"The Cool" (Atlantic) * * *
Lupe Fiasco is all about subverting the dominant hip-hop paradigm. He rebels against one of the core beliefs of the genre: the concept of cool -- the idea that boils down to a composed sang-froid that comes with hard-earned street credibility. Fiasco rebels against cool. He flips it, deconstructs it and questions it thoroughly on this intensely cerebral second album.
His debut, "Food & Liquor," was also a scathing rebuke of apathy and willful ignorance. Accordingly, it hasn't gone gold, but the album was a critical smash. He was nominated for three Grammys, and GQ named him one of the "Breakout Men of 2006."
It's good to see that the accolades haven't changed him. The 25-year-old lyricist remains loyal to his activist message, which is propelled by intricate wordplay and experimental, trip-hop-inspired beats. Plus there's still so much suffering in the world for Fiasco to rage against: child soldiers, hurricanes and the AIDS epidemic.
The lead single "Dumb It Down" rides a stripped-down thump, a parody of trunk-rattling crunk. "I'm earless/ And I'm peerless/ hat means I'm eyeless/ Which means I'm tearless," spits Fiasco with a philosophical couplet that connects rap bravado with blind cynicism. The cameo artist, Gemstones, plays the foil and accuses him for going over his listeners' heads with five-dollar words. "You'll sell more records if you dumb it down," he taunts sarcastically.
It makes you wonder how many mainstream rappers do "dumb it down" when writing lyrics or editing song selections on their albums, which then makes you marvel and respect rappers such as Fiasco who refuse to condescend to the lowest common denominator.
Ironically, the album's contrived and pretentious beats could've benefited from a little sonic ignorance. The iconoclastic "Hello/Goodbye (Uncool)" featuring Unkle is doused in crashing drums and careening guitar solos that push the hip-hop envelope a little too far for purist tastes. The New Agey synthesizers on "Superstar" and "Little Weapon" -- and heavily deployed throughout the CD -- are better suited for classroom analysis than dance floor hedonism.
Though there's much to admire about Fiasco's idealism and poetic skill, he can also be annoying the way an excessively, politically correct person in your social circle can be annoying. And that's kind of uncool.
-- Serena Kim
"8 Diagrams" (SRC/Universal Motown) **
"The Big Doe Rehab" (Def Jam) ***
The nine-member Wu-Tang Clan bum-rushed the rap world in 1993 with its spare sonics, startling verbal interplay and wildly entertaining esoteric influences, chief among them "Kung Fu." Since then, Wu-Tang's primary producer, the RZA, emerged as an accomplished film composer, Method Man became a solo superstar and the eccentric Ol' Dirty Bastard made headlines for erratic behavior before dying of an accidental drug overdose in 2004.
On its first album in six years, the Wu-Tang has lost much of its magic, even though its brilliance shines through on occasion. On several songs, the rappers seem to be phoning it in, no longer bringing their distinctive personalities to the table. Furthermore, the RZA's beats, for the most part, no longer contain their once eerie, magical quality.
Instead, the sounds are largely tepid arrangements that fail to generate much excitement. When the RZA's swirling guitars and sharp sound effects combine for a mesmerizing elixir, as on "Unpredictable," the song is brought down in the chorus by sub-par, garbled singing from Dexter Wiggle.
Fortunately, there are some stellar moments. Raekwon, Method Man and Masta Killa flow with controlled, understated fury on the sublime, violin-accented "Gun Will Go." The group also pays homage to ODB on the moving "Life Changes."
As the Wu-Tang Clan became a rap force, the once-unheralded Ghostface Killah became the group's unlikely creative giant. His solo recordings, starting with 1996's "Ironman," are the best among the massive catalog from the Wu members.
On his seventh solo album, the strong "The Big Doe Rehab," Ghostface brings the energy and excitement to his songs unfortunately missing from much of the Wu-Tang's latest release. His stream-of-consciousness rhyme style makes listening to his complex lyrics like deciphering military code, but the rewards are always worth it.
Wu-Tang members Method Man and Raekwon add depth to the soulful "Yolanda's House," a dicey tale of dealing with drugs, women and the streets. These are Ghost's conceptual staples, and he constantly approaches them with such panache that they never become stale. Even when veteran party rap DJ Kid Capri contributes some engaging banter to the pounding "We Celebrate," Ghostface's dense, constantly engaging verbal onslaught remains the highlight.
-- Soren Baker
"Made" (Rap-A-Lot) * * *
The introduction to Scarface's seventh album, "Made" finds the Houston rapper sneering that he wrote "the blueprint" for gangsta rap, a barb directed at all the would-be kings jockeying for the throne that he vacated on his retirement in 2002.
No, it's not a broadside against T.I. (he pops up on bonus cut "Big Dog Status [Remix]") but rather a reminder that the man born Brad Jordan practically invented Southern rap with a celebrated stint in the Geto Boys and a solo discography studded with tales of death, drugs and deception.
Whereas 2002's "The Fix" featured production from Kanye West and the Neptunes, "Made" is a decidedly low-budget affair, with no-name producers, few guest appearances and minimal promotion. The bare-bones approach works, with Scarface needing only 42 minutes to spin 12 stories covering the Iraq War ("Who Do You Believe In"), a friend's suicide ("The Suicide Note") and his struggles with infidelity ("Girl You Know"). Backed by sinister organs, woozy gospel samples and his bruised booming voice, Scarface's narration feels almost Old Testament-like.
Ever world-weary, the 37-year-old sounds haunted by his past, troubled by his present and worried about death in the near-future. Its well-trodden themes might not break much new ground, but "Made" succeeds thanks to Scarface's keen storytelling ability, unimpeachable authority and subtle lyrical complexity.
-- Jeff Weiss
"The Solution" (Def Jam) * * 1/2
It's uncertain who or what convinced Beanie Sigel that he had crossover appeal, considering that the gruff, fire-breathing rapper nicknamed the Broad Street Bully is more likely to carry a club than dance in one.
But "The Solution," the follow-up to 2005's acclaimed "The B. Coming," feels unnecessarily bifurcated, with most of its first half devoted to grandiose tough-talk and limp club bangers devoted to passing the Patron.
Yet on the record's latter side, Sigel forgets his commercial aspirations to channel his attention inward, providing a rare and extremely compelling glance at his demons.
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as indicated.