Scanning over my first casual, relaxed account of Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth , I noted that I didn’t hear any real “bangers” on the record. The length of the songs proved tiring and forgettable, the instrumentals seemed a bit out of place, but I still thought it was well produced on the whole, anyway.

Tetsuo & Youth

Lupe Fiasco
Atlantic Records

It wasn’t until my second time listening through with a more attentive ear that I realized how jaw-dropping this album is: I focused in on the lyrics and structure of each song and had my mind blown. “Mural” is a mesmerizing masterpiece, “Deliver” is filled with soul-wrenching symbolism and “Prisoner 1 & 2” manages to take a cliché theme in rap and politics and repackage it in a new, exciting way (with maybe a little inspiration from skits in Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city).

While completely unintentional, my own change of heart is a near perfect representation of the issues Lupe Fiasco has been facing as a rapper and artist throughout his career. He’s experienced resistance because his tracks don’t fit the mold for the music industry’s standard hit. Lupe often complains about the label interfering with his music. “Dots & Lines” calls out major labels for limiting his artistic voice and artists for selling their souls for money, directly telling listeners in a catchy chorus, “don’t sign.”

His tracks are often double or even triple the length of an average song – “Chopper” alone runs for 9.5 minutes. It’s hard to get radio play with records that long. Furthermore, it seems that most people don’t want to have to think so deeply about their music. Lupe’s lyrics and rhyme schemes are so intricate you have to listen over and over again just to get a basic understanding of a track. I could listen to “Mural” or “Adoration of the Magi” for a day straight and still not discover all that the songs have to offer.

Listening to “Prisoner 1 & 2,” which has numerous references to Maya Angelou’s famous “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” I could not help but directly contrast the soulful, meticulous track to Gucci Mane’s mixtape The State vs. Radric Davis II: The Caged Bird Sings. And how entirely different the two are.

Artists like Waka Flocka Flame and Gucci Mane don’t care to make complex or highly lyrical music (Waka has been quoted in an interview with Noisey saying just this of himself). The recent rise of rappers like Migos and Young Thug reinforces the fact that many consumers don’t care for the complex, multilayered works of art that Lupe produces. I can’t understand any words except “lifestyle” and “beginning” in Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle (ft. Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan)” and it landed at number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. This trend certainly can’t be good for Lupe’s record sale prospects.

“Chopper” on Tetsuo & Youth serves to address those who propagate and imitate the lifestyle of gangster rappers, even referencing Waka and Brick Squad. The song’s simple chorus and bridge parodies the simplicity of such records, and is a powerful satire of the “hood rich” lifestyle with talk of “Filet Mignon with my food stamps.” The lines “Sayin’ free they guys like I’m dirty / With a clean record but I’m cursed / To make a half a million off a verse,” encompass so much in so few lines.

I’d argue that Lupe fell off for a good while, The Cool being the last album where he was true to himself. Probably, in an attempt to compromise with industry pressures, his talents stagnated thereafter. He’s been open about his conflict with music labels over control of his music in the past with songs like “Dumb It Down,” and again addresses the issue of a certain recognition coupled with distaste for his artsy fartsy style in the opening lines of “Adoration of the Magi” on Tetsuo & Youth. “Blur My Hands” is a lovely example of his creative ability, taking something as rude and indecent as flicking someone off and making it a creative, non-vulgar song addressing those who embody any of the criticism he receives.

In any event, Lupe’s back.

Tetsuo & Youth is mostly amazing, but I don’t feel the instrumentals “Summer,” “Fall” and “Winter” mesh with the tracks musically, and the same for the banjo intro and outro to “Dots & Lines.” My personal dislike for artists who sacrifice pleasurable music or practicality to be artsy definitely factors into my opinion – can you say Yeezus? – but Lupe’s ability to implement such depth and still produce an enjoyable album from a purely pleasure based lens overrides this. I don’t know if Tetsuo & Youth will sell, but I’m sold on it.

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