Tetsuo & Youth
Lupe Fiasco has had an interesting couple of years. Having released back-to-back albums to critical acclaim in the form of 2006’s Food & Liqour (which is made more impressive by the fact that almost the entire album leaked a few weeks prior to release, prompting Fiasco to record a bunch of new material at short notice and rejig the track list) and 2007’s The Cool he suddenly went off the radar for just over three years. This time included a falling out with his label, Atlantic Records, who were frustrated with Fiasco’s unwillingness to release more pop friendly records: apart from ‘Kick, Push’ and ‘Superstar’ these albums failed to score any real hits and sales proved to be lukewarm.
Fiasco would go on to reveal in 2010 that his new album, Lasers, was actually finished and Atlantic were taking their sweet time about releasing it. This resulted in protests outside Atlantic’s offices and a massive online petition. It was a situation strikingly similar to the one which unfolded in the lead up to Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine. The parallels between the two artists are striking – both have had to struggle with labels who are frustrated by their respective refusal to conform to industry standards, making themselves far less marketable in the process. Lasers found Lupe in confused and frustrated form, resulting in a critical and commercial flop.
If one could say that he was, at best, withdrawn on Lasers the same could not be said of 2012’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1. It was a challenging, thought-provoking and, some would say, overbearing record that proved very heavy-handed in its delivery of what was, overall, a worthwhile message that challenged many of the hypocrisies in hip-hop and, indeed, in wider culture itself. While it was tremendous lyrically, his beat selection proved poor and it is a hard listen. Why is this relevant to Tetsuo & Youth? Well, because with this album he has finally struck the right balance. It is atmospheric, challenging and, in places, flat out fun without coming across as preachy or self-absorbed.
The first track on the album, ‘Mural’, delivers evidence of this right away. At eight minutes long, spanning numerous themes and references it is aptly named. The beat, provided by The Buchanans, is glorious and Lupe is in formidable mood lyrically:
“First part of a party, that I throw in parts
One minute you’re playing pool, next minute you’re throwing darts
But that’s how you do with a party that you throw in bars
I run the Gambit like I’m throwing cards
From popular mechanics to overdosing hearts
Paint cold pictures like Nova Scotia landscapes
Nerd game make Mandelbrot sets when we handshake
A word game back up plan that can dam lakes
Backup the wordplay playing at the man’s states
Means I can still be the man if the dam breaks
And when the man brakes I’m reflectious, what they can’t face
My peers will still treat the mirror like it’s a fan base”
The entire album is a veritable palimpsest. In the abstract above Lupe deftly switches gears between emotive references to the landscape, geeky references to comic books and mathematics, manages to diss his own record label, aptly describe his own style and undermine many mainstream artists who are too caught up in their own fame and fortune to say anything worthwhile.
The closest thing to a “radio-friendly” track is the single ‘Deliver’, which on the surface could be interpreted as a track about how the hood is so bad ass and dangerous that even pizza delivery guys won’t go there anymore. However, when we delve below the surface there is much more at play here. It is a socio-economic commentary on the continued isolation of impoverished communities. The video features a child cycling a long way to pick up a take-out pizza and the message is clear: if he can’t even get a pizza what chance does he have of getting an education and a career? “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” he sneers in the second verse. Can’t see this getting too much play, well, anywhere commercially.
Other standout tracks include the militant ‘Chopper’, the incredibly deep ‘Adoration of the Magi’ and ‘Prisoner 1 & 2’, which is written from the perspective of an inmate and then an officer in a correctional facility. Indeed, there are very few average tracks to be found here. If one had to find criticism, it would be that while musically it is a huge improvement on his last two albums it does not quite reach the heights that The Cool or Food & Liquor do. There isn’t quite enough variety.
This is one of the most important albums of the year and even if the genre is not usually your thing, it deserves a shot. Lupe Fiasco is, lyrically, one of the most advanced musicians in the world right now and he has done a fantastic job of addressing the issues that have plagued his previous two releases. This is the last album that he is contractually obligated to release on Atlantic (and even this took threats from Anonymous to see the light of day) and you can’t help but feel excited about that someone with his immense talent and sharp mind might have in store for us all next, now freed from the constraints of an oppressive label that was often at odds with his direction.
FOUR AND A HALF OUT OF FIVE