Lupe Fiasco's Frustrating Gift
Wasn't he supposed to have a song with Pink Floyd? That would've almost made sense
In an interview with Blender a little while back, Jay-Z said that Lupe Fiasco was his favorite non-Def Jam rapper, and listening to The Cool, I sort of wish Lupe had someone like Jay guiding his albums. As it is, Lupe has a record deal that offers him something close to total artistic sovereignty, which can be problematic, since Lupe has so many bad ideas. Lately I've been reading a ton of Lupe interviews and trying to figure out The Cool's concept-album cosmology, but it's mostly still an opaque muddle: the call of the streets, or something, but with the streets personified into a woman and the game (apparently something other than the streets) personified as a dude. That whole concept-album thing doesn't end up hurting The Cool too much, though, since all but a few of the tracks do away with those ideas, going off to follow entirely different sets of bad ideas instead. And so the album is full of tracks like "Dumb It Down," a mixed bag of a song in almost every conceivable way: pretty good beat, incredibly lame concept and hook, impenetrable verses that still sound pretty good because Lupe is an amazing rapper. If Lupe wasn't an amazing rapper, there'd be precious little reason to pay any attention to The Cool; it'd be like that MF Grimm album about the Gingerbread Man, something I feel perfectly comfortable ignoring. But Lupe is all craft, and his voice, tumbling all over itself and finding innumerable ways to jump in and out of the pocket of his beats, inevitably ends up sounding great whether or not his lyrics are any good. Album-opener "Go Go Gadget Flow" is probably my favorite track, since that's the one where he leaves aside his writerly pyrotechnics and just raps his ass off for a few minutes. And that's why I wish he had a steady hand like Jay or Dr. Dre or Lyor Cohen or whoever playing exec producer: not so the album would sound more commercial, whatever that could possibly mean in an era where nothing this side of Kanye ever sells anything, but so Lupe would stop indulging every ridiculous whim that ever pops into his head.
For one thing, a decent exec producer might know that Lupe's loyalty to his hometown Chicago buddies, however admirable, might not be doing his music any favors, which is the main reason why The Cool falls short of last year's Food & Liquor. Too many of the beats from Food & Liquor came from friend-of-Lupe Soundtrakk, but that album also had a few ringers like Kanye West and Needlz and, weirdly, Atlantic boss Craig Kallman, and those ringers did everything to help the record's overall listenability. Food & Liquor also had "Kick Push," Soundtrakk's one moment of transcendently breezy joy. Almost every Soundtrakk beat on The Cool exists on the same plane as Food & Liquor filler-cuts like "American Terrorist" and "The Emperor's Soundtrack." Soundtrakk is way too enamored of sleepy Fender Rhodes and simplistic synth-string figures, and his pedestrian drum-programming never really bangs or engages. His name, at least, is apt: these beats should be playing on loop in the background during Max Payne 3 or something; they don't have any place on a major-label rap album. And on The Cool, the ringer producers are Patrick Stump and motherfucking UNKLE, which is another real problem. That UNKLE track, "Hello/Goodbye (Uncool)" remains the album's sole unlistenable atrocity: it's an all-singing, (almost) no-rapping trip-hop abortion that sounds way too much like a rejected Morcheeba B-side, and it really makes me miss Mos Def's singing, which is not something I ever thought I'd say. Here's another bad idea that we already knew was going to be bad before we ever heard it: "Gotta Eat," the song where Lupe famously raps from the perspective of a cheeseburger. There's a point buried somewhere in there, something about how fast food addiction is like drug addiction, but good luck getting past the incredibly labored wordplay: "Lovers call him king, haters call him clown / He would say bite me, that's the way it's going down." He even makes the old ketchup/catch up pun. Oof.
But not all of Lupe's ideas are bad. Some of them are great, and the great ideas would probably disappear with the bad ones if some cooler head had veto-power over the album. Besides his slippery flow, Lupe's greatest gift is his starry-eyed, naive sense of empathy. His defensiveness over the Tribe Called Quest slip-up seemed false and disingenuous partly because there's way more Tribe in his music than there is 8Ball or MJG, but then there's not really much of any of them anywhere in there. The precedent I kept thinking of listening to The Cool was a young pre-3000 Andre Benjamin, who had that same big-hearted polysyllabic observant eye and who, like Lupe, had occasional moments of near-unbearable preciousness. So maybe what Lupe needs isn't a seasoned exec-producer; maybe it's a Big Boi figure to balance out his flights of fancy. Either way, I really like "Little Weapon," the Patrick Stump track, which is about conscripted child soldiers in Africa. By most standards, the track is kind of a mess: The beat is OK, but the terrible hook reminds me of that shitty third Neneh Cherry album, and the third verse, a guest-spot from some guy named Bishop G, is a trite thing about video-game violence. But when Lupe's imagining life through the eyes of a murderous strung-out little kid, it's a really powerful piece of work. Even better is "Hip-Hop Saved My Life," a track where Lupe talks about the imagined come-up of some random Houston rapper. I love the opening line: "He said, 'I write what I see / Write to make it right, don't like where I be.'" And I like that Lupe's talking about a commercial rapper, someone definitively and absolutely not Lupe. In fact, Lupe seems to be a born fiction writer, someone more comfortable writing from the perspective of other people than of himself. When he writes about himself, he tends to come up with shit like the verse on "Gold Watch" where he names a laundry-list of expensive consumer items that he likes. On "Hip-Hop Saved My Life," Lupe fully throws himself into the character he's describing, and the parts where he talks about the rapper's writer's block or about his devotion to his baby's mother are really beautifully rendered and moving. Take, for example, the bit where the unnamed rapper is trying to come up with his first big song, looking for stuff that'll rhyme with track's screwed up hook ("Stack that cheese"). According to Lupe, here's what he hears: "Crying from the next room, a baby in need / Of some Pampers and some food and a place to sleep / That plus a black Cadillac on Ds / Is what keeps him on track to be a great MC." I like that Lupe acknowledges both goals, equally weighting the noble cause and the materialistic one without validating one or passing judgment on the other. And I like that he humanizes the sort of rapper his audience often actively disparages.
Lupe has no apparent editors, and that means he's able to get away with great ideas and terrible ones. And maybe that's a good thing. Maybe if he kept making music, he'd slowly move away from the terrible ideas and concentrate on the great ones. He's been saying for a while that his next album will be his last, but I hope Lupe's retirement goes the way most rap retirements do; he's got a gift worth developing.