In May, a couple weeks before releasing “Mission,” the first official single from his latest album, Lupe Fiasco unlocked his Twitter.
This week, as he promoted “Mission” and his fifth album, the upcoming Tetsuo & Youth, on the Hot 97 Morning Show, Lupe discounted Kendrick Lamar and accused Peter Rosenberg of hugging the kid’s nuts. “Are we disagreeing that King Los is a better rapper than Kendrick Lamar?” Lupe asked as he braced Rosenberg’s shoulder, “Cuz you’re bugging if you say anything other than that!” This contention rang out mere minutes after co-host Ebro Darden laughed off any hints of a diss meant by the title of Lupe’s “THOT 97” freestyle release in January. Just Lupe being Lupe.
As one of rap’s most outspoken purists, Lupe reps a vision of hip hop that celebrates lyricism over hook genius, and dexterity over vogue, even as he reaps royalties from radio crossover smashes like “Superstar,” “Battle Scars,” and “The Show Goes On.” Since the agonized release of his third album, Lasers, in 2011, Lupe’s lost his footing within hip hop culture and, throughout his decline, managed to alienate a rogue’s gallery of fellow rappers: Chief Keef, Childish Gambino, and possibly even his mentor Jay Z.
Rap disses and misunderstandings aside, what’s more so shuttered Lupe’s limelight in recent years is his extracurricular nonsense. He’s argued with Talib Kweli and Pete Rock. He’s argued incessantly with his own followers. Twice, Lupe picked a fight about Childish Gambino's blackness and rap credibility. While Lupe could have been recording new material and focusing on his music, instead we’d see him tweeting reckless and/or catching Ls from rappers more than happy to clown a dwindling superstar. Even before Lasers dropped, music had become but a tertiary concern for Lupe Fiasco.
Hey guys #LF Mgmt here. Gotta love his lively way with twitter but sadly he's gonna be taking a break to focus on other things.— Tetsuo & Youth (@LupeFiasco) May 12, 2013
Thanx again...lupe out...if you Karl Marx overly utopian closet capitalist ass was controversial wait till next Sunday... #DisAintWatUWant— Tetsuo & Youth (@LupeFiasco) May 15, 2013
In October, Lupe dropped “Old School Love,” the earliest tease from his Tetsuo sessions. A month after he debuted the video treatment for that track, I covered Lupe’s Tetsuo preview set at Irving Plaza in Manhattan. On stage that night, Lupe hosted a clusterfuck of rookie openers and veteran guests, including Immortal Technique and Stalley, with a few standard shouts out to Mickey Factz and MF Doom. I wondered then whether Lupe was built to withstand another release season, or if instead he's just looking around to see who's got next.
Yet Lupe's never quite retired from hip hop, despite his frequently dissing the music industry and threatening to quit. His writing credit for “Black Skinhead” suggests that he’s still rocking productively with Kanye. He’s said that both Rick Ross and Big K.R.I.T. will feature on Tetsuo, with production from J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and Jake One. Release dates aside, the most impressive and least typical feat so far of Lupe’s attempted resurgence is his collaboration with Ty Dolla Sign on “$nitches,” a finger-snap club jam that nonetheless honors Lupe’s quirky prose. He’s hinted that a second collaboration with Ty, titled “Everything Looks Better With a Bitch Next To It,” may be the next single from Tetsuo.
Crotchety as he can be, it’s not like Lupe is against everything new for the sake of everything “classic” and old. He’s a fan of Young Thug. He’s been rocking with NOLA upstart Dee-1 on tour. And whatever distance or tension might exist between Kendrick and Lupe, the latter has at least been enthusiastic in his praise of T.D.E.’s Ab-Soul. Lupe and Ab-Soul just so happens to have a song out that’s maybe destined for one their upcoming albums, both due out by August.
Given that he’s narrowed his focus to making new music, Lupe seems destined, finally, to perfect that long botched balance of crossover optimism and genre contrarianism that’s resigned him to time out for the past four years. No more trolling Secret Service agents and the Obama administration. No more half-baked activism, no more academic digressions from the music. Instead, he requires the discipline to channel all that subversive impulse to his dopest beats and potentially hit songs. Judging from his recent releases, Lupe’s pen game is in top form. So long as he keeps his barbs to the notepad, there’s no reason he can’t reclaim his spot as rap’s reigning satirist.
Note that the Tetsuo tracklist features both Chris Brown and, coincidentally, a track called “Drizzy’s Law,” which, titularly, shares subversive sort of subtext with “THOT 97,” “Peace of Paper/Cup of Jayzus,” and the subliminal splatter of “SLR 2” and “SLR 3”. “These aren’t entendres; these are secret indictments,” Lupe raps on “Cup of Jayzus.” So, a comeback lit by the many bridges that Lupe Fiasco has burned. He’s not playing nice, but he’s playing smarter.