In the sport of hip-hop, some would say you’re really only as good as your last album, your last single, perhaps even your last line. By this measure, Lupe Fiasco hasn’t been good in a while. Sure, his messages have always been noble with intent and his lyricism has always been witty and methodical, but Lupe’s last two full-length LPs have struggled with perfecting the formula of balancing a conscious message and concept while also achieving popular appeal, a motive infamously enforced by Lupe’s major label, Atlantic Records. The concept of the “big men in suits” forcing the hand of an artist to dilute themselves to appeal to a majority is nothing new—rather, it is something many artists struggle with and produces pieces of work like 2011’s LASERS, Lupe’s most commercially sounding and most disappointing album yet. While it tried to be conscious and have purpose, the barrage of heavy pop-synth beats and gigantic, grotesque choruses turned whatever potent truths Lupe envisioned into a ‘lite’, more easily digestible version of himself. His last album, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 definitely improved in making his messages less saturated, but fell victim to biting off more than he could chew thematically making whatever cleverness and wit established end up feeling empty and without direction. Through all displeasures and disappointments, most of us ended up applauding Lupe’s efforts rather than his art, putting Lupe in a position that seemed bound to sink into the depths of insignificance. Although he was always trying when it came to his music, it seemed year after year he was just that preachy-rapper of years past who was clinging to relevancy via bold anti-government claims and Twitter beefs. It seemed safe to say Lupe’s best years musically, were surely behind him.
Upon the release of his fifth studio album, Tetsuo & Youth, he proved us wrong. One of the common themes on the album is the idea of resurrection and restoration, which evidently applies to more than just the music. With this record, Lupe finds new life crafting a more purposeful, enjoyable listen from front to back. Not only is Lupe able to balance radio-records and musical risks and experimentation, he hits a home-run doing so, making Tetsuo undoubtedly his best work in almost eight years.
The album is structured like a cycle, with the instrumental musical interludes ‘Summer,’ ‘Fall’, ‘Winter’, and ‘Spring’ thematically separating the album into three different yet cohesive sub-parts. The first we hear Lupe is on the second track, ‘Mural’, featuring just straight bars, no hook, forming a dense wall of lyrical finesse that weighs heavy on the light, floating Cortex sampled-beat. Another gem is found in ‘Prisoner 1 & 2’, a song split into two sections that is not shy of unorthodox instrumentation. Here we find a staple violin-loop that could probably be found in Garageband layered underneath more urgent, sharper strings and some trap drums. This seems to be a reoccurring theme on the record, as songs like ‘Dots and Lines’ feature more violins, banjos, and even harmonicas with a a country-western melody. As repulsive and cacophonous as that sounds, it works thematically with the song, as it explores his distaste and displeasure regarding his current label situation, one that expires with this album. Not only does he express this lyrically, but to spit it all over the bizarre, almost awkward crossover beat could be a parody of sorts at Atlantic’s infamous, continuous efforts to try and make Lupe chase pop-rap radio success.
‘Little Death’ shares a similar strength, and serves as less of a commentary on humanity and more of a criticism. Lupe reflects on political themes as well, saying:
“They keep the bottles just to make glass houses/Then climb up to the second floors and throw rocks out it/Then expect not a volley in reply/Some place vulnerable like prolly in the eye”
Lupe has always been critical of America’s foreign involvement, more specifically calling Obama “the biggest terrorist” for enforcing foreign policies that subsequently kill and destroy innocent lives for material gain. These points resurfacing in Lupe’s raps are not to take a political stance, but more to critique and question the infrastructure and ideologies relevant to today. Though it’s hard to appreciate his claims sometimes, one can choose to appreciate the thought behind it. Lupe’s lyrical complexities reach a climax at songs like ‘Body of Work’, wherein the hook is chimed by guest Troi, singing “Anatomy, will be the death of me/Anatomy, that’s just my anatomy”, illuminating a kind of hopelessness and inescapable fate that no matter what comprises our insides, we will always be bound to our physical appearance, race, and body image.
With a mainstream demographic whose attention spans are rigid and unyielding, music has come to revolve around moments. Just as a song’s lasting power can be elongated if it features a quotable line that can squeeze into a 6-second Vine, losing the attention of today’s music fan can often times mean losing relevance. So, for Lupe to release an album like Tetsuo & Youth with unconventional song structures, no major features, and no hit single backing the record, it not only shows his disregard for the current mainstream structures of rap, it makes it very clear he’s not in this to sell records or to garner recognition. Instead, Lupe searches for lasting power within deep-rooted concepts and story arc’s, making some pills sweeter and easier to swallow with pop-melodies and playful hooks, and others just simply as raw as ever.
It is within these risks and deep-rooted concepts that makes Tetsuo & Youth so appealing to the ear, as it is a refreshing return to form to a Lupe formula last heard on 2007’s The Cool. This trust and complete faith in his own artistic expression and concepts is bolder than ever, as on your first listen, you feel like so much of this album went over your head, or needs to be digested. Sure, this means it isn’t as easy-listening as most of the hip-hop climate as it stands currently, but maybe that’s what makes Tetsuo so jarring and beautiful all in the same breath. Maybe it’s this juxtaposition with the club-banging anthems being churned out by the hip-hop all stars of Rae Sremmurd, Metro Boomin, Future, Young Thug, and all of their peers, and to release such an album with pretty instrumental interludes and lyrical assaults free of hooks and popular features—all to make the socio-political statements now in a visceral, sharp form rather than as a hands-clasped, “real hip-hop” preachy patron is what makes this album so beautiful. Lupe divulges his musings and anecdotes on the human condition, filtered into what could be his most complex, conceptual album yet. Welcome back, Lupe.