Tetsuo & Youth
Lupe Fiasco is back on his cool, nerdy rap shit with Tetsuo & Youth. He didn’t cater to radio and tried to steer away from the heavy-handed, pseudo-intellectual, political talk that made his last two studio albums disappointing to say the least. He’s been keeping himself relevant, for better or worse, by trolling and getting into spats on Twitter. It's a marketing plan that's made people forget how good the four promotional tracks are that he’s released during the lead-up to his fifth studio album. Just like in sports, an artist’s off-the-field behavior can overshadow his or her talent.
Maybe behavior should not be brought up when you're weighing an artist's musical contributions. Maybe we should simply look at the art they've created. But art is not created in a vacuum. Background noise in the form of acidic tweets becomes a distraction to the listener in an art form as intimate as music. However, Lupe's recent antics on social media shouldn't overshadow the fact that Tetsuo & Youth is his best album since Lupe Fiasco’s the Cool. The album, the last he owes to his oft-embattled label, features Lupe at his lyrical zenith spitting over exquisitly crafted production.
Lupe is back to rapping his ass off, something he made very clear early on with track two, “Murals,” a nearly nine-minute painting in word form produced by the Buchanans. The Cortex sample is spiritual, and the bars are heavy.
“Moroccan moles and undercover squirrels/I like cartoons, Southern cities with large moons/Faith healers, ex-female drug dealers and art booms/Apologize for my weird mix/What taste like hot dogs and tear drips/And looks like pantomime and clear bricks/And smells like shotguns and deer piss/They on their hunt, kinda salty that I'm going hard.”
Lupe has always been a complex individual, a kid from the streets who’s also a nerd and into anime. Even still, people love to put Lupe in a box, and that makes him, rightfully, mad. Remember when Soulja Boy said, “I don’t want to be super-Lupe-Fiasco-lyrical and niggas don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about,” and then Lupe smacked everybody in the head with “S.L.R.”? Tetsuo & Youth is 16 tracks of that. It's an exercise in lyrical density, something you will have to deal with throughout the album, but don't let that fact scare you away.
“Blur My Hands” featuring Guy Sebastian, “Adoration of the Magi” featuring Crystal Torres, and “Deliver” featuring Ty Dolla $ign have production and hooks built for lead singles, yet all three feature super Lupe lyrical raps that will make you run each track back. “Blur My Hands” has a relentless boom with slapping drums, a piano, organ, and guitar all providing layers for Lupe’s raps about his lyrical ability and Guy Sebastian’s soulful vocals—a far cry from their pop-friendly “Battle Scars” collaboration. “Adoration of the Magi” has dry snare drums sprinkled sporadically and a sax sample that’s nothing short of heavenly; the hook is catchy, and the lyrics speak of our love affair with material things. It’s Lupe’s personal favorite, and it gets the job done without its message coming across as heavy-handed. “Deliver” has a rumbling beat, and Ty Dolla $ign provides just the right amount of background vocals on one of the album's best choruses, proving that he and Lupe have great chemistry.
Oh, and Lupe raps like a fucking monster on this track.
“The ghetto was a physical manifestation/Of hate in a place where ethnicity determines your placement/A place that defines your station/Remind you niggas your place is the basement/White people in the attic/Niggas selling dope, white people is the addicts/White folks act like they ain't show us how to traffic/All that dope to China, you don't call that trappin'?”
He has that hood shit for that ass, too, in case you forgot. “Chopper” features five street legends over a knocking trap beat and a hook that plays off ghetto stereotypes complete with Migos-like ad-libs:
“Filet mignon with my food stamps/Car cosigned by my mama/Medical card from Obama/Background check for a chopper.”
It’s quite beautiful, actually. Lupe was that kid in the hood the OGs kept on the right path. This is the battle he deals with every day. Something he showed the world when he couldn’t hold back tears when Sway played an old video of the time they were in Chicago. Most of Lupe’s friends that were in the video are either dead or in jail. “Prisoner 1 & 2” puts that pain on full display, with raps about America’s corrupt prison system, and a bridge poem about the New Jim Crow by his sister Ayesha Jaco over violins and sounds of jail cells closing. The fourth verse about corrupt correctional officers is powerful:
“You a prisoner too, you living here too/You just like us, till your shift get through/You could look like us, you know shit get through/You should be in cuffs like us, you should get strike two/You should get like life, you should get like woo!/You should get that twice!/You should get refused/The open road, that's no parole, and no control/Over your own soul, so control, your own remote control, that your folks can hold.”
The police vs. people of color narrative has dominated the conversation in America for several months, and someone like Lupe tackling that conversation with such a profound song speaks volumes. Especially since we want our rappers to stand up for us—or maybe not—depending on who you ask.
Testuo & Youth shows an artist’s progression. This record is beautifully crafted, with robust lyrics over expertly crafted beats. You will not find any throwaway tracks on here. It is quite possibly his greatest creation. Who made him mad? It’s your fault, Internet troll. Yes, you. This Lupe is scary. He has basically reached Super Saiyan God level. We like this Lupe. Put your thinking cap on when you hit play on this joint.
Angel Diaz is a staff writer at Complex. Follow him @adiaz456.