Monday, January 26, 2015

album review: 'tetsuo & youth' by lupe fiasco

To say I have a complicated opinion on Lupe Fiasco would probably be understating it.

See, unlike most people, I didn't get into him from his first Food & Liquor album or The Cool. Nope, the very first project of his I heard was Lasers - and sure, it was definitely poppy and it hasn't aged well at all and it definitely feels overly simplified in comparison to those earlier albums, but I stand by the controversial opinion that for what Lasers is - a pop-flavoured rap record designed for the radio with only the slightest hint of controversy in its politics - it kind of works and I sure as hell find it to be an easier listen than the preachy, overwrought and yet underwhelming Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Part 1

But yeah, going back to revisit Lupe Fiasco's career, I've found an artist that I like but don't quite love. Don't get me wrong, as a lyricist he's frequently strong and his production is always at least interesting even if it doesn't always work - but when it comes to his content... well, do you know that guy in college who's definitely smart and can grasp certain topics well, but never really takes the next step to go deeper into something really poignant or chooses to go for broad appeal that might be popular until the second someone calls him on it? Lupe Fiasco tends to fall into that category for me - a rapper who frequently gets damn close to something almost transcendent but more often than not doesn't take that extra step or, even worse, gets embroiled in conspiracy theory bullshit or broad controversial statements that make him look so much less intelligent or insightful than he actually is. Which is a shame, because when he stays away from that and goes deeper he can make fantastic music unlike anyone else, and songs like 'Kick Push' prove it. It circles back to my hard rules for art and politics, which really can be applied to any art looking to push a message: good framing, populism, and nuance. And while Lupe Fiasco tends to nail the first, he can stumble on the second and trip up on the last. And what this tends to mean is that his records while maintaining a thematic throughline I can respect, they often feel inconsistent, the amazing highs only highlighting the painful lows.

So I'll admit to being very skeptical with his upcoming album Tetsuo & Youth. Not only had it been delayed a worrying number of times, I was not impressed at all with the majority of Lupe's output that he had been dropping throughout 2014. And sure, I had heard he was going back to his roots with this record and that it was his best work since The Cool - and believe me, I wanted to get hyped for a new Lupe Fiasco album again... but I'll be honest, I had low expectations for this record. What did we get?

Well, as I expected, we got a damn interesting record - and I'm pleased to be able to reflect what nearly every other critic has said about this record. Yes, it's a return to form for Lupe Fiasco, and it's easily the best project he's delivered in a long time. There are still issues and problems with it, some of which I've always had with Lupe and some that are newer, but they are easier to overlook in favour of the stronger moments. And I'll say it - having relistened through Lupe Fiasco's entire discography, Tetsuo & Youth as a whole is probably close to being on par with The Cool - not quite reaching the same highs as that record but ultimately being a more thematically consistent album as a whole.

So let's start with Lupe Fiasco himself, and here I'm happy to report that he actually does present more nuance and layers in both his technical lyricism, his personality, and his content on this album. Partially because there's just more of it - this album is Lupe Fiasco's longest record to date and it sure as hell feels long, with tracks frequently spilling past the five minute mark and the second track 'Mural' nearly hitting nine minutes with no chorus or verse structure. Now this is both good and bad - on the one hand, the sheer display of technique and hard bars and scope of the poetry is excellent, but on the other hand the long-winded nature of the rhymes can not only mean that each song is going to take its sweet time getting to a point, but that simply based on the law of averages you're going to get more corny or ridiculous lines or forced rhymes, even on good songs. It doesn't help matters that Lupe seems defiantly aware his material runs long and he's not going to make his bars easy to decipher - and I'm okay with that, but it also means his music focuses more on creating complicated moods than having a crystallized, nuanced message - not bad, precisely, but very different. And while I would make the argument it can make some of his message lose some of that populism, the increased nuance is definitely appreciated and it's not like we're dealing with a Shabazz Palaces here - if you put in the time, Lupe's bars can be understood. 

Granted, it helps that his instrumentation and production is more on point as well. Yes, there are instrumental flourishes that seem peripheral or gratuitous - the 'season interludes' don't really seem to play a purpose beyond some cool strings production, and the banjo intro and outro on 'Dots & Lines' doesn't really seem to serve a purpose outside of just being kind of awesome. And while Lupe Fiasco's infatuation with rock-inspired beats that aren't always a great fit for his voice hasn't gone away, he has tempered those impulses with significantly stronger melodies that can be catchy enough for pop radio and yet complex enough to show real artistry. Putting aside the interludes, the gorgeous faded piano and vocal sample on 'Mural', the organ and noisy percussion on 'Blur My Hands' with a pretty solid hook from Guy Sebastien, the ragged harmonica and strings against some strikingly crisp cymbals on 'Dots & Lines', the muted horns, prominent bass and echoing snares on 'Little Death', the oily synth, menacing synth wobble, and trap-inspired inspired percussion on 'Chopper', the hollow bass, echoing snap, and thin keys on 'Deliver' that leads to probably one of the best choruses on the album thanks to that scratchy film and Ty Dolla $ign's heavily layered vocals. There are some points where things don't quite work - the Kanye-inspired chunky autotune, plinking synths, and choppy samples on 'Madonna (And Other Mothers In The Hood)' didn't quite coalesce for me even despite some great lyrics, the xylophone and oily hollowness of 'Adoration of the Magi' could have used a little more of the horns, and whenever Lupe Fiasco brought Troi on for the hooks... I'm sorry, his voice was so thin and weedy that it completely pulled me out of the songs every time, which is a shame because he was featured on 'They.Resurrect.Over.New' with Ab-Soul, who dropped a pretty damn good verse and I really wish I could have liked the track more. The other artist Lupe primarily featured on the hooks was Nikki Jean, and she was fine enough, but outside of 'Madoona (And Other Mothers In The Hood)', I don't think she quite added enough to the songs to really distinguish herself.

But the song that stood out the most - easily the best on the album instrumentally with the razor-tight strings line and subtle piano line, guitar snarl lurking the background and multiple moments of intense crescendo, to say nothing of the key change, and that's before we get to the second half of the track which after rattles of chains and a spoken word interlude transitions into grimy synths that echo the strings melody, a great textured drum line, and Lupe sounding more ferocious than he ever has - is 'Prisoner 1 & 2'. And it's easily one of the best tracks Lupe Fiasco has ever made, diving deep into graphic detail of prison culture from fights to hunger strikes to rape to death row to even insight into the mind of a prison guard. It's the sort of sharply conscious political song that when Lupe Fiasco is on point, he delivers like nobody else. This is takes us to the actual lyrical content of the album, and when you prune away much of the off-topic lyrical flights of fancy, there's a lot to like. The sprawling 'Mural' is just one of many of Lupe Fiasco's shots at modern hip-hop, but instead of engaging in hyperbole or overly broad condemnations he brings back his self-deprecating sense of humor and wit that's always enjoyable. 'Dots & Lines' fits into a similar mold, loaded to the brim with references to math that not only shows Lupe knows what he's talking about, but also reflect a drive to cut to a purer brand of hip-hop beyond the radio-friendly anthems his label wanted him to make. It's also a song that begins to crystallize many of the running metaphors of the record - circles and cycles, a sense of renewal and breaking free of situations that will never evolve, and appropriating typical Christian iconography to show a new birth. It places the seasons instrumental interludes in sharper context - there's a well-defined arc to this album, the enlightenment sought in the summer facing the institutional bulwarks against in the fall that seem insurmountable in the winter. It's one of the reasons it works that the final interlude 'Spring' features no songs after it - it's a new beginning for Lupe, a moment of freedom away from a major label, and every path is open to him now.

Now let me stress that I really like this thematic progression, and to his credit Lupe does a lot to interweave songs that wouldn't otherwise seem to fit into this arc. 'Little Death' goes for something small, the moments where the larger picture seems better except for the little problems that are symptomatic of a larger cancer, and 'No Scratches' takes a breakup song and plays it with the sad bitterness that comes when it just isn't going to work and flames out. And the desolation of the 'winter' segment of this album is pretty stark - 'Chopper' is a flat-out gangsta posse cut and shows more of Lupe's guilt that despite the real deaths that his more ignorant music reflected, it was the material with more mainstream appeal, and 'Deliver' goes deeper, showing how even the barest of conveniences can be stripped away in the most bleak of ghettos. Hell, 'Adoration of the Magi' is a message both to himself and other great rappers to pull back and find perspective, rise above vulgarity and aim for something that will earn the adoration of the masses and the intelligent alike. And I do love how he treats so much of it like a video game - a constant challenge that can feel like a slog through level after level, but steps that he must take on his own if he wants to create art and build a legacy for which he's proud. And then you realize what the majority of this album is: a metaphor for Lupe Fiasco's constant struggle with his record label and his own second-guessing nature. On the one hand, it definitely fits together and works and Lupe Fiasco incorporates enough details to make it interesting... but on the other hand, it kind of undercuts some of the more visceral stories that he tells when you realize the stories discuss very real issues and yet Lupe's using them as the main text for his deeper issues with Atlantic and his career. It's the sort of hyperbolic presentation that's toned down but has consistently bugged me about Lupe Fiasco. And to be fair, I think he knows this and I'm not saying he doesn't care about these issues - he clearly does - but it does mean that for as good as the concept of this album is, I get the feeling that songs like 'Prisoner 1 & 2' and 'Deliver' might work a little better outside of it, especially when the storytelling is so vivid and probably real for many people.

But putting that issue aside, Tetsuo & Youth is a damn, damn good album that finally shows Lupe Fiasco on point - and as I said, it's nearly on par with The Cool, and it certainly comes together better as a whole than that album did. For me, this record is an 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. It's nice to see one of the more conscious and imaginative MCs out of Chicago return to the spotlight, and while Tetsuo & Youth is overlong, meandering, and occasionally corny and melodramatic, it features some of the best work of Lupe's career, and I'm definitely glad to see him back and finally free to pursue whatever his heart desires.

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