Lupe Fiasco isn’t like other rappers—or at least he doesn’t come off as one.
In his formative years, he despised the rap and hip hop that he heard on the radio, rejecting its misogynistic and vulgar themes, preferring jazz and poetry as his mediums for entertainment. Just a small vignette of Fiasco’s well-educated, well-cultured, and creative early life should give you just the slightest idea of the creative inspiration and general intellectual stance that he holds today, because that’s what Lupe is—an intellectual through and through.
Fiasco’s debut album, Food & Liquor, contained themes of rejection for following one’s interests in the pursuit of individuality in “Kick, Push.” The opening track contained samples of his chanting of the Qur’an. From the get-go, anyone who listened to Lupe knew he was legitimate, intensely invested in the matter about which he rapped, and most of all, independent.
After Food & Liquor, Lupe Fiasco continued along the same demagogic path, preaching to his listeners about the ethics (or lack thereof) in the music industry, acceptance of Islamic people in America, and, other than an over-commercialized and some would say banal release of Lasers, kept walking the righteous path and releasing quality songs.
And now he’s back, with Tetsuo & Youth, his first new album in three years. From the first look at Tetsuo & Youth, you can tell that Lupe has certainly dived headfirst into alternative hip hop. The cover, interestingly enough, is a painting by the artist himself, a work with broad strokes of warm, heavily textured paint and a modern, if simple, theme.
What’s inside the album cover, though, is what matters—and it’s anything but simple. After a minute-and-a-half long vignette featuring the sounds of children playing, burbling water, and a calming, atmospheric violin riff (if there ever were such a thing), the eight minute long track Mural finally plays. As the song’s title suggests, Lupe jumps into a massive auditory work of art. He covers subjects as mundane (for hip hop, at least) as drug abuse to contemporary issues like waterboarding and the dehumanizing effects that corporate ads have on women.
I’ll admit that Lupe isn’t completely abandoning the typical hip hop motifs: he’s just as quick to mention his “haters,” to brag about his poetic skills (“forge poetry like a young honorary Morrissey”), and to drop a line about talents in more sexual areas of life, but Tetsuo & Youth is a sophisticated album.
My favorite track, “Dots & Lines,” concerns itself with sacred geometry, the laws of nature and physics, and the corruption of men’s otherwise goals when mixed with the pursuit of money. “Little Death,” apart from its mellow, dissonant production, features similarly complex subject matter, examining the dichotomy between the truth that is offered from science and religion. The song’s title in French, “La petite mort,” refers to an intense transcendent spiritual experience during sex, or a brief period of melancholy or depression…the interpretation is up to you.
Tetsuo & Youth has what you want in a smart, pensive album. Need lyrics about police brutality, false imprisonment, Jim Crow, and terrorism? Looking for obscure references to 1922 mathematics publications? Look no further. Lupe Fiasco’s career-long, intense commitment to bringing intelligent verses to his audience, combined with the inventive instrumentals (“Prisoner 1 & 2” makes a masterpiece out of a garage band violin loop) found on this album together flirt with greatness.
All songs are equally accessible to hip hop heads and lovers of esoteric music, and that’s a difficult combination of audiences to reach. This just serves as proof that Lupe Fiasco is one of the more prolific and talented artists currently releasing music, and this reputation is well deserved.