More than just a time when low-waist bootcut jeans, shutter shades and totally unnecessary armbands were a thing, 2007 landed smack in the middle of one of rap’s many big leaps into the mainstream. Kanye’s Graduation, Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat”, everyone bopping to “This Is Why I’m Hot” – it was a time. And in that year, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool emerged from left field.
It was a much bolder follow-up to the optimistic skater-rap of his platinum debut Food and Liquor, dissecting issues of immigration, race and fame. With bars that ridiculed “an obsession for the bling”, the “real rap died in 1992” types had hope that Lupe Fiasco had come to liberate rap from its perceived excesses. But you already know all that, and you probably also know that his story isn’t one of such a basic dichotomy between “good and conscious” rap and “commercial” rap. Lupe straddled both, using them to lampoon each other in a way that resonated with kids like me, across an ocean in the UK.
While on paper Lupe presented conventional pop sensibilities (everyone and your mum hummed the Coldplay-style, piano looped, chorus of pop smash “Superstar”), The Cool was a rap album designed for far deeper study. Over the course of the record’s loose narrative, Lupe goes from being a shy kid on his first world tour (“Paris, Tokyo”) to questioning his very artistic existence (“Dumb It Down”). It’s an album by a rapper who appears troubled by what he’ll have to do to remain hot. Ten years later, in a world where an Instragram freestyle can make someone famous in the space of 24 hours, The Cool plays like a warning of what would come next. The juxtaposition of playful party-jam “Hi-Definition” and the existential emo-rock leanings of UNKLE-collaboration “Hello/Goodbye” felt deliberate, with Lupe almost saying you can conventionally embrace mainstream rap and still be on the verge of emotional collapse. There’s a self-awareness here that suggests the bright lights of fame are cyclical and probably won’t last forever.
As a white 17-year-old raised in a British seaside town, this album felt freeing. From its artwork, which looks like a puzzle waiting to be solved, to its constant flurry of double entendres, it was the antithesis to inescapable anthems like 50 Cent’s “I Got Money” – AKA the only song blaring out the cool kids’ shitty Vauxhall Corsa stereos at the time. And with every dorky Street Fighter reference, the album gave me and a whole generation of like-minded outsider rap fans nerdy lyricism to geek out over. These days it feels like kids aren’t split off into various camps based on genre; you like what you like, you get likes online, you rinse and repeat. But back then, Lupe became one of those acts who could make you see into his world even if, like me, you frankly had no right to be there or little real-life understanding of what he was talking about.
If it was Lupe’s friendly backpack rap vibe that made him relatable, it was the record’s lyrical dichotomy between race and fame that made me unable to stop thinking about it. “They thought it was cool to burn crosses in your front lawn / as they hung you from trees in your backyard,” his sister Ayesha intones on spoken word intro “Baba Says Cool For Thought”. It calls out not only the strangling hold of white supremacy in the US, but how black America has had to adapt to accepting it in order to survive. The water crisis in Flint, the police officers who walk away charge-free after killing black people despite being filmed doing so, the drive for voter suppression before the US midterm elections – all these recent stories speak to the same sorts of pressures that Lupe brought up back then.
Even though I obviously couldn’t relate directly to Lupe’s black experience, the probing nature of his bars made it impossible for me not to connect on an emotional level. Subsequently, The Cool pushed me into a period of self-education, with the album a portal into Google searches about gentrification, police brutality and the reality of life for child soldiers (thanks to “Little Weapon”, where Lupe traces the journey from regular adolescence to a forced indoctrination into the ways of war).
In interviews promoting The Cool, Lupe spoke of a complicated concept guiding the album involving supernatural characters, a crack-smoking skull and, um, Alexander The Great. This resulted in the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis accusing Lupe of “sanctimonious moralising”. But even if there was any truth to these claims, the fact someone in the mainstream was even attempting something like this felt kind of revolutionary. Sure, The Cool’s narrative concept didn’t make much sense initially, but neither does the ‘play it backwards’ theory about Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN ten years later. Instead, both are intricate puzzles intended to slowly reveal their meanings over time.
As a teenager, me and many of my friends were, perhaps naively, drawn to hip-hop because its rebellious nature provided the perfect escapism from what amounted to very sheltered suburban upbringings. It’s the same trope that made rap spread among white kids in the US back when early 90s MTV relegated it to dead-of-the-night slots. At its worst this relationship dangerously others black art, while at its best it can teach white people to think empathetically, beyond being the dominant force in cultural and the unspoken norm. Lupe, who shed a light on institutional racism on an album we could all buy at Asda on a shelf next to Avril Lavigne and Linkin Park, visibly forced us to step outside of this comfort zone. The Cool consistently touched on concepts not taught in my all-white British school, where the idea of racial inequality didn’t extend beyond a sanitised, 20-minute CliffNotes lecture about the legacy of Nelson Mandela. Therefore, Lupe felt like the teacher I really needed.
As a Muslim, Lupe delicately approaches immigration on The Cool in a way other US rappers were either scared or unable to do six years on from 9/11. Nowadays, if a right-wing publication like The Daily Mail writes a headline calling an immigrant an “illegal” it’s almost accepted as normal, everyday, language. For many, it’s the language of our times. In fact, Sky News reported that there was a five-fold rise in reporting of Islamophobic crimes following the Manchester attack at an Ariana Grande concert and a two-fold rise after the London Bridge atrocity. This makes the depiction of the segregation, hostility and xenophobic language many Muslims encounter when they arrive in the West on “Intruder Alert” feel prescient. What might once have sounded preachy to critics such as Petridis now just sounds prophetic.
This level of depth and creativity on The Cool is partly to blame for why I spent most of my late teens writing angsty pretentious poems on internet rap forums (sorry), getting annoyed when people didn’t realise how ‘deep’ they were. Lupe’s dazzling wordplay – showcased on “Gotta Eat,” where he compares religion to fast food consumption – was enough for his once-mentor Jay-Z to reportedly describe him as a “genius writer”. However, to me, the true genius of Lupe’s lyricism was how it balanced these technical nuances with an emotional core, creating a platform for more sensitive hip-hop artists such as Kid Cudi and Vic Mensa to prosper.
Now independent, Lupe is largely relegated to rap’s sidelines. 2015's Testuo and Youth remains one of his last solid releases amid a scattershot smattering of badly-received work. He’s been condemned for lyrics deemed anti-Semitic. He’s been mocked for seeming to espouse respectability politics that police whether black women are clever enough to understand the nuance of context around the use of the word “bitch”. He’s said he was retiring from rap at least once. But, even through that mess, we’ll always have The Cool and its deft ability to condense his black experience into a narrative that could be felt deeply by teenagers in both Chicago, Illinois and Portsmouth, England.
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