Hip-hop has been on the decline for quite some time, until very recently, with the release of highly acclaimed albums from popular, major-label rappers and independent emcee’s alike. Fans are celebrating as the latest musical efforts of their favorite artists bend less and less to the whims of major record labels and create songs that are more artistic and genuine in nature. Personally, I think there are a select few rappers who are doing incredible things for hip-hop and rap music, and I really wasn’t expecting to put Lupe Fiasco on that list.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Lupe as a rapper. Like everyone else, I applauded his first and second LPs, and like everyone else, I was colossally disappointed by the likes of “Lasers” and his more recent work. The last few singles he released were so pop-radio that I thought he was past the point of no return. Worst of all, they weren’t even good pop radio songs. I’m all for a collaboration with Ed Sheeran, but when I heard their song together I was wondering if they had ever even been in the same room. So when I was scrolling through Spotify’s new releases page, as I usually do every Tuesday, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I saw Lupe had released a new album, titled “Tetsuo & Youth.”
I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I leaned back in my chair, threw my feet up on my bed and played the first track, “Summer.” It starts off with the sounds of children laughing and playing in an outdoor swimming pool. String instruments dance around with staccato progressions and elegant crescendos. “This could be different,” I thought to myself. The instrumental intro gave me hope. There’s nothing less pop-radio than a minute-and-a-half instrumental track, and as I found out later there are four of them on the album. Each one signifies a shift in the album’s narrative and the next season in a year. I was still unsure of what to expect from the album until the beat dropped in the second track, “Mural.”
Lupe calls this album his masterpiece and after listening to the roughly nine-minute long cypher, I could already understand why. There are no hooks. There are no melodies. The beat hits hard and never relents. The production carries a ‘90’s rap feel. Lupe starts rapping and doesn’t stop until the end, and that is pure gold. The pit in my stomach was replaced by butterflies. I was sitting up in my chair by now following along with the lyrics as the song played to let the whole idea of Lupe’s wordplay sink in. The song is titled intentionally to draw symbolism with an actual mural. It is just as impressive to the ears as the super-sized paintings are in real life.
Next up was the more traditionally formatted yet super smooth track, “Blur My Hands,” featuring a soulful hook by Guy Sebastian. The song feels a bit more reminiscent of music that Lupe’s fan base is comfortable with. Within this range both Guy and Lupe dish out some of their best work. A slower, but thoroughly fulfilling song is “Dot’s & Lines.” Although I don’t understand the bluegrass guitar intro and outro, the song itself is a direct insult to Atlantic Records, a label that Lupe has been waiting to disband from for a while. The lyrics allude to his growing displeasure with being a major label artist and his strong desire to be independent. In recent interviews he explained why all of his recent singles were so pop-radio and sucky. Atlantic was forcing him to create the music and once it turned out just as sucky as he said it would, they let him put together the hardest hitting and realest album he could come up with.
My absolute favorite track on the album comes after the “Fall” instrumental transition, titled “Prisoner 1 & 2.” Another eight and a half minute long song, Lupe exercises his lyrical narrative capabilities as he tells the stories of two different people in jail — a prisoner and a correctional guard. Here, Lupe also plays the role of activist as he draws parallels between the Jim Crow laws and modern day imprisonment of the black community. The distinction between “Lasers” and this song is strong, and in this case it is executed marvelously. This song is focused, clever, catchy and powerful in its message. If you have to listen to any one song on the album, make it this one.
By the end of “Prisoner 1 & 2,” I was basically jumping up and down in my chair with excitement. What a miraculous comeback. Lupe said in an interview that he wasn’t fazed by the poor sales of the album and still considers it his masterpiece. Sometimes it takes months, years even decades before truly great art is appreciated for what it is worth. In the case of “Tetsuo & Youth,” I don’t think it will take too long for the world to embrace the genius inside.