Considering how long hip-hop has dominated the pop charts and popular culture, it's remarkable how little thematic ground most of it has covered. But on his eagerly anticipated debut, Lupe Fiasco boldly goes where few, if any, rappers have gone before. On the album's best tracks, Fiasco masterfully melds his peerless storytelling gifts with his idiosyncratic passion for skateboarding, fantasy, and incisive sociopolitical commentary.
Fiasco's deafening buzz began after his attention-grabbing verse on Kanye West's "Touch The Sky," but kicked into high gear with the release of "Kick, Push." Only surpassed by Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" for this summer's dominant single, "Kick, Push" is a propulsive love song equally enraptured by the freedom, exhilaration, and outlaw allure of skateboarding culture—in it, a simpatico skater girl takes the kicking, pushing hero from skater boy to skater man. With its cinematic horns and manic drums, "Kick, Push" soars deliriously on a wave of teen romanticism seldom explored in hip-hop: It's like Rebel Without A Cause reconceived as a skateboarding anthem. Stylistically, Fiasco's flow, fussy pronunciation, and wordplay owe a sizable debt to Jay-Z, who executive produces and guests on "Pressure." But thematically and lyrically, there is no father to Fiasco's style.
On "Cool," Fiasco reinvents the tired thug-life narrative by injecting a macabre E.C. Comics sensibility to the atmospheric tale of a gangsta who rises from the grave, zombie-style, to take revenge on a cold world that hurried him to an early grave. "Hurt Me Soul," meanwhile, finds Fiasco trying to reconcile his Islam-derived ethics and respect for women with his burgeoning love-hate relationship with hip-hop and its skewed moral compass. (At one point, he even takes Jay-Z to task for rhyming about praying to Gotti instead of God.) Revelatory albums like this make rap, an often stale and convention-bound genre, suddenly seem rife with boundless, untapped possibilities. By boldly expanding the parameters of mainstream hip-hop, Fiasco's threatening to make rap a welcoming place for geeks and iconoclasts as well as pimps and thugs.