There was a certain enigma surrounding Lupe Fiasco’s fifth album Tetsuo and Youth. It was almost like a fork in the road, or game five of a tied playoff series. Of course you’re most hardcore Lupe fans had their minds made up, but for many of us Lupe’s entire career was about to be judged off of this project.
After delivering Food and Liquor and The Cool, to say some were disappointed with Lasers and the under the radar Food and Liquor II would be an understatement. It seemed like some strange bug had gotten to him. Luckily, there was a light at the end of the tunnel as Tetsuo and Youth became the final album on Lupe’s contract with Atlantic Records.
The album’s release was also marked by the infamous army of the Internet “Anonymous.” The web vigilantes threatened to perform a digital attack against Atlantic Records, who had pushed Lupe’s album back after citing a need for a “pop-friendly” single.
What all of this led to was one of the most complex albums that you’re ever going to listen to. Laced with double entendres, metaphoric storytelling, lessons in ancient literature, science, mathematics, and slick biblical references; this is one of the smartest albums in recent times. The question to be asked was, ‘were we going to get Super Lupe Raps or the one that flew over the cuckoo’s nest?’
One of the first songs released from Tetsuo and Youth was “Adoration of the Magi.” If this was any indication of what this album had in store, then Lupe was spot on. What he did with his hook is the reason we fell in love with his raps in the first place. The “Adoration of the Magi” was a painting depicting three Kings paying respects to a baby Jesus Christ. In the hook Lupe questions those chasing the fast life asking,
Why you ready to die? You just a baby
Why them tears up under your eyes? You just a baby
Keep your head up in the sky, you just a baby
Quit chasing money, never mind, you just a baby
(These Magi adore you) x2
Why you wanna be born again? You just a baby
Why you playing in the streets? You just a baby
-Lupe Fiasco, Adoration of the Magi
Dope right? On the surface it seems like a conscious hook with a nice melody, but further examination reveals that Lupe is making allusions to various classic albums with babies on the cover. Ready to die? Tears under your eye? Head in the sky? What takes it to that next level is that it still plays a part in the whole story being told throughout the album, keying in on the narrative of a gifted youth coming up in the world. The production is as good as any on the album. DJ Dahi’s drums and bass line work well with Crystal Torress’ horns, fitting for an old jazz club.
Another standout cut was the two for one “Prisoners 1 & 2;” a song said to be dedicated to Lupe’s incarcerated former manager and friend Chilly. Lupe starts the record off by analyzing the growth of a literal prisoner while zeroing in on the circumstances that got him there, his mental and spiritual development, and eventually his death via execution. During the latter half of the track, Lupe flips the script and creates a scenario where corrupt correctional officers become the prisoners. Their shortcomings ground them to the point that they’re situations may be worse than those in the system.
The song is good enough, but then Lupe does it again. Looking at some of these lyrics it sounds like the prisoner metaphor is alluding to Lupe’s status in hip hop—the second verse in particular.
Looking in the library, looking at the law
10 years deep, now I’m looking at the bar
Claim sovereignty, because I’m bunkin’ with the moors
They degenerate, they ain’t looking at the game
They just looking at the scores, they be putting on my books
Cause I’m looking at the stars, trade a shank for some crank
Now I’m looking at a war, BGF got the yard
AB got the kitchen, snitches on PC
MM on a mission, but CO’s got the prison
God got us all, God set us free
God is the key, but the guards got the doors
-Lupe Fiasco, Prisoner 1 & 2
Lupe is one of the most intelligent emcees out there, but that is an anomaly in hip hop. Then there is his breakdown of prison gangs. Blacks have the yard? The white supremacists have the food? CO’s or label executives control the prison/game? Eminem on a mission? Something to think about.
The entire album is something to think about. Lupe told us to put our ‘thinking caps‘ on when listening to this one. There are many theories surrounding Tetsuo and Youth. The seasons changing as the tone of the album changes. The fact that there is an anime character named Tetsuo who’s abilities became too much to be contained, much like Lupe with his head banging word play.
Another theory is that the album is palindrome. You can play it backwards and still get the elements of the story Lupe is looking to tell about his career in the form of a child’s development. The Ab-Soul featured song “They.Ressurect.Over.New” can be as justifiably be the first track before Lupe speaks on baby Jesus, mothers in the hood, and things being delivered. It’s a doozy.
Lyrically, Lupe Fiasco has mastered the craft of hip hop writing. He’s not aiming for radio here. Instead he wants our heads to explode—and to a certain respect that hurts him. You get physically exhausted listening to him. You want to connect the bars and references. You want to be able to sing along with your favorite rappers. You want to say you understand them, but there is no certainty here. If this was food it’d be a frozen vegetable with no microwave in sight—it’s good for you, but it’s going to take time to take in and digest. While I acknowledge that Lupe may be miles ahead of 99% of artists today lyrically, I have to say that found myself begging for something easier to listen to.
So to answer the question…
Did we get the Lupe we love back or do we write him off for good?
Lupe is the best lyricist out right now. He makes your favorite rapper look futile when it comes to tying these words and devices together while never sacrificing his intended message. Tetsuo and Youth is an example of some great writing beyond music and a step in the right direction for the man as an artist. That said, I don’t know where Lupe can go from here. The overall sound of the album screams “the end.” It sounds like something he should go out and retire to where they play banjos like the ones from “Dots and Lines” on.
So yes. This was redemption, but I don’t know what I’d like to hear next. I don’t make those decisions though.