More than once, listening to Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, I'm reminded of Kanye West at the time of The College Dropout. There's the same sense of a prodigiously talented rapper emerging from the shadow of a mentor (once again, Jay-Z), and the same determination to find a place of his own in the hip-hop firmament, without compromising on either his intelligence or his background.
Hence the interest in the idea of "cool" that runs through the album, like a spinal cord linking all its extremities with Fiasco's guiding intelligence. Oddly, his isn't the first voice heard: "Baba Says Cool For Thought" is a furious reflection by Iesha Jaco on how cool inevitably warps notions of morality and responsibility, whether it's ghetto kids apeing gangsters, Bush's nonchalant inaction over Hurricane Katrina, or disaffected youths gunning down classmates.
Fiasco then goes on to tackle the familiar portfolio of hip-hop issues, from fame and ambition ("The Coolest" and "Superstar"), territorial fidelity ("Go Go Gadget Flow"), bling ("Gold Watch"), guns ("Little Weapon") and his development as an artist ("Hip-Hop Saved My Life"). But in each case, he applies his own twist: the manufacturers namedropped in "Gold Watch" include Yohji Yamamoto and Mont Blanc rather than Adidas and Hennessy, and the "Little Weapon" is not just the handgun itself, but the pre-teen kid induced to use it.
There are impressive tracks dealing sympathetically with Aids ("Streets On Fire") and immigration ("Intruder Alert"); critiquing the brutal history of American imperialism ("Put You On Game"); and casting a cool eye in "Gotta Eat" on the roots of street crime: "When niggers gotta eat, that when shit gets greasy." The backing track, with acoustic guitar-picking shadowed by bleak strings, is one of several inventive arrangements by Soundtrakk, who helps the MC develop a distinctive sound to match his verbal convolutions. These aren't to everybody's taste, Fiasco acknowledges in "Fighters", where his flow is punctuated by Matthew Santos's crooned enquiry, "What you rappin' about? Is it cars? Is it girls? Is it my life? The world?" – a list that gets gradually closer to the truth with each query.
Another, more intemperate criticism interrupts "Dumb It Down", as an unimpressed street tough warns Fiasco, "We ain't graduate from school, nigger/ Them big words ain't cool, nigger." But, with the style of Kanye and Common firmly in the ascendancy, them big words – and them big issues, too – haven't been this cool since the Seventies heyday of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets.
Download this: 'Go Go Gadget Flow', 'Hip-Hop Saved My Life', 'Gotta Eat', 'Dumb It Down'