Review Summary: Lupe gives us some more Lupe. Finally.
Lupe Fiasco is an amalgamation of sorts. He’s a mainstream darling, a conscious rap steadfast, and a hip-hop gateway artist. It’s a balance that even Lupe himself would say he’s had a hard time maintaining, and taking a look down his most recent releases it’s just as apparent to the rest of us how much he’s struggled with identity. Whether you blame that on the label or the tugging of fans is entertaining argument, but not one to make when focusing on the music. And the music itself has, well, been pretty underwhelming. The glaring missteps of Lasers
and the blasé attempt at recapturing the past of Food & Liquor 2
come across as service to the outside world; of a star trying to keep everyone happy. But what he didn’t understand, until recently it would seem, is the world liked what made Lupe happy, and that’s what made The Cool
and the original Food & Liquor
so engaging. On Tetsuo & Youth
we see Lupe making music for Lupe again, and the result is the strongest outing we’ve gotten from him in years.
Tetsuo & Youth
is sprawling and adventurous, weighed down only by it’s occasional over ambitiousness. There’s a clear Twisted Fantasy
-era Kanye influence in the production, with songs like ‘Blur My Hands’ and ‘Body of Work’ cultivating memories of the modern classic almost too earnestly. These moments are finely tuned and crafted, but sadly unoriginal. That’s a theme we see across the album, really, that the production could fit snuggly among the multitude of “mainstream-yet-acclaimed” tracks of the past 5 years. It’s nothing new. Even on standout track ‘Prisoner 1 & 2’, the sample is one that’s been recycled a multitude of times in the past decade. The guests feel all too familiar as well, almost cheap imitations of the influences they so clearly wear on their sleeves. It’s not that they sound bad per se, just that we’ve heard them all before. What we haven’t been graced with recently is a conscious rapper this skilled with the pen.
Lupe himself has claimed that he’s handed (reluctantly) the torch of thoughtful hip-hop king to other artists, but it’s hard to be convinced that he shouldn’t still be in the conversation after the astounding word-craft he’s delivered across this LP. On the “can’t wait to escape Atlantic Records” pleading ‘Dots & Lines’, the hook advises to “go straight, don’t sine”, indicative of a geometry verbiage laced track graced with wordplay such as “See big whirls have little whirls that feed on their velocity, and little whirls have lesser worlds and so on to viscosity”. Sure, he stole the rhyme itself from an old meteorology tome, but damn if he doesn’t make it fit perfectly in context. Up and down the album is graced with unbelievable wit and rhyme, none more so than album lead off ‘Mural’, which stutters on the same pulse over and over as Mr. Fiasco performs his awe inspiring lyrical gymnastics.
The album flows reasonably well and the interludes provide nice diversions, but it’s in Lupe himself that Tetsuo & Youth
hits hardest. When he lets his person peak through it elevates the music to heights that outshine his best work. The fact that this is his last record under the stranglehold of Atlantic Records means this could be a sign of things to come. If he can just escape the expectations that surround him on every release and make something wholly “Lupe Fiasco”, there’s a good chance we haven’t heard the best of what he can accomplish. At the very least this is the most real that we’ve heard him sound in years, and it should be celebrated as the time Lupe Fiasco came close to living up to his own potential. Hope he sees it that way; as maybe he’ll deliver us more of himself
in the future.