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Artist to watch: Lupe Fiasco - Joel Hall

I can officially say my favorite genre of music is random. My MP3 player is an eclectic mishmash of Afrobeat, klezmer, salsa, zydeco, blues, classical, rhythm and blues, and rap.

However, when I am driving, working out, or in need of a mental distraction, rap always has been my music of choice.

When I was a teenager, I would listen to pretty much anything, regardless of profanity, violent references to women, and use of the "N" word. As I have gotten older, however, I have come to expect better.

With the exception of Ne-Yo, who is an excellent songwriter and performing artist overall, I have been pretty disappointed with the rap music to come out of Atlanta as of late.

The song, "Crank dat Soulja Boy," and its accompanying dance, while infectious, lacks the intellectual depth I have come to crave as an adult.

Lately, I have found myself leaning toward the music of Chicago. In the last five to seven years, Chicago has consistently churned out artists who are a breath of fresh air.

Kanye West, while often criticized for his inability to lose gracefully, has become one of the standard bearers of hip-hop. While constantly overlook by mainstream radio stations for his introspective lyrics, Common won a Grammy nomination for his latest album, "Finding Forever." Common won a Grammy for best rap duo for his single from the same album, "Southside," featuring West.

However, a young rap artist has never impressed me more than Lupe Fiasco. Only 26 years of age, Lupe Fiasco puts together thoughts and ideas with the experience of somebody twice his age.

Before his second album, "Lupe Fiasco's the Cool," I had mostly interacted with his music via guests appearances on the songs of more established artists. However, his most recent album, released in late December, sets him apart from a lot of new artists.

Known in real life as Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, Lupe Fiasco is a practicing Muslim. While his music isn't squeaky clean, his faith permeates every track he puts out. Unlike a lot of new artists, he put a lot of thought into what he produces.

Another feature of his music I appreciate is that he presents a message, but does it in a way that isn't evangelistic or overbearing.

In his radio single, "Superstar," featuring Matthew Santos, the average listener may think that Lupe Fiasco is rapping about trying to get into a trendy club. In actuality, he is rapping about the dangers of fame and getting into heaven:

"Want to believe my own hype but it's too untrue, the world brought me to my knees, what have you brung you, did you improve on the design, did you do something new, well your name ain't on the guest list, who brung you? You."

In "Dumb it Down," Lupe Fiasco relates the dilemma of most rappers today: Be true to yourself or simplify your message and sell more records. He concedes that most rappers today chose to do the latter in a conversation with a record producer:

"You've been shedding too much light Lu (dumb it down) You make'em wanna do right Lu (dumb it down) They're getting self-esteem Lu (dumb it down) These girls are trying to be queens Lu (dumb it down) They're trying to graduate from school Lu (dumb it down) They're starting to think that smart is cool Lu (dumb it down) They're trying to get up out the hood Lu (dumb it down) I'll tell you what you should do (dumb it down)."

I appreciate the fact that an artist so young sees the current dilemma in rap and cares enough to say something about it in his music.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.