Last year's massively buzzed-about Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor was supposed to make its creator the thinking man's rap superstar: Think Kanye West before money and fame drove him insane or a Jay-Z more interested in robots, anime, and the Koran than conspicuous consumption. But rampant leaks and a mediocre Neptunes-produced single ("I Gotcha") conspired to kill Fiasco's platinum aspirations with a bracing dose of commercial reality. Instead of backing down or retrenching, Fiasco simply dreams a bigger dream on The Cool. He conceived The Cool as a concept album about the eternal pull of the streets, but the exceedingly abstract concept is perhaps most useful for the way it crystallizes Fiasco's longstanding interest in the morality of hip-hop and the corrupt secular world it reflects and distorts in ever-shifting funhouse mirrors.
"Hip-Hop Saved My Life" celebrates rap's ability to transforms the negatives of hustling, poverty, and hopelessness into the positive of art (or at least entertainment) while "Dumb It Down" is a defiant manifesto against the homogenization and bastardization of hip-hop in the ringtone era. With "Paris, Tokyo," Fiasco leaves the streets behind for a continental spin through the global high life with a Native Tongues chilled out vibe. On a similarly international note, "Little Weapon" offers a first-person account of warfare from the perspective of an 11-year-old warrior battle-hardened before he even reaches puberty. Though its conceptual component feels fuzzy and abstract at best, The Cool oozes geek chic with terrific songs, smart, dense lyrics, and nimble, eclectic production. Quality hip-hop that challenges listeners and the status quo: There's a concept everyone can get behind.