Lupe Fiasco seems exhausted by his own career. “I think I had my peak and now I am coming down in relevancy,” he told Billboard recently. “It’s not a sad thing for me…I can’t compete with a Wiz Khalifa for the attention of a 12-year old.” This doesn’t make for inspiring promo copy, but there’s no arguing that his run has been a wearying one: From 2006’s Food & Liquor, which suffered from leaks and a Billboard mishap misreporting his first-week sales, to 2011’s reviled Lasers, which his fans had to storm Atlantic’s gates to get released, Lupe is forever swimming upstream, his hands tied behind his back.
Of course, many of Lupe’s problems stem directly from Lupe—he was pointing out flaws in F&L even before it was released, and he’s perennially signing off Twitter, announcing his retirement, scheduling and canceling albums. And yet something feels different this time around: If Tetsuo & Youth is any indication, something has shaken loose in Lupe, because it’s the most focused, thoughtful, and satisfying project he’s offered since The Cool.
What’s shifted? Well, for one, the album serves as the end of his tortured contractual obligation to Atlantic. Even then, he wasn’t let off the hook without a fight: Depending on whom you believe, the world might owe Tetsuo‘s existence to the hacker group Anonymous, which publicly threatened Atlantic if the album was not given a release date. The label’s official announcement came swiftly afterwards, and Lupe tweeted a simple “V” as a wordless gesture of thanks.
Whatever set the stage for him, he dives back into rapping for its own sake like it’s a big dusty novel he’s been waiting to pick back up for years. He opens after an intro track with “Mural”, which lets him rap, endlessly, for nine minutes, with no hook. He remembers browsing his brother’s porn stash and contemplating the back pages, where you could find “ad space for rubber girls.” He poses enigmatic rhetorical questions like “Now what’s a coffin with a scratched ceiling?” The question has no specific meaning, but the image, and its ghoulish riddle formulation, makes you ponder a lurid scenario for a half-beat longer so that it sinks in.
Fiasco has talked about his love of painting (he painted the album’s cover), and his way with language has always felt painterly rather than writerly, more concerned with how one word shades the next than with literal coherence. The words sound and feel gorgeous, and Tetsuo & Youth bursts with ripe, beautiful lines, like “Sanskrit dance on the page of the dead book,” from “Body of Work”, or “High as the angel on Dikembe’s shoulder” from “They.Resurrect.Over.New”. Following his darting thoughts has always been a thrill, and Tetsuo is a gratifyingly clear transmission.
His longer, more ambitious gambits connect, too, mostly because they preach to no one. He has earned a reputation for sermonizing, but his best songs, like “Hip-Hop Saved My Life”, eschew sermons for empathy: Even the KKK member he namechecked on on F&L‘s “American Terrorist”, who “can’t burn his cross because he can’t afford the gasoline,” was worthy of pathos. On Tetsuo‘s “Prisoner 1 & 2”, Lupe examines the prison-industrial complex, wriggling his way into multiple characters’ heads, including the prison guard who has to work at the prison “or it’s no lights” and feels a pang of jealousy every time a prisoner walks out. On “Deliver”, a pizza delivery car serves as a metaphorical vehicle to explore neglected neighborhoods and the semi-mythical status of “the hood.” Neither song hits a single strident, or forced, note.
Unfortunately, the same weakness that always hobbles Lupe albums—namely, the music—continues to dog him here. His in-house production team consistently surrounds him with a flavorless, vaguely rock-derived backing, while hook singers like “Australian Idol” winner Guy Sebastian and St. Paul singer/songwriter Nikki Jean croon the anonymous choruses. The placid, flat-footed rhythm is a poor match for Lupe’s lively, elastic flow. Ironically, one of his recent “label concession” singles, the spry Ty Dolla $ign-featuring “Next to It”, would have livened up the album’s sound considerably. It’s not on here, leaving Lupe in his own universe. It’s a pleasant place, but often a little flat.
Lupe has always been most exciting when he’s somewhere outside his comfort zone, engaging directly with the commercial-rap epicenter he criticizes so shrewdly. He has a naturally subversive mind, but a subversive working outside the mainstream has very little to examine or tweak, and he’s thrilling when he’s wriggling on the hook of a big, fat, contradiction—pushing against his audience’s idea of him with Bun B‘s “Swang on ‘Em”, for instance, or grappling with magnetism of rap cliches on “Daydreamin'”. “Chopper”, produced by DJ Dahi, pairs Lupe with Trae tha Truth, Billy Blue, Buk of Psychodrama, Trouble, Fam-Lay, and Glasses Malone, a never-to-be-repeated line-up and a ferocious standout.
Of course, sometimes when Lupe engages with the mainstream, you get strident messes like Lasers‘ “Words I Never Said”. You just never know. He’s mercurial, as likely to strike gold on an obviously corporate-mandated single or an inward-burrowing indulgence. It’s tough to imagine his best-case scenario for creating: He always seems to be interrupting himself mid-sentence. In a recent New Yorker profile of Chris Rock, hip-hop critic and author Nelson George affectionately dubbed Rock the “Duke of Doubt,” pinpointing the skepticism that makes Chris Rock’s comedy hardy and evergreen. If Lupe has a similar wellspring, it is ambivalence. It’s a tricky muse, but every Lupe project has found a way to harness at least 15 or 20 minutes of his fluid, fleeting mind. Tetsuo & Youth is the most generous gulp he’s managed in years.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/15d49XM