It’s a cold night in January and my friend is perched excitedly on the edge of the sofa. “You need to hear the new Lupe Fiasco album,” he exclaims, pontificating on how, despite it being released on the first month of the year, Tetsuo & Youth is already one of the best records of 2015. When he exhales, I’m convinced he hit the blunt far too many times.
There’s no way a sentient, sane and sober human could be enthusiastic about a new Lupe Fiasco album in 2015, let alone praise it. Fiasco has been disappointing us for nearly half a decade.
Yet in the past year I’ve seen myself go from stubbornly refusing to listen to Tetsuo & Youth to replaying it again and again. In comparison to Fiasco’s output since he disintegrated into a nebula of broken promises and tiresome albums, Tetsuo & Youth shines bright. The review-aggregating site Metacritic gives it an accumaltive score of 80; higher than Fiasco’s 2007 sophomore record The Cool and just 3 points lower than his seminal debut Food & Liquor. On these accounts, Fiasco has released a pretty damn good album – one that ranks higher, critically, than Young Thug’s Barter 6, Travis Scott’s Rodeo, and Fetty Wap’s self-titled. So why hasn’t Tetsuo & Youth played a greater part in the year’s rap conversation?
Lupe’s ten-year transition from “the greatest writer of our time” (Jay-Z) and “the future of hip-hop” (Pharrell) has been well documented. His third album Lasers flopped; the follow-up wasn’t much better; his name became so sullied that die-hard fans regretted tattooing lyrics from his debut on their body. In between these records, Fiasco would recurringly threaten to quit making music and beef with artists, fans, and writers on Twitter – leading to some hip-hop blogs “banning” him, and others presenting him as an Azealia Banks-like figure for rappity-rap. In 2011, the San Francisco Weekly called him “Hip-hop’s Biggest Whiner”. And at one particularly strange point last year, Fiasco offered one fan a personalised verse, on a subject matter and over an instrumental of their choice, for $500.
As a result, the court of popular opinion now holds Fiasco as one of rap’s corniest artists, placing a considerable roadblock in front of his album. If a record’s quality has been predetermined by years of disappointment, there is little desire beyond the hardcore fan-base to give it a listen. For example: after years of critical drubbings, it’s likely that a casual rap fan would give the new Kid Cudi album a miss and choose to focus on an artist who is more en vogue, like a Young Thug or a Travis Scott.
Upon hearing Tetsuo & Youth though, we’re presented with a majestic artistic spectacle – one that appeals to (yet doesn’t quite reach) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy levels of grandiose maximalism. The record is split into four stanzas - with what Lupe calls “palette cleansers” (instrumentals tracks which denote the four seasons) splitting each section. Three other tracks are over eight minutes long. Lupe painted the cover-art himself. One song has an introduction and conclusion that’s played on a banjo. On paper, the construction of Tetsuo & Youth represents the things we’ve come to dislike Fiasco for – it’s a self-proclaimed grand and “artistic” record with a bolshy sense of its own importance. “The content of it is like, 'Oh, shit -- I didn't know Lupe could talk like that. I didn't know Lupe knew that guy. I didn't know Lupe was affiliated with that',” Fiasco told Rolling Stone months before the record’s release. And like Fiasco’s third album Lasers, Tetsuo & Youth was also presented as an album his label had been keeping hostage (it was eventually released after the hacktivist group Anonymous threatened an attack against Atlantic’s “website, associates, and executives”). The difference is: Tetsuo & Youth didn’t fall on flat promises.
For example, we’re introduced to the record with a minute and a half instrumental track, punctuated with harmonic strings, the sound of children’s laughter, and cool, splashing water. The next track, the eight-and-a-half-minute long “Mural”, peels away from its mark with a similarly transcendent and spiritual sound; pattering cymbals, plinking piano, and warbling vocals that appear to be transported direct from a Japanese flower garden play out for over a minute before Fiasco launches into a verse about us “being all minerals”. It should be wanky. In practice though, it recalls the cool and refreshing Fiasco tracks of yore in the very best way; exemplifying an artist who paints with incredibly smooth dexterity. It’s enough to make you consider that if Fiasco released Tetsuo & Youth as his third album instead of Lasers, perhaps he would have fulfilled those “greatest writer of our time” prophecies.
As many reviews noted at the time, the record presents a man who is freed from his past. Where his last two releases were weighed down by preachy verses or the need to cater to grand overarching album storylines, Tetsuo & Youth is the closest we’ve come to capturing the young artist who appeared on Food and Liquor. Instead of chastising listeners or spoon-feeding them on what to think, it's an open and easy listen. The chugging pseudo-intellectual politics of Food and Liquor II are gone, and in their place are luscious soundscapes with room to breathe. XXL called it Fiasco’s “most thematically layered and engaging album to date”. Another site proclaimed it as his “magnum opus”. Hip Hop DX wrote that it “deserves its own exalted podium”. Then after that, the blogs went silent. There were hardly any features on Fiasco’s impressive return to glory; nor were there interviews. The latter may be down to Fiasco’s reluctance (appearing on the Sway In The Morning radio show earlier this year, he stated it would be his last ever interview), but the point remains: no one was talking about Lupe.
One reason for this might be the collective unease with Fiasco’s politics. Nearly every review makes a reference to Fiasco’s role as a perennial social justice warrior. The AV Club say Fiasco “thrust [this role] upon himself by publicizing controversial, sociopolitical opinions and seeking out conflict” – and it’s true. Fiasco has been in a less favorable position countless times over the last few years. In 2011 he called “Obama a terrorist” - and a year later he was kicked out of a presidential inauguration party for performing a song with similar sentiments for thirty-minutes. In 2013 he locked his Twitter account following backlash from comments about the George Zimmerman trial - then re-opened and locked and re-opened it again. Just last month he suggested that rap producers pale in value compared to the artist. This sort of omnipresent conflict – whether right or wrong; progressive or ignorant – can be draining. It overshadows the music to a point where few artists can survive. Perhaps it makes the media feel uneasy about him? Whether it is or isn't fair, there’s a clear materialistic difference between Fiasco and, say, Kanye West’s outspoken politics: one is a globally renowned tabloid friendly super-star and the other is not. Is it far-fetched to believe Fiasco’s politics have affected his media presence? Indeed, Fiasco says he was "blackballed" and "lost a lot of friends", "a lot of sponsorships" after making the comments about Obama's stance on terror.
Our perception of Fiasco as a social justice warrior makes him uncool. But then again hasn’t Fiasco always been uncool? When he came on to the scene in the mid 2000s, rap was dominated by the likes of 50 Cent and G-Unit. It had no place for a near-straight-edge skateboarding lyricist who was infatuated with Japanese manga and hated misogyny. Yet it worked. Fiasco became popular because there was no mainstream rap artist like him. Yet in 2015, we have J Cole in his place. Or Logic. Or Wale. Even if today’s artists, from Chance the Rapper (who said Lupe “is the reason [he] make[s] music”) to Kendrick Lamar, were wildly inspired by his first two records, the discourse that followed after means there’s seemingly no place here for Fiasco.
In order to really signify where Fiasco is placed in 2015, and how he built it up to lose it all, we need to go where all roads in rap have lead this year: toward Drake – who boasted on his 2013 track “5AM In Toronto” that “it’s funny” when you consider he “blew up after Lupe”. Both released debut records in 2006 – Drake put out his first mixtape Room for Improvement (which included a questionable remix of Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick Push”) and Fiasco released Food and Liquor. Today Drake has a deal with Apple that’s rumoured to be worth nineteen million and Fiasco is the butt of a joke. This is perhaps the biggest reason why Tetsuo & Youth hasn’t been talked about as much as it deserves. It’s difficult to care about the record’s longform brilliance when Drake’s clickbaiting “Hotline Bling” is so much easier to digest. And when Fiasco has spent the past five years disappointing his fans and creating conflict, giving it the time it deserves is perhaps a task that's difficult for some to justify.
Give Tetsuo & Youth the time it deserves though, and it’s a rewarding listen. Fiasco lavishly brushstrokes words on the record’s canvas with nuance and wisdom. There are visually beautiful couplets about “pancakes cut in swirls” and “incense smoke” that makes “vortexes and curls” placed across the record’s rich tapestry. It’s a Rap Genius wet dream. There are the big choruses too: “Blur My Hands” soars like a white dove that’s been placed inside a firework. For those looking for rap that’s more of the thugged out variety, then there’s the DJ Dahi-produced posse cut “Chopper”, where seven rappers deliver their 32 bars on their seven deadly sins. For me: the sacred geometry referencing “Dots & Lines” is a clear stand-out; full of ancient imagery and blessed with the album’s most blissfully affecting hook.
So, since it’s the time of year when we tell people what albums we’ve enjoyed the most, if you haven’t heard Tetsuo & Youth already – give it a listen. I promise I haven’t hit the blunt. I’m 199 days smoke-free.
You can find Ryan bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil