“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
—Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye
“That’s how you roll a blunt/That’s how you roll a blunt ?That’s how you roll a blunt/That’s how you roll a blunt/That’s how you roll a blunt ?Let’s all roll a blunt/and get fucked up”
—Redman on “How to Roll a Blunt”
Hip-hop heads don’t want to call up their favorite rappers on the phone. Mike Jones tried that two years ago, during the largely imagined Houston renaissance, and now his best bet for gainful employment is as a custom mouthpiece designer at Paul Wall’s House o’ Grills. No, traditionalist rap fans want to be able to drop in on their favorite rappers whenever they feel like it and smoke blunts with them. Rappers don’t build fan bases, they create cults of personality. This is why Redman’s stoned big-big brother affability allowed him to remake the same album for a decade and no one cared. This is also the only conceivable way to explain the short-lived career of Afro Man.
Lupe Fiasco’s problem is that no one wants to smoke a blunt with him. This is partially because he doesn’t smoke weed or drink liquor. But it’s also partly because rap traditionalists sense that Fiasco isn’t quite one of them, with his actions over the past two years doing everything possible to corroborate that opinion: from the now-infamous fumbling of lyrics to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” at last year’s VH1 Hip-Hop Honors to his open preference of jazz over hip-hop and MC Hammer over Native Tongues — not to mention a steady diet of Nietzsche, Pink Floyd and Japanese manga.
You wouldn’t exactly call Fiasco soft. He brags about having four black belts, and earlier this year his business partner/best friend, Charles “Chilly” Patton, was sentenced to 44 years in jail for running a large-scale heroin operation. But he’s not rough enough for those weaned on the grimy New York city-street rap of the ’90s, he’s too irreverent and iconoclastic for the old backpack crowd, and he’s unwilling to dumb it down for ringtone radio. On The Cool,Fiasco’s brilliant sophomore effort, he raps about being “American mentally, with Japanese tendencies and Parisian sensibilities.” Recently, he appeared on the cover of the L.A. Times Image section, calling himself a brand ambassador and declaring that “skater nerd is a cool place to be.”
But Fiasco’s right. Nerds are in right now, with the idea of cool a complete inversion of a generation ago. Kanye West, a self-proclaimed spaz, was able to massacre the steroid swagger of 50 Cent for the hip-hop throne, while journalists frequently (and foolishly) tout the assurgency of nerd-core rap. Garden State brought indie rock, the onetime domain of outsiders, to the masses, and emo’s fusion of punk and glam sounds like it was cooked up by Hot Topic shareholders to appeal to the awkward, melodramatic youth of America. A generation ago, the druggy cool of Jordan Catalano on My So-Called Life and Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210 served as aspirational ideals for teens. Now the hilarious dorkery of Superbad presides.
Luckily for Fiasco, hip-hop traditionalists don’t buy records anymore, they only blog about them. And indeed, the fury within that Internet savvy, East Coast rap-worshiping demographic of males in their late 20s and early 30s was stunning, when, in the wake of the absurdly named Fiasco Gate, the rapper claimed not to have grown up listening to A Tribe Called Quest: “THE LITTLE GHETTO KID FROM THE MEAN STREETS OF THE WEST SIDE OF CHICAGO GREW UP ON SPICE 1, 8-BALL & MJG, N.W.A AND SNOOP DOGG.” The entire blogosphere — and rapper Phonte from Little Brother — rushed to heap scorn on Fiasco. Yet ’net buzz has never translated to sales in the hip-hop world, and to the surprise of many, Fiasco moved a very respectable 160,000 copies of The Cool in its first week, a figure that would’ve signaled a bust a decade ago but spells a modest hit today, and nearly three times what the Wu-Tang’s 8 Diagrams sold in its first week last month.
Of course, the Okayplayer set initially championed Fiasco, and despite his best efforts to alienate them, Fiasco still has fans among the 15,000 people who bought the Little Brother record. But with his recent success, Fiasco (like West, to a similar extent) has succeeded in selling rap as an entirely different entity from the caricatured guns-and-drugs talk in commercial vogue for much of the decade. From skate nerds who became fans with “Kick Push” to straight-edge emos interested because Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy produced a track, to the ringtone-radio crowd that sang along to every word of The Cool single, “Superstar,” at last month’s Power 106 Cali Christmas show, the 25-year-old Fiasco has built a significant following of fellow outsiders, in the process emerging as arguably the best major-label rapper of his generation.
The Cool is a showcase for Fiasco’s restless ambition, an hour-and-10-minute sprawl that encompasses double-time rapped odes to his hometown (“Go-Go-Gadget Gospel”), Midnight Marauders–esque love ballads (“Paris, Tokyo”),novelistic portraits of everything from aspiring Houston rappers (“Hip-Hop Saved My Life”) to conscripted African child soldiers (“Little Weapon”) and even a call for better health in the ghetto, rapped from the perspective of a cheeseburger. Somewhere in between is a convoluted mini-concept album featuring characters called The Streets, The Game and The Cool. The fact that he makes it work is both a testament to Fiasco’s inherent genius, inordinate technical rapping ability and vertigo-inducing wordplay. Even if Fiasco might never make the old guard want to smoke a blunt with him or even call him up on the land line, it’s all right. He’s prospering in the age of the iPhone.
Lupe Fiasco performs at House of Blues on Thurs., Jan. 17.