Brainy Chicago emcee Lupe Fiasco won the alt-rap world's heart with his 2006 debut, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor. But then he went ahead and broke some hearts by saying he intends to record only three solo albums before retiring. On Dec. 18, he'll take another step toward the finish line with his sophomore effort, Lupe Fiasco's The Cool. It wouldn't be a Lupe Fiasco album if it wasn't brimming with innovative concepts, and this one is no different. The disc is named after The Cool, an undead thug character whom Lupe first introduced on the Food & Liquor song of the same name. Other fictional personas who pop up on the album are The Streets, a gorgeous woman who's thousands of years old, and The Game, a slippery personification of the criminal life (not to be confused with the West Coast rapper named the Game).
Confused yet? Lupe stopped by EW's New York City office last week to play us the album and shed some light on the ideas that went into it: ''For me, personally, it represents three negative influences that surround Lupe Fiasco: The want and the need to be Cool, the attraction of The Streets, and the evils of The Game itself. First album I was like, it's everything, daydreaming robots! This one represents more of where I really came from... You really have to listen, because it's subtle, and you can get lost if you just listen to it in one massive thing. But I think once people listen to it over and over and over, the story will start making itself clear.'' Read on for more of Lupe's thoughts on his new tunes, the pressures of being an intellectual celeb, and that retirement pledge.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about where your first single, ''Superstar,'' came from. That seems to be about the experience of a musician rising to fame, right?
LUPE FIASCO: I took the looseness of the record from a Tom Waits song off his new album, Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. The record comes from taking different themes and very dark, very macabre scenes, and placing them in a very poppy, commercial realm. There's many instances in the song, but one of the main instances is, [if] going to heaven was like a club, and so you had to wait, and the beautiful people went in front of you. Then there would be situations where I would contrast an execution [that] looks like a performance people are waiting to see this person die, and they fill up the front row to watch a man die. It comes from, how am I digesting being famous and celebrity? It's like success and fame balanced with tragedy and infamy.
Another new song, ''Little Weapon,'' was produced by Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy. What was it like working with him?
He called me, like, ''I want to do a record for The Cool.'' And I was telling people, ''This album's dark, so the music needs to be dark but futuristic.'' So he sent the beat for ''Little Weapon.'' And I had a set list of things that I wanted to address on this album: I wanted to address the climate, which I didn't really do, and I wanted to address child soldiers. I actually met these guys that run this organization called Invisible Children backstage at a Fall Out Boy show, and I did ''Little Weapon'' as an ode to that [issue]. My partner Bishop G is on there taking the last verse. And the twist in the story is the little kid playing the video game is he any different from the child soldier actually killing people? Because death is death, whether it's digital death or real death.
How about ''Streets on Fire,'' where you bring in the character of The Streets?
At the beginning of the song, [singer] Matthew Santos lists all these tragedies, and then it says, ''She's out there smiling.'' It comes from 1984, the book, where there was so much double-talk and double-think in the first few chapters. That's my favorite book. I tried to put that in a record. So it's like, ''Believe/So say the neon signs by the loudspeakers/Repeating that everything is fine.'' You know? ''A subtle silence/To demolish the troubled conscience/Of a populace with no knowledge/And every freedom denied.'' It comes directly influenced by 1984 using it as a vehicle to introduce one of the characters very abstractly, very subtly.
''Dumb it Down'' is another song that I heard a few weeks ago on YouTube. Those catchy hooks with different people urging you to dumb down your music. Do you really get that a lot?
It's kind of perceived. My peoples that frequent clubs and go in the streets and things of that nature, they'll be like, ''Yo man, this is what they're saying in the hood: 'I'm not really feeling Lupe.''' Those are real conversations that I get the gist of. And then the second hook is more Big Brother-influenced, which is that unspoken and in some cases spoken behind closed doors mentality and agenda of a lot of different [record] companies. To actually be like, ''Let's push some bulls--- today.'' That song touches on one of the base themes for The Cool: I went to go see Cornel West speak, and he said, ''If you really want to affect social change in the world, you have to make those things which are cool and destructive, uncool. You have to make it hip to be square.'' ''Dumb it Down'' was showing that. Like, the verses are super-duper complex, but the hook itself is telling the verses, like, ''Damn, yo, dumb it down! This is why we're saying you need to dumb it down. Nobody just got that verse you just said, and that's why you're really not going to sell too many records.'' It's showing that: ''They're starting to think that smart is cool, Lu/Dumb it down/They're starting to get up out the hood, Lu/Dumb it down.'' It's like, ''We need to keep them there so we can constantly sell them things.''
I heard in a few songs there you mentioned the name of your next album, L-U-P-End. So I take it you're sticking to your promise of making three albums and then you're out?
Yeah, I think so. I'm 85 percent. My final album is L-U-P-End, and it comes from video games. I love video games, especially Capcom, and you can only put three letters when the game is over three letters and ''END.''
Do you have a concept for that album yet?
I don't know. I was thinking about having it be very schizophrenic, just all over the place and loaded with features. Or having, like, 10 songs, like back in the day when they'd do 10 songs and be done.
You're obviously someone who puts a lot of thought and intelligence into your albums. After you make your third album, what are you going to do with all that creative energy?
Oh, I'm writing my book! It's tentatively titled Reflections of a Window-Washer. It's about this character who has limited amount of conversation with the world. But he has simulated conversations, as if he had ever went past saying to someone, ''Hi.'' It's a real cerebral kind of piece. I've got maybe just a few chapters. They published one of the chapterettes in a magazine in London, where [the character] sits and ponders the notion, the physics, the ideals, the commercialization of the future.
So you can see yourself becoming a novelist full-time?
Yeah! That's where this [music] comes from. Hip-hop is like a byproduct of telling stories and writing. Some of the stuff that I want to talk about can't be compressed into a song.
When you envision that being published, would you have your birth name on the cover?
Oh, yeah. Wasalu Muhammad Jaco. WMJ. Eventually, Lupe Fiasco is this, he's music. He's going to be done. Wasalu Jaco writes for Lupe Fiasco, you know?
This year, concept albums in hip-hop have become a big thing Jay-Z's calling his album a concept album, T.I. called his album a concept album. Why do you think that is?
Well, MF Doom did concept albums. Prince Paul, all he does is concept albums. Even the guy from Onyx [Sticky Fingaz] did a concept album, Autobiography of Kirk Jones. So it's been concept albums here, there, around. I think what happens is especially in Jay-Z's case you've done it so much and you've put yourself in a place where if you try and do anything different, it'll turn against you. So how do you continue to improve and revolutionize what you're doing already? A concept album. ''Yeah, I can talk about everything I want to talk about, and put it under the premise of a concept.'' But I think it's dope, if it comes across. I chose to do it very abstractly, very subtly, and more to dress up the album very lightly. But I think it's cool. Especially T.I.'s, the concept of it was very good.
What's the status of CRS, your supergroup with Kanye West and Pharrell Williams?
Child Rebel Soldier. We working. Kanye called me the other day, he said he had spoken to Pharrell, and everybody's still excited, ready to go. It's just scheduling issues, but it's solid gold, late '08. We'll see.