Friday, January 23, 2015

Lupe Fiasco - Tetsuo & Youth Review

In the vast, expansive realm of Hip-Hop few artists have had as perplexing a path as Chicago-native Lupe Fiasco. What started as an entrancing career with two intensely-detailed, critically-lauded, commercially-loved albums in back-to-back years was followed by a four-year hiatus only to return with the Pop-centric Lasers. After a flawed and systematically-broken Food & Liquor II, Lupe is back with an album he's finally able to say stands on its own two feet, untethered to the work he's put up previously. Tetsuo & Youth may be his most complex work yet, a salivating point for all his loyal fans invested on deciphering his messages, whether they're their or not. Above nothing else, one can fail to state Lupe as an eccentric, from the three 8+ minute songs, to four seasonal interludes, to his lyrically dense verbiage impossible to get on the first listen. The question remains, does all this excess lead to a qualified album worthy of merit? Tetsuo & Youth is a conscious rapper's wet dream, but with so much to boast in the details the overall direction is lost to superfluous glut. 

A great starting point of this is 'Mural,' a strenuous song that capitalizes on Lupe's immaculate talents as a rapper, a trait few can deny. A nonchalant glance at the song's RapGenius page will have you grasping for air, searching through the ~160 bars of content. Bars. It's a lot to take in, the song itself works as a summation of the entire album, with one becoming winded after just staying course. And yet, even with RapGenius as an aid, you can walk out of it scratching your head as to what was actually said. Thankfully, other tracks here have overarching coherence, but it's telling that with all that's being said such little meaning actually comes out. What 'Mural' thrives off however is a showcase in Lupe's skills on the mic, swapping flows just as quick as kissers swap spit. From a  clear-cut MF DOOM impersonation, lazily sung but articulately mastered, to rapid fire verses honing in on pronounced alliteration, Lupe's rap game really couldn't be any higher. In that regard for fans who want to sit back and take it all in, Tetsuo & Youth is a joy to watch.

So, whilst Lupe's rapping hasn't ever been a problem, his beat selection and difficulty with hooks has. Long gone are the days of 'Daydreamin.' Food & Liquour II featured an insatiable amount of beats that were dull and monotonous, taking no strides to deviate from the norm. Tetsuo & Youth improves on that a bit, despite echoing a few beats worthy of replacement. 'Dots & Lines' is the most obvious evolution, featuring organic instrumentation and a perplexing, yet delightful banjo. 'Deliver,' the album's first single, is dominated by a tingey piano and lingering bass, eerily creeping along as Lupe creates a social commentary on the fear of black neighborhoods. One of DJ Dahi's four additions to Tetsuo & Youth, 'Madonna,' is another great example of exemplary production, featuring backing vocals that meld themselves within the fabric of the beat. Unfortunately though, Lupe's beat choices, while improved, still hinder on repetition. Even the first half of 'Prisoner' features a foundation that's taken straight out of Garage Band, literally, despite me enjoying the beat quite a bit. The next lingering dilemma of Lupe's are his hooks, almost entirely forgettable, with dashes of brilliance thrown in. The aforementioned 'Dots & Lines' wins the award yet again, with a simple, catchy hook that parades around mandolins like a campfire in the backcountry. The cadence displayed is something Lupe often overlooks. 'Adoration Of The Magi' is another success, but for every chorus that's passable there's three that are unimaginative, like 'Blur My Hands' and 'They.Resurrect.Over.New.' that come off as laughable.

But for fans of Lupe's music, like Eminem or any other technically-skilled rapper, the bulk of the enjoyment arises out of their sheer talents, not the accessories to it. The interior's of most of these songs function well, coherently thought-provoking, elegantly told. But the grasp of Tetsuo & Youth's overall message is diluted to the point where it's lost amongst most listeners, the seasonal interludes just featured fluff. Sure, some can muster up labyrinthine-type illustrations of what the album means conceptually, but with so much to decipher anything can be plucked out of the album to mean whatever you want it to. On a song-by-song basis though there lies some gems in the rubble. 'Prisoner 1 & 2' takes an inside look at incarceration and racial profiling in America from an intimate, personal perspective, while 'Adoration Of The Magi' looks at the youth's focus on living the fast life and dying out young, with an incredibly clever chorus to back it. With a hard life growing up, Lupe certainly has credence to talk on behalf of struggling mother's in the hood, raising either boys or girls destined for violence or sex on 'Madonna.' These songs present striking pictures within their confines, despite the album's lack of overall solidarity. 

Tetsuo & Youth is in the middling ground of remarkable and trite, two vast distinctions comparable to Lupe's introductory works and his latest endeavors. The few songs that wow on the first half make way for a string of forgettable material, from 'Body Of Work' through to 'No Scratches.' Few artists in recent memory have created such hit-or-miss material within a singular album, it's shocking songs like 'Little Death' are placed in the vicinity of 'Mural.' The forced abstraction, pseudo-intellectual language presented here is an easy grab to lure in listeners willing to decipher the content, but with it comes a larger risk in disparity between listeners' objectifications, much like abstract art. Remove any of the picking string theories and you're left with a collection of songs that hardly connect, but sometimes make poignant statements within themselves, and four nonsensical, but sonically-pleasing interludes. Lupe's notched up everything from Food & Liquor II, but in reality it isn't hard to improve off a train wreck. Regardless, there's still improvements in terms of beats, hooks, and lyricism. It's just tough escaping the fact that Tetsuo & Youth is a hollow shell masquerading as Pandora's Box.