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Lupe Fiasco 

Lupe Fiasco's The Cool (Atlantic)

The worst thing one can do when listening to Lupe Fiasco's sophomore release is to believe the Chicago rapper's claims that The Cool is a concept album. The CD's alleged storyline — about an MC raised by a mythical character named the Streets and tempted by another mythical character called the Game — makes no sense at all. Yet that's pretty much the way concept albums roll: Two of the most celebrated — the Who's Tommy and David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars — don't really mean anything either.

So enjoy The Cool for what it is: an intelligent, challenging hip-hop record — the likes of which rarely net major-label release these days. The voices warning Lupe in "Dumb It Down"'s chorus — "We ain't graduate from school, nigga/Them big words ain't cool, nigga" — illuminate the rapper's dilemma. But Lupe refuses to give in. Over elaborate beats that incorporate strings, guitars, and rock-inspired production by Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump ("Little Weapon") and UNKLE ("Hello/Goodbye"), those big words are affecting reminders of just how far hip-hop has fallen over the past decade. "Hip-Hop Saved My Life" and the ethereal "Fighters" (which grieves for fans driven underground by gangsta posturing) are new classics that best reflect The Cool's real concept: just how uncool much of today's rap music actually is.

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