By most standards being Lupe Fiasco is a pretty sweet job. His 2006 debut, Food & Drink, generated a windstorm of hype, scoring him his own Reebok line plus an invite to join Kanye and Pharrell’s supergroup, CRS. But Lupe’s done so well so fast his critics don’t hold him to the normal standards. They judge him against rap’s highest echelon and then detail his shortcomings on Internet message boards. So Food & Liquor is a flop because it hasn’t gone megaplatinum, his sneakers are a joke because they don’t sell like the S. Carters, and Lupe catches flak ’cause he’s the only one in CRS who doesn’t turn up at the studio wearing half a mil in jewelry.

Or maybe the real reason Lupe gets harshed so hard is that the only thing hard-core hip-hop heads like complaining about more than the endless procession of disposable MCs cluttering up the Hot 100 is someone who doesn’t fit the rapper mold. Kanye and Pharrell can get away with their sartorial quirks and obsessions with cartoons and shit because they became known through their collaborations with legendary rappers; the respect they picked up by association grants them a pass. In his previous attempts to break out, Lupe followed hip-hop’s unspoken style rules more closely, but he finally caught the public eye with his skater-geek persona on blast, and now he’s paying for it.

He seems to relish the negative attention, especially from uptight hip-hoppers. At this year’s VH1 Hip Hop Honors he completely fucked up his verse on “Electric Relaxation” during a tribute to A Tribe Called Quest, which in some corners of the rap world amounted to blasphemy. Instead of apologizing and moving forward, Lupe took a defensive stance, claiming that as a kid he’d never listened to Tribe the way he did gangsta rappers like N.W.A. The ensuing (mostly online) war of words got ridiculous pretty quickly. At one point Fonte from the Tribe-esque group Little Brother wrote that “with [Lupe] forgetting the lyrics to a classic song from a classic group on national television while paying tribute to them, the 2nd plane has officially hit the tower.”

In September, shortly before that shit hit the fan, Lupe had reversed his long-standing opposition to Internet leaks to post a quick-and-dirty video for “Dumb It Down,” the public’s first taste of his new album, The Cool (Atlantic). The song’s beat is Neptunes-ishly sparse and leaves plenty of room for Lupe’s lyrics, which boil down to, “I am extremely good at rapping, and the only reason that I’m not also extremely famous and rich is that people are too dumb to understand how good I am.” Essentially it’s a dis track, but instead of taking aim at one or two individuals, Lupe takes on pretty much the entire music-buying world, with specific jabs at rap listeners and record execs, who are caricatured in the chorus telling him he’s got to ditch his intellectual shtick and “dumb it down.” It’s probably Lupe’s best song since “Kick Push” (which stands to be a mix-CD fixture for a generation of rap listeners), despite the creepy snuff-film vibe you get from listening to a guy toying with career suicide.

The rest of The Cool is supposed to be a continuation of the Food & Liquor track “The Cool,” a Creepshow-style morality tale about a murdered street thug whose hell is having to return to his old life hustling. The prospect of a concept album all about undead gangstas was thrilling like a train wreck, but turns out The Cool is subtler than that. “The Coolest” starts with a creepy piano riff and the stone-on-stone sound of a crypt opening, followed by Lupe speaking as his status-seeking protagonist, Michael Young History. But rather than get into the horror-flick specifics that made “The Cool” kind of unintentionally hilarious (“Matter fact only thing on his brain was brains”), he focuses on bigger concepts, like greed, with surprising empathy. With a choral backup and strings straining to sound as ominous as they can, Lupe somehow avoids descending into corniness—at times barely, but it still counts.

It isn’t hard to see how “Superstar,” with its metaphor of heaven as the ultimate nightclub (Saint Peter’s replaced by a bouncer and a velvet rope) and soaring self-help chorus by Chris Martin wannabe Matthew Santos (“If you are what you say you are / A superstar / Then have no fear”), fits into the album’s story arc, but it’d be easy to mistake it for an autobiographical account of the young rapper grappling with his newfound fame. I sort of hoped Lupe would tap into the cheesy zombie vibe of “The Cool” for his collaboration with horror-flick veteran Snoop Dogg, but the monsters in “Hi Definition” are hardly supernatural (“I come from a zone where the homes’ all beat up / The Folks, Unknowns, and Stones all meet up”). Without even listening to his lyrics, you can tell when Lupe’s really working the morality angle: the music gets “heavy,” usually via the strings-choir combo, although the metal guitars from UNKLE and Josh Homme on “Hello/Goodbye” serve the same purpose.

Hip-hop was born out of DJs’ call-and-response routines, and part of hip-hop’s charm is how its practitioners work hard to please the crowd—even if it means recycling successful formulas. The Cool doesn’t want for crowd pleasers—the glossy “Superstar” has obvious pop appeal—but it sounds like Lupe made the whole record just for himself. It’s intense and deeply weird at times, and hearing it can be like finding a bunch of fucked-up comics or stories in a friend’s notebook. (Really? He’s into that?)

The Cool is a decent hip-hop record. It’s not as airy and fun as Food & Liquor, and it’s occasionally ponderous, but every time it starts getting too heavy there’s something straight-up fun like the Twista-esque “The Die” to air it out. Most likely it won’t establish Lupe on the level of rap’s big boys, but it probably won’t ruin him either. I doubt Lupe cares. We’ve got our set of standards that we can hold him to, but he has his own.v

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