I gave up on Lupe Fiasco. At one point, he was my favorite rapper on the planet. My interest in hip-hop blossomed around 2007-2008, around when Lupe was arguably the best rapper alive. I was drawn to his first two albums, Food & Liquor and The Cool. I spent late nights listening to those records in the dark, trying to dissect the depth of songs such as “Put You On Game” and his sophomore effort’s title track. Those two albums conflated lyrical prowess and mainstream appeal, as evidenced by hits such as “Superstar” and “Kick, Push.” After those two modern classics, I was ready for whatever Lupe would offer next.
And then he released Lasers. Perhaps one of the most disappointing albums in recent memory, Lasers was a notably compromised release. The album was backed by mega-hit “The Show Goes On” and remains Lupe’s only #1 album on the charts, but that project lacked the wit and heart of his prior work. The rapper’s critical acclaim suffered, and even Fiasco expressed his disappointment in the final product. It seemed clear Atlantic Records had meddled with the rapper’s creativity in hopes of a transition not unlike that of label-mate B.o.B.
2012’s Food & Liquor 2 promised a callback to the more backpacker-friendly Lupe adored by so many. The album avoided Lasers‘ pop agenda, but only to stumble into preachy disappointment. By this time, only the truest believers stayed in his corner. With the release of Lupe’s final album on Atlantic, Tetsuo & Youth, those true believers have received a reward for their loyalty and patience. To those who hopped aboard the anti-Lupe bandwagon, well, he’s won the last laugh. Lupe is at his most focused in over a decade, releasing a bona fide AOTY candidate just weeks into 2015. After straying on his career path for years, Fiasco is back.
He wants you to know as much, too. The short “Summer” instrumental immediately transitions into the true album opener, “Mural,” a monster of a track. Lupe just spits for nearly nine minutes without any hooks to break up the word-fueled fire. After Lasers and F&L2, he wastes no time in asserting his presence early.
Lupe rarely wavers when it comes to his inspiration. Throughout the album, he tackles the record industry, the prison system and hip-hop culture. Even “Deliver,” the Ty Dolla $ign-assisted lead single, deals with neighborhoods so dangerous, even the pizza man (or “peace of man”) won’t come near them. Parsing these subjects with countless pop culture and Biblical references peppered within, Tetsuo & Youth will have hip-hop heads rewinding the tracks trying to figure out the hidden motives and wordplay behind each song. The album is a Rap Genius editor’s wet dream.
This isn’t just Lupe’s return to form, lyrically. Youth features the best beats Lupe’s ever rapped over. S1, DJ Dahi, M-Phazes and more provide soulful backdrops that perfectly fit the rapper’s messages. Terrace Martin contributes some phenomenal saxophone work on “Body of Work.” The hooks, sung by the likes of Guy Sebastian, Nikki Jean and Lupe himself, don’t detract from the messages of the song, but add another layer of emphasis. Never has a Fiasco project sounded this smooth.
Yet while the album is a triumph overall, some problems do rear their ugly heads. Many of the tracks overextend themselves; three cross the eight-minute mark, and start to overstay their welcome as they labor on (the posse cut “Chopper,” for example). The fantastic production sometimes compensates for weak verses (DJ Dahi’s switch-up on “T.R.O.N.” masks a pretty corny Ab-Soul verse). These problems are relatively minor, however, and the end result remains the same. At long last, Lupe delivered once more.
4.5 out of 5
You can purchase Tetsuo & Youth on iTunes.