Album Review: Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth

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Artist: Lupe Fiasco
Album: Tetsuo & Youth
Label: Atlantic Recordings
Release Date: January 20, 2015

Lupe Fiasco’s career has been one defined by valleys and peaks. Hailing from the Westside of Chicago he bursted on the scene in 2006 with his highly-acclaimed Fahrenheit 1/15 trilogy of mixtapes. His unique delivery, crystal clear cadence and mind-boggling wordplay had many hip-hop aficionados crowning him the leader of the new school. Jay Z was so taken by the Chicago native that he immediately sought to sign the emerging artist to his Roc-A-Fella Records imprint after hearing the introspective “Coulda Been.” On that song, Lupe expertly provides a hypothetical view of what his life would be like without rap.

It has been ten years since Lupe dropped that life-altering song. He would politely decline Jay Z’s generous offer, instead opting to leverage the high-profile co-sign into a label deal with Atlantic Records for his own imprint, 1st & 15th. His well-received debut album Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor was spoiled by a devastating leak that is widely assumed to have severely hampered sales of the retail version. That was quickly followed in 2007 by Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool which to date been his most commercially successful album. This sophomore album was responsible for bringing Lupe to a broader audience thanks to hits like “Hip Hop Saved My Life”, “Paris, Tokyo” and the once ubiquitous “Superstar” featuring soulful crooner Matthew Santos. However, the subsequent years would bring with it career debilitating disputes with Atlantic Records. During this time Lupe Fiasco must have wondered if his life would have actually been better without rap.

This leads us to the current topic of discussion, his latest album Tetsuo & Youth. This album is pivotal for two reasons. First, this fulfills his contractual obligation with Atlantic Records, freeing him to seize full creative control of his future projects. Secondly, Lupe’s career has been much maligned by his last two sub-par albums and an ill-advised venture into Rock & Roll (see: Japanese Cartoon & “Solar Midnite”). For one to assert that Lupe’s very livelihood hinges on his latest release is far from an understatement, it is an unfortunate reality.

Tetsuo & Youth begins with “Mural,” produced by The Buchanans who have previously worked with Lupe on songs such as “The Coolest,” “Gold Watch,” and “Streets on Fire.” The song is one very long hip-hop quotable. Clocking in at almost nine minutes, the song finds Lupe rapping with an intensity unheard from him in some time. Surprisingly, despite its length the song never drags, with every moment being more compelling than the one before it. A simple piano loop overlayed with a soul stirring vocal sample and hard-hitting drums creates an optimal canvas for Lupe’s “Mural.” Not to be outdone by his musical backing, he opens up the album with a return to peak lyrical form: “We’re all chemical, vitamins and minerals/ Vicodin with inner tubes, wrapped around the arm/ To see the vein like a chicken on the barn/ Top Cat chat, let’s begin another yarn.”

This song is immediately followed by “Blur My Hands” which features some astonishing vocals provided by Australian singing sensation Guy Sebastian who Lupe collaborated with for “Battle Scars” from Food & Liquor II. Produced by S1 and M-Phazes, this song seems is could surf radio waves for a good long while, if chosen as a single. The song is an admonishment to press towards your goals despite any hate you might receive from others along the way. Lupe’s wit is on clear display here as he finishes his third verse with an overly elaborate reference to an early-90’s movie that will astound you when/if you make the connection (hint: look at actor Michael Douglas’ filmography). “Prisoner 1 & 2” provides a detailed look at the American prison industrial complex. The song is actually two songs combined. The first song describes with striking detail the grim reality of prisoners in correctional facilities. The two songs are bridged by a captivating Ayesha Jaco spoken word piece. A recurring figure in Lupe Fiasco’s work, she does not disappoint in her unfortunately all too brief cameo. The second part of the song describes prison from the perspective of correctional officers. Lupe presents a surprisingly strong case for the overseers of prisons being prisoners, of a sort, themselves.

One of Tetsuo & Youth most surprising standout songs is “Chopper” featuring Billy Blue, Buk of Psychodrama, Trouble, Trae tha Truth, Glasses Malone and Fam-Lay of Star Trak fame.  It is produced by DJ Dahi, known for Drake’s “Worst Behavior” and Big Sean’s “I Don’t F*ck With You.” Ostensibly the song revels in the trappings of street life; violence, drug usage and exploiting government assistance. Upon further inspection however, one begins to wonder if this was Lupe’s way of highlighting how urban communities often revel in things other parts of the national population would be ashamed of. Every rapper featured makes the most of their time on the song but none as much as Lupe Fiasco himself who fiercely raps on the final verse, “F*ck being a hip-hop purist/ When I’m spendin’ 50 thousand on Securus/ Embrace the contradiction you’ll feel us/ RIP to the homies but long live the killas/ It’s why I look at God kinda odd/ Cause these are the cards that He deal us/ Ramen can’t fill us, Medicare can’t heal us/ And the mamas can’t stop us/ And these choppers might kill us.”  “Deliver” was released as the lead single from the album. It could be viewed as the spiritual successor of “Gotta Eat” from ‘The Cool’. Instead of anthropomorphizing fast food, Lupe focuses on the practice of large pizza chains not delivering to what they consider high-risk neighborhoods. The song is produced by MoeZ’art and Marcus Stephens. It is a sharp reminder of what makes the “runner of the FNF crew” so compelling. He is able to address weighty issues, like inner-city violence, in unique and refreshing ways. For example, as the song begins to fade his Atlantic Records’ labelmate Ty Dolla $ign laments “It’s so sad cuz the pizza man don’t f*ck with us no more.” However, the actual tragedy is the conditions that make delivery drivers fear for their lives when bringing food to customers.

Despite disappointing first week sales Lupe Fiasco’s fifth studio album is unquestionably a resounding success. Unlike his previous two albums there is not one glaring misstep. Consistently strong production, some very memorable vocal performances and Lupe’s increasingly mind boggling lyricism makes this an album for the ages. It is without a question Lupe’s best work since The Cool and is arguably his best album yet. While Tetsuo & Youth does not have a clear theme it does have seasonal based interludes sprinkled throughout. This is very apropos since the last few years have indeed been a very cold season for Lupe fans. This album is Spring to their listening ears offering much needed sonic warmth, melting the snow off of hearts that have long since grown cold towards the Chicago native. Let’s hope with his impending departure from Atlantic Records there will be a full-fledged Summer where he brings nothing but heat. Word.


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