Steamboat Springs "The Cool"
For a young rapper that has as much potential as Chicago's Lupe Fiasco, it's not really necessary to take on elaborate production or lofty anti-street concepts on a sophomore record.
But that's what Lupe's done on "The Cool," with mixed results.
On the surface, "The Cool" is a collection of the cautionary tales Lupe has to share with us as he's getting groomed to be one of mainstream hip hop's most promising upstarts.
Too often, those tales lean on abstracts (The Streets, The Game, The Cool) that don't make much sense on the first listen - or the second, third or fourth. And more often than not, any sincerity Fiasco had established is thrown in the blender with an empty hook, as on "Superstar," which works well as a single, and not as a piece of this record.
It's sweet that Fiasco still uses side vocalist Matthew Santos despite being pushed toward Grammy nominations by his innocently clever debut, "Food & Liquor," and a handy partnership with Kanye West. But on "Superstar," Lupe Cool could have left out Santos' hook - which is about as successful as efforts from West and Jay-Z to make Coldplay's Chris Martin a rap star, but not quite - or at least given it to someone with an edgier voice.
Even with the weaknesses of some of his output, Lupe is able to match his foreboding about the deadliness of The Streets with deadly quickness and awareness of his rhymes.
Maybe most famous for her onstage volatility and utterly unpredictable swings, Chan Marshall (as Cat Power) seems to have found some rehabilitative comfort in other people's songs.
With "Jukebox," Marshall places a bluesy foot in covers territory for the second time - her first shot, 2000's "The Covers Record," included takes on Pavement, the Stones, Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground.
Marshall has gotten emotionally stronger in her evolution from tiny musical whirlwind to certified Southern siren, and her song choices on "Jukebox" fit well on that timeline.
Where 2006's "The Greatest" lifted the singer up with a Memphis band that shouted soul, "Jukebox" lays its tracks bare: the schmaltz of "New York, New York" becomes a stompy country waltz; "Aretha, Sing One For Me" places Marshall on a vocal platform close to its subject.
Under Marshall's heavy watch, all of these songs take on the easy, tortured soul that has characterized Cat Power's presence throughout her career. And when she puts great songwriters on her own rocky terrain, Marshall is able to work her own ballads - "Metal Heart" and "Song to Bobby" - into a seamless mix with Dylan, George Jackson, James Brown, Joni Mitchell and Frank Sinatra.
"Jukebox" hits stores Jan. 22.