One thing I love about Lupe Fiasco is how he resides in this hermetic parallel universe where he can get away with experimental shit that major labels haven’t indulged since Aphex Twin had Sire money: unknown producers, ludicrous Magic: The Gathering–meets–Back to the Future album art, and, um, inter-record concept threads with multiple protagonists engaging in a battle between good, evil, and the streets. Paging Coheed & Cambria . . . something Fiasco might actually do one day.
The storyline proceeds from a couple of prequels on last year’s Food & Liquor, bursting here into a three-pronged Faustian bargain involving a young hustler named Matthew Young History who tangles with his crime-lord boss’s seductress wife, gets murdered, and, like, comes back to get them on some Crow shit. I think. A neat trick folded into The Cool is that Lupe proves rap is still creative enough to indulge bugged-out ambitions, and he doesn’t just brag about what a smart-ass he is. The Chicago MC wants to take it back to the days when rap albums could get away with two intros. The minimal, underground-acting music doesn’t strangle him like his overblown debut did, and he seems proud: Most of Cool‘s tracks take great pleasure in looping the music for a bit after each song ends, and you can practically hear Lupe nerding out to his boys about how sick this or that drum loop is.
Any detour from the plot about the temptress with “dollar signs in place of pupils” is welcome, and most of the tangents are unsurprisingly stronger. Most of them. Lupe’s cheeseburger-at-large metaphor fiasco on “Gotta Eat” (he’s got a lot of cheese and you don’t want beef with him. Ha. Ha) is wordplay worthy of LL Cool J’s “Milky Cereal.” But “Superstar” comes eerily closest to physically conveying the album’s thematic arc: The icy string pads and Matthew Santos’s ghostly hook echoing into the void could’ve graced In Rainbows. It makes being “cool” sound, as one of Lupe’s relatives recites at the outset, about as smothering and fascistic as burning crosses on a lawn. Check the ingredients, she urges. But sadly, we gotta eat.