It's rare for me to be so excited for an album the way I am for Lupe Fiasco's Tetsuo & Youth. No, let me be more careful with my words. I'm...cautiously optimistic. I'm hopeful. I'm ready to be blown away, but bracing myself for disappointment. That's just the kind of complicated relationship Lupe and I have developed over the last nine years I've been listening to his music. (And by "Lupe and I" I clearly mean I've spent hours thinking about his music and he doesn't know I exist.)
The point is, I"m going into this 1 Listen Review as even keel as possible - no big expectations, no hate. I've got a completely open heart and soul ready to receive whatever Lupe's got in store for me. But before I get started, quick review of the 1 Listen rules. I'm going to listen to the album straight through - no pausing, no hitting repeat - and write my immediate, gut reactions. No revisions, no going back, just a literal running diary of the first time I heard Tetsuo & Youth. (For a deeper look at the philosophy behind these reviews, click here.)
Anytime you open an album with the sound of children playing and a string section you know you're in for some deep shit. No one ever does an intro like this and then the next song is a DJ Mustard beat...although I guess I should expect the unexpected from Lupe. The point is, mood set. This already feels like a movie, I'm all in.
iTunes says this is a 9 minute song, let me sit down and really get comfy. It's gonna be a journey. This is a straight up fucking beautiful instrumental, it's about four minutes into the album until we first hear Lupe's voice. Brave move. That means these are the first raps I've heard from him so far and...goddamnit, this is when doing these 1 Listen reviews hurts. I need to listen to this verse 97 more times to figure out if these pancakes and undercover squirrels references make any sense. At the very least, so far that Lupe that makes you want to spent a day with just his wordplay in your head is back. He could just be doing stream of consciousness raps, or he could be a fucking lyrical genius. Maybe both. I just don't have the mental capacity to catch it all in real time.
And goddamn, he's not even halfway done yet. This is clearly that "let me make it clear that I'm still a crazy good rapper" shit. Whatever PTLD (Post Traumatic Lasers Disorder) is being erased minute by minute so far on this album. Also, did he just say something about being a missionary to a clitoris? Well, he didn't not say something about being a missionary to a clitoris. Too much of a good thing? I'm starting to have trouble continuing to pay attention to this much straight rapping, but that probably says more about my ADD and the album's commitment to making complex music than it does about Lupe.
I'm impressed. I want to be more than impressed though, I want to be impressed and inspired. Let's see if the inspiration comes...
"Blur My Hands" ft. Guy Sebastian
A real genre-bender. The rock vibes make it sound a little bit like this might be the joint on the album really crafted for the album, but no, it's something else. It's more like....almost like Lupe is rhyming over a Roots song. And yes, that's a huge compliment. It's a real change of pace after the last track's 9-minute rapathon, which I'm guessing is exactly why he placed it here. As a breather, a sonic palette cleanser if you will. Even though it's uptempo, this still sounds like Lupe's song, not The Label's Song That Lupe Agreed to Do.
Oh shit, was that an S1 reference! As in the producer I was just talking to! I'm not gonna front, I love that I could pick up on that reference, but enough about me. I can't say I'm awash with love after this, but I'm still all in. If this is a journey I'm still excitedly peering towards the horizon, eager to hear what's around the next bend in the road.
"Dots & Lines"
BANJO!!! They never see the banjo coming, I didn't see the banjo coming. And.....huh. A love song with some bounce to it, ok, let's do this. My head's definitely nodding. Southern theme is still running strong on the beat, there's even a harmonica in the background. Did Lupe always have this ear for melody? I feel like he must have.
As a general rule, you can never go wrong with an Urkel reference, especially when you follow that Urkel reference with some quantum physics references. I'm a little lost here, I love all the individual parts but I'm not sure what they're adding up to, but patience is a lost art. Some things are worth listening to until the larger picture emerges, this feels like one of those things. Oh, and did I mention the banjo? MORE BANJO!!!
I get it, all these seasonal tracks will be instrumentals. "Fall" is jazzier, some upright bass and what I assume is the sound of someone raking leaves. These are nice little breathers in the album.
"Prisoner 1 & 2" ft. Ayesha Jaco
You know what would be hilarious? If I said that GKMC re-openedthe door to albums with skits and nine-minute songs that The Cool originally opened, and then every Lupe fan reading this murdered me. Yep, that'd be hilarious.
No Nathan, don't get lost in that comparison shit, just say focused on the music. Lupe's flow has been absolutely on point this album. Like Kweli he can get so focused on getting his lyrics out that he can trample the beat a bit, but on this album he's been flowing along with the music perfectly. Ok, now I'm finding my zone. I'm starting to really get lost in this album, and that's a good thing. Lupe is creating a world you can really travel into just through music, which is what I always loved the most about him.
And now we're getting a long, semi-instrumental section...and some spoken word in the outro along with a beat switch. I don't know what it means yet, but this is music that's determined to mean something. Goddamn, the second half of this hits hard. This is exactly what I've been looking for from Fiasco - he's making some serious statements abour racism and the justice system, but there's not a preacher's pulpit in sight. Fucks yeah.
"Body of Work" ft. Troi & Terrace Martin
Kind of a hypnotizing joint, that beat sucks you in but it does it quietly. And "Bojangles was tappin in Morse code," that line just jumped out at me. Man, how good is this song? I'm all the way in. (Note to self, look up the King of Norway.)
If I wasn't doing a 1 Listen review, this would be one of those songs that I'd just put on for an hour straight until I could rap along to at least a verse. It just makes you want to learn every note. Oh, and we get the ill Terrace Martin horn solo? Note to rappers, put more horns in your music. Except for you Tyga, you stay the fuck away from Terrace Martin. I don't need you corrupting Terrace with your wackness.
Did I mention I'm really enjoying this song?
"Little Death" ft. Nikki Jean
Don't the French refer to orgasms as little deaths? The French are the best. But despite my dirty mind, that's clearly not what this is about. Sweet baby Jesus, I want to be smart enough to follow these lyrics, but I just can't keep up with all the vacillating kaleidoscope lyrics (that's a quote, basically), and now we're talking about factory farms.
This album's really testing me - how badly do you want to understand? And you know what, I dig it. I want a challenge. I need a challenge. So much of hip-hop now is just exactly what it seems like it is at first, which has its place, but sometimes I fear is turning my brain into oatmeal. Delicious, delicious oatmeal, but still, oatmeal. And...back to the song; Nikki Jean's all over this album and I love it. She's a real grounding force. Nikki forever.
"No Scratches" ft. Nikki Jean
Some hard rock guitars, this one's really a change of pace. And we've got some Lupe singing in harmony with Nikki, I'm not mad at all. This is one of those joints that will probably be incredible live.
As I've already said, the lyrics and concepts here are just too much to keep up with and judge accurately in one listen, but I can already say that the production is absolutely outstanding. Even with the beat really pulled away and Lupe speaking slowly I'm having trouble picking up on the lyrics. Either I'm particularly dumb today, always a possibility, or Lupe's really extra abstract on this one. And this is coming from someone who's memorized entire Aesop Rock albums, so it's not like I have a problem with abstraction.
Another seasonal instrumental, this one has some hints of menace to it. Nothing friendly about winter.
"Chopper" ft. Billy Blue, Buk of Psychodrama, Trouble, Trae tha Truth, Fam-Lay & Glasses Malone
This many rappers and it's not a DJ Khaled song? What are the odds?
In all seriousness, this many rappers on a track makes me very nervous, but I'll keep an open mind. At the very least I believe I just heard Trae the Truth yell "Obama!" as an ad-lib, so I've got that going for me. The beat bangs appropriately, Lupe's opening is nice....sorry Billy Blue, but I'm already starting to check out of your verse already. Is everyone going to get these 32 bar verses?
Was there a larger point to this than Lupe rapping next to a bunch of rappers you wouldn't expect him to? This is the closest thing to filler I've heard on the album so far. And I also kind of feel like Meek Mill would have been a great call on this joint, which is not a thought I have often. On the plus side though, I've now got the phrase "background check for a chopper!" stuck in my head, which is a win.
"Deliver" ft. Ty Dolla $ign
One of the best songs Lupe's made in a minute, and I've already listened to it enough to say that and mean it. Now this is the Lupe I fucking loved on The Cool - at his best he's got this incredible ability to focus on small details (like pizza delivery) and use those small details to paint much larger portraits. The music's immediately gripping, his lyricism is on point, this is everything I'm looking for from a Fiasco joint.
Can I officially call it my favorite rap song (kind of) about pizza ever? I believe I can.
"Madonna" ft. Nikki Jean
This sounds like a bonus track off MBDTF, which is definitely a compliment. It's just got that ambient, swirling sound along with the light Auto-tune, and here Lupe's breathing slowly enough to let me really follow. Except for Delivery, this might just be my favorite song off the album so far. It's important but you don't get the sense that Lupe's feeling self-important.
I have no idea if he recorded this before or after Delivery, but some of this singing feels very Ty Dolla $ign influenced, which is dope on a song about religion. This is that trap heaven music.
"Adoration of the Magi" ft. Crystal Torres
I don't want to overlook Lupe, but if I come away with anything from this first listen, it's that DJ Dahi's just on another level with his production. Sweet baby Jesus this man isn't making beats, he's making head-blower-uppers. (That's the kind of eloquence you're gonna get when I'm typing this fast.) On the whole though, I'm having trouble connecting to "Adoration," and I don't know if it's going to grow on me since I've already listened a few times since it dropped. I can't really put my finger on it, I feel like I should dig it more, but it's just not happening.
"They.Resurrect.Over.New" ft. Ab-Soul
More background noise, the sound of some video games being played. And here comes the beat...WHOOOOO!!!!! RIC FLAIR WHOOOO!!!!! I know I'm missing some lyrical gems from Lupe, that's what the next listen will be for, but right now, all I care about is how hard this beat knocks. Ok, let me refocus. There's always layers below the surface with Lupe, let me figure out the song's theme - I feel like this is of those joitns that sounds like a banger on the surface but is super deep once you figure it out.
And oh shit!!! That bridge just ended with the beat kicking back in and an Ab-Soul verse!!! Sounds obvious now, but I never really put together how similar Ab and Lupe are - and now some turntable scratching!!! I know I'm over-reacting because this is just the first listen and I'm caught in a moment, but at this exact moment in my life, I feel like this is the best song I've ever heard in my life ever.
We've come full circle, echoes of the strings and sounds of children that we got in "Summer." There's obviously something going on with the passage of the seasons - I have to assume that the music sounds and means something different in each season, that they serve as album landmarks, but that'll have to be deeper analyis down the road.
Goddamn. Every time I do one of these 1 Listen reviews I feel exhausted. Maybe I should start throwing cups of water over my head while I'm writing like a marathon runner. But maybe more than any other review I've done, I feel particularly exhausted here. This album is so much to take in, there's just no way I could begin to unravel it as I was listening. But that's unquestionably a good thing. It really feels like Lupe's once again found that elusive balance - the depth to reward some serious reflection, but the lightness to keep the album fresh after the 101st listen.
This one's going to take a few weeks, if not months to really get a handle on. Right now, if I had to summarize this album in two words, those two words would be "a lot." It's a lot. Right now I feel like I'm standing an inch away from a pointillist painting - I'm lost, but maybe if I just back up slowly and keep looking a clear picture will emerge.
We'll just have to see if that picture emerges when I re-review this album (per 1 Listen rules) in about a month. In the meantime, those properly inspired can pre-order Tetsuo & Youth right now.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]