When I found out that I’d be writing a review on Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth, I was prepared to write the most scathing, hating ass review that my Macbook could muster. At one point in time, during my carefree days of high school youth and innocence, I was a Lupe Fiasco fan. It was a magical time for music. Kanye West had just released Graduation, the concept of Child Rebel Soldier was fresh, and Chris Brown still had the Doublemint contract. The Cool had just come out, and it was constantly in rotation on my blacked out iPod classic. This was perfectly suited for a conscious backpacker whose sole desire in life was to look fly, bag the girl next door, and make it through high school relatively unscathed.
Yet as I grew up, the militant rapper who inspired me to look at the world through a different lens seemed to grow increasingly distant from his loyal fan base. He became that former romantic partner whose name, could inspire brief but wistful feelings of nostalgia, until the reality of what they have currently become interrupts those feelings. In the beginning we all blamed the label. We all know how that goes. The artist wants to put out that “real” music, but the label is pushing them down the commercial route. So we took up our cross for Mr. Jaco, defending him at every turn. He was still the backpack rapping, skateboard pushing, lyrical genius that gave us “And He Gets the Girl.” But then Lasers came out, and Lupe got dreads. He started calling the first black president of the United States a terrorist. At that point, he went from hip-hop crusader to a cruel mockery of Dave Chappelle’s character from Undercover Brother.
Fast forward a few years. The only time I listen to Lupe is if my iTunes is on shuffle. At this point, I’m more interested in a Lupe Fiasco twitter beef than an album release. Nobody really knew what to expect from Tetsuo & Youth, but by the time the beat dropped for “Mural,” I knew this wasn’t going to be a repeat of Lasers. For years, one of my main critiques of Lupe was that although he could rap better than most, he didn’t always have the best choice of beats when it came to his albums. He starts the album with a popular sample by the 70’s French jazz/funk band Cortex that gives you no choice but to nod your head in your agreement. I breezed through the album and rushed to my social media platforms to spread the good news that Lupe Fiasco was back.
As I had time to sit down and really digest to the album, much of the excitement that spouted from listening to a former hero back in the game began to slowly die down. After about a week of my watching my Twitter timeline buzz with praise for Lupe Fiasco, I came back down to Earth and realized something. The album was boring, to me. For a musical body of work to have true value, the artist must convey feeling, depth, and tension. Tetsuo & Youth is full of depth and meaning, but it is also relatively monotonous. Songs are singularly good, but fall short as a collective. You can clearly see where he is going, but there is no underlying force pushing the album. From a sonic perspective, Lupe, thankfully, shuns the DJ Mustard/Mike Will Made-It formula that seems to be damn near a requirement for most major hip hop label releases. However, the production on Tetsuo & Youth is strikingly bland. Perhaps this was done on purpose to showcase Lupe’s lyrical talent. I don’t know. Overall it does more harm than good.
The true genius of Tetsuo & Youth project lies in its sequencing. At first glance the short interludes throughout the album seem to have no real meaning. They’re just titles of different seasons. But on closer inspection one can notice that the tone of the album changes accordingly with the seasons, which serve as checkpoints to help the listener navigate through the album. The project starts off with Summer. The tone of the album gets progressively more somber until the last three songs, “Adoration of the Magi,” “They.Ressurect.Over.New,” and “Spring.” Those last three songs return the album to the more positive note that we started with. As the seasons change, Fiasco paints small vignettes of what the struggle is like in the streets all around America. We hear stories of a neighborhood stricken with violence where the pizza delivery man serves as the ever watchful narrator, a man struggling to survive in prison, and a mother worrying over the well being of her son, hoping that he doesn’t become swallowed by the environment that surrounds him. Much like the album artwork, created by Lupe himself, the album itself is meticulously pieced together in order to add to the story that Fiasco is telling. The framework that Lupe places around the album is ingenious. The only problem is that the songs are simply not strong enough to allow the concept to truly stand out.
Overall, Tetsuo & Youth is a decent project. While the journey that Lupe Fiasco takes you on is surely rocky and has many twists and turns, it is clear that he is attempting to convey a message of his views of contemporary society. The intellect is clearly there, you just might have to search a bit to find it.