where fans are numerous, reviewers are friendly, and the “light bulbs around [his] mirror don’t flicker”. Don’t we all.

Luckily, this is a side issue and Lupe has a long way to go before he starts complaining about the caviar in First Class. Overall, this is a solid album with plenty of strong songs on offer. Track-for-track, The Cool is a more enjoyable album than the occasionally patchy Food & Liquor. These songs are lean and mean: choice cuts that barely hit the four-minute mark, there’s no excess fat. The Cool’s consistency might have something to do with having fewer producers on call than its predecessor.

Producer Soundtrak has been invaluable for the album’s epic, cinematic sound structure. From the monumental second track “Free Chilly” to the sinister swagger of “Put You On Game”, this album packs a heavier punch. Despite this album’s title, it’s actually Food & Liquor that’s more laid-back and cool. This album has moments of blistering hip-hop angst; it takes you down a slightly darker road. Throw on “Hello/Goodbye” for a representative sample of this journey: an aggressively crouched track – wound tight like a Tesla coil – with explosive drum rolls as Lupe’s rap propels you through streets on fire with poverty, selfishness and single-minded oblivion. The Cool’s apocalyptic sound is thanks largely to the more rock-focused feel of the drum production and prominent guitar mixing. The strings take more of a backseat this time around and overall, the result is a more involving, atmospheric listen.

All this can get a little claustrophobic, though, and perhaps Lupe is conscious of this. Some tracks try to inject a little fresh air: the Gothic choir at the start of “Little Weapon” gives way as the track blasts into high gear with some much needed energy, and “Hi-Definition” and “Paris, Tokyo” are fluff. What’s missing is a sense of humour: aside from some brief dialogue at the end of “Dumb It Down”, there’s a distinct lack of it. I guess I was searching for the sense of fun that Kanye manages to pull off time and again – that enthusiastic celebration of music in its purest form – that Lupe is missing out on.

I could forgive a lack of humour if the album was consistently dark. But it’s not; which brings me to my final point. The Cool is apparently a concept album, but there’s not much concept to it. Lupe claims the album is based around the character introduced in Food & Liquor’s “The Cool”, but aside from one track on the album, this reviewer isn’t convinced. This album is too oblique in delivery, overall, to transcend the sum of its parts.

But if the quality is so high, why am I so disappointed? Admittedly I went in with high expectations. I guess the praise that Lupe seems to uncritically garner has rankled. This album is just not ambitious enough to warrant the acclaim. It’s almost like Lupe has to try harder to be different and stretch himself to really deliver some magic. Some experimentation wouldn’t go astray. He’s got too much talent to keep underperforming on the road to mainstream.

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