The cool one

October 28, 2007


A week ago last Friday, about 12 hours after finishing the last session for his second album “The Cool” at 3:30 a.m. in a Chicago recording studio, Lupe Fiasco was in Maryland, preparing to perform in Washington, D.C., and celebrating a rare moment of down time with a game of laser tag.

“Who says I’m not gangsta?” Fiasco asked, laughing.

Well, pretty much everyone. Born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, the 25-year-old rapper grew up around the South Side’s Madison Terrace housing projects and first made his name in the hip-hop underground via a series of vaunted mix tapes. He broke into the national spotlight with a stellar guest turn on “Touch the Sky” by his friend Kanye West in early 2006, then followed up later last year by finally releasing his oft-delayed debut “Food & Liquor.” That album has sold about 300,000 copies, largely on the strength of the indelible single “Kick Push,” the first hip-hop hit about the joys of skateboarding.

By no means is Fiasco a one-dimensional personality: A self-professed nerd who loves comic books, “Star Wars” and video games, he also is a devout Muslim who avoids drugs and alcohol, the son of social activist parents and an artist unafraid to express controversial opinions. The one thing he isn’t is a typically macho, misogynistic and violence-prone gangsta. But the artist maintained that the vibe of “The Cool” is much more ominous than his last album, and it was inspired as much by our troubled times as recent events in his own life.

“I wanted to tell some stories, to talk about zombies and stuff like that, but I also wanted to shed light on the ways of the world, so I go on to talk about child soldiers or the after-effects of rape. It gets heavy, and the album is very dark … This whole year has been wracked with tragedy — from my father passing away, to I just had an auntie pass away, to my friend and business partner being incarcerated. It’s been a very embattled situation. But where there’s tragedy, there’s also triumph.”

When Fiasco talks about his business partner, he’s referring to Charles Patton, with whom he founded his 1st & 15th Entertainment label, distributed by Atlantic Records. Last June, Patton was sentenced to 44 years behind bars after he was convicted on drug charges dating to 2003. Prosecutors said police found Patton in possession of more than 13 pounds of heroin with a street value of a million dollars, and they called him one of the biggest drug lords in Chicago. Fiasco testified in his friend’s defense. The artist was not charged in the case, and though prosecutors claimed the drug money helped start his record label, they could not prove it.

“I’m still shocked and hurting,” Fiasco said of the case. “But in some ways it would be a lie to say that I’m surprised, because I come from that: I come from a neighborhood where all my friends have [criminal] records and have dilly-dallied in the illegal side of things. I come from the hood: kids dying, people getting shot, gang-banging and everything else. It’s not like Lupe Fiasco was all ‘Kick Push’ and living in the suburbs.”

Nevertheless, the artist found a way out, turning to music instead of hustling, and proudly rhyming about many elements of the black middle-class lifestyle that other rappers avoid. The fact that there are darker tales on “The Cool” — including the menacing “Dumb It Down,” one of the few tracks that has leaked on the Internet — isn’t intended to glorify the violence on the streets. In fact, the intention is exactly opposite.

“The album has all these kinds of pushes and pulls, but it’s on a bed where you find yourself dancing. Then you listen to the lyrics and think, ‘Wait, we shouldn’t be dancing to this’ … Basically, the theme of the record is to try to make the things in the world that are cool seem uncool. It’s like my favorite mantra from Dr. Cornell West, who says that a lot of times the things that are cool are the most destructive things, and you have to flip that so that the things that are uncool are now hip.”

Things like being a skateboarding, science-fiction-loving, comic-book-reading geek?

“On a macro level, yes, absolutely! And thank you: I’m gonna use that in my next interview!” Fiasco said, laughing.

Like millions of other hardcore music geeks, Fiasco lists Pink Floyd’s psychedelic-rock classic “The Dark Side of the Moon” as one of his favorite albums of all time. He’s talked a lot about wanting to collaborate with that band, and while that doesn’t happen on “The Cool” — he had to settle for a track that includes backing from desert-rockers the Queens of the Stone Age instead — the 1973 concept album nonetheless served as his model.

“I was really trying to put out a strong, cohesive and I almost want to say ‘watchable’ record — something that develops over time and where you can actually see some kind of progression from my first record all the way through this one. I wanted it to reach some kind of climax, the same way there’s a huge climax on ‘The Dark Side of the Moon.’ If you look at that album like a movie, the character becomes rich and then he goes crazy. I wanted to set that kind of tone and make a really heavy, really dense, really lasting record.

“The album actually is inspired by the song ‘The Cool’ that I did on the first album, which was produced by Kanye West,” Fiasco continued in his rapid-fire, ultra-enthusiastic way. “I wanted to kind of expand on that story — to take it to the next level and make it very detailed. On one song, I might actually do the step-by-step plot, while on another, I’ll just do an abstract of the character, so it has a very trippy kind of tone.”

“Trippy” is a word the artist uses a lot when describing his new sounds, largely crafted by 1st & 15th artist DJ Soundtrakk, though there are also contributions from the British techno/trip-hop wizard UNKLE (James Lavelle). Since the early ’90s heyday of alternative rap by artists such as De La Soul, P.M. Dawn and the Beastie Boys of “Paul’s Boutique,” otherworldly or ethereal sounds have been anathema in mainstream hip-hop, where they are dismissed as “too hippie.” Witness the harsh backlash Common suffered for the sublimely psychedelic “Electric Circus” in 2002. But Fiasco isn’t concerned that the listeners will think he’s floated off into the patchouli-scented ether.

“I would say my trippiness is probably more with the story: How can I twist and turn and bend and make this story fit? The music itself goes a lot of different places: It goes to 2008 right now, like mainstream radio, all the way down to hip-hop in 1991, and then out to Queens of the Stone Age backing me up.

“The story line is actually a very common situation; it will send you back to ‘Food & Liquor.’ The actual character in ‘The Cool’ is the little boy from ‘He Say She Say,’ who grew up without a father and lives in a single-parent home. He didn’t make it out that good: He grows up to hang with hustlers, zombies and killers.”

Originally slated to come out on Tuesday, “The Cool” has now been pushed back to a Dec. 18 release. Fiasco was to have celebrated the disc’s release with a hometown show at the House of Blues on Halloween night; now, he said he’ll perform all of “Food & Liquor” in order, a first for him, before giving fans a sampling of six or seven of the new tracks.

In addition to the delightfully dark “Dumb It Down,” another song that’s already available is “Superstar,” which is streaming on Fiasco’s Web site (, and which easily matches the most creative offerings from fellow Chicago giants Common or West. Over a gorgeous vocal hook from local singer Matthew Santos, another 1st & 15th artist, Fiasco raps about the fleeting nature of stardom, imagining a successful rapper named “Lu” who arrives at the Pearly Gates to find that he’s not on Saint Peter’s heavenly guest list.

“The spotlights here can burn holes through the stage/Down through the basement/Past the Indian graves/Where the dinosaurs laid… So chauffeur, chauffeur, come and take me away/’Cause I been standing in this line/For like five whole days/Me and security ain’t getting along/And when I got to the front they told me all of the tickets were gone/So just take me home where the mood is mellow/And the roses are thrown/M&M’s are yellow/And the light bulbs around my mirror don’t flicker.”

Rhymes like as those are as striking, nuanced and inventive as any hip-hop has ever produced, and they justify Fiasco’s boasts about his goals for “The Cool.”

“My partner who is incarcerated now didn’t really have much input on the album, but the one driving force that he said was, ‘You just have to rap like there’s no tomorrow.’ So a lot of the record is just mercilessly lyrical — it’s six, seven or eight metaphors deep on one line. That was one goal. The other was that I wanted to make a record that was just a very strong record — not a hip-hop record or an emo record or a techno record, just something that would appeal to everyone.

“You know, [‘Food & Liquor’] was a formidable debut, and I’m happy with it, but now I really wanna sell some records! And when I say that, I mean that I want to put something of weight and substance in the marketplace — not just part of a genre, selling to the hip-hop kids or some of the emo/indie kids who ate up the last one. I want to compete with Kanye or 50 Cent or whoever. And even if I come in a far fourth or fifth place, I’m still in the running.”

New CRS track put on hold

Hip-hop fans who've been eagerly awaiting the next musical offering from the superstar group CRS (Child Rebel Soldier) will have to hold on a little bit longer: The fabled collaboration between Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes won't be heard on Fiasco's new album "The Cool."

The talented trio first came together last year on the track "Us Places," which was built on a sample from Radiohead singer Thom Yorke's solo album, "The Eraser." Released by West on an underground mixtape, it became an Internet phenomenon.

"That one record did so much," Fiasco said. "It started with me having one verse on it and leaking it on a Web site where it got like a hundred downloads. Then I sent it to Kanye, and he jumped on it and sent it to Pharrell. From there, with no label behind it or anything, it went to having a half-column review in Rolling Stone and being added to play lists and blogs all the way around the world."

Fiasco has been the most verbal of the trio in talking up the possibility of a full album. But he recently confessed that the earliest the group could enter the recording studio would be next summer.

"Kanye got busy with releasing 'Graduation,' and now I'm going to be busy with 'The Cool,' and then Pharrell has a new project with [his side project] N.E.R.D. But there's gonna be an album eventually, and watch out when there is! Honestly, I think it's one of the few good ideas out there in hip hop yet to be done, and it will really draw some attention and have some really great music on it."