Lionel Deluy

For high-minded hiphop fans still reeling from Lupe Fiasco's bungled A Tribe Called Quest tribute at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors, you can let him know at a meet and greet at the downtown Jackpot Records today before he hits the Roseland Theater for an all-ages show. Fiasco, who's skating through town to kick off his North American tour, will likely snap right back. He's unflinching, whether condemning gangster posturing on his new album, The Cool, or denying Native Tongue lineage in the fallout from the VH1 debacle.

The damage was negligible. For all Fiasco's aggrievement and blogger self-righteousness, to many Lupe Fiasco is still hiphop's beacon. The kid, a hiphop ascetic who reportedly eschews groupies and alcohol in his personal life—which matches their absence in his videos—is also a begrudged backpacker. Slight, bespectacled, and brainy, Fiasco fits the definition. Whether he cut his teeth listening to 8Ball & MJG or Q-Tip & Co., his protests will not unburden him from the hard bigotry of the high expectations its stamp guarantees. Fiasco's smart-rapper predecessors, like once-boho idol Q-Tip, whose "Vivrant Thing" ignited the copious thick-chick video era, or Common, whose "A Film Called (Pimp)" undid his pro-woman stance from "The Light," or even black nationalist lyricist Mos Def, whose love life was so famously integrated, all strayed from the path, and because of that they've endured a good deal of wrath. But unlike many smart rappers past, the breadth of interest in Fiasco's musical vision has helped dull the purists' complaints.

The Cool attempts in 19 tracks what the late Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks achieved in eight lines, just 24 words, in her classic poem "We Real Cool." The nihilism governing young, poor black men's lives that she distilled, Fiasco elaborates in cadences borrowed from Twista and Jay-Z, among other rap notables.

Fiasco performed the concept album's first single, "Superstar," on David Letterman'sreturning broadcast after a protracted Writers Guild strike caused a break. He circled his awkward and powerful-piped hook man, Matthew Santos, bounding to the edges of the stage and pirouetting back. If the song is not self-referential, you can read it as such. Fiasco recounted three vignettes of buckling stardom, and Santos responded with the bracing chorus, "If you are what you say you are, a superstar, then have no fear...." It might be the mantra that Fiasco repeats in the mirror, Stuart Smalley style, to preserve his swagger. It might be his internal imperative to go at his critics. However read, Fiasco's the rising star straddling the salient and the profane like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, with whom he recently formed the supergroup Child Rebel Soldier. Of course, Fiasco's not a superstar yet, but a rap technician with a message, critical cachet, peer respect, and a wide-open, modern-rock-flavored sound. He's got the cards, if properly played, to join West and Williams' ranks.