The Liberation of Lupe Fiasco on "Tetsuo & Youth"

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Sometimes freedom comes from completely giving up. That sounds like losing, doesn’t it? That’s because we’ve been conditioned to believe you have to win. You have to beat your opponent. You have to be the loudest one in the room. You have to prove them wrong. You have to expound upon the old you to become the “new” you, a new you that will never live up to the original you. Lupe Fiasco’s career journey has been a fascinating one, and at times it’s seemed like more of a struggle than a triumph. Would you expect less from one of the most creative and informed voices of our time? If he wasn’t him, he wouldn’t receive so much push back. After all, freedom ain’t free, Lu taught us that. But that freedom is wonderful when you finally have it, and Tetsuo & Youth is the definition of freedom for the man and the musician that is Wasalu Jaco.

It’s hard being a diehard fan, and being a diehard LUPE fan can be the hardest. Lupe’s fan base is one of the most interesting, obscure and persistent fan bases in music. It’s the same fan base that picketed a record label to release an album that they eventually tried to crucify Lupe for releasing. We are all over the place in how we perceive and react to all things Lupe, almost like the man himself. One day, he might be saying “Fuck MLK,” and the next he’ll drop an amazing song about cancer survival. It’s the all-encompassing idea of human duality, a concept I thoroughly learned and applied to my life because of a Lupe Fiasco interview years back.  

In the past months, we’ve once again endured the ups and downs of that love-hate relationship with Lupe. As fans, we were gearing up for the release of his fifth studio album (and his final major label release under Atlantic), Tetsuo & Youth. As leaks and releases started rolling out things looked good, but then the beefs and Twitter rants began to overshadow Lupe's music, and not for the most positive of reasons. But we knew Lupe. We knew he sometimes vents, goes overboard, eventually comes back to his senses and then takes a much needed hiatus. We empathized with the struggle of being a complex human being and we eventually got back to focusing on what matters – the music. After all of the surrounding nonsense, the question was, will Lupe Fiasco deliver with Tetsuo & Youth

Yes, he did. But something else very special happened too…

I pressed play on Tetsuo & Youth on Friday, well after midnight. I’d been up all day, but wasn’t tired enough to sleep. So I thought I’d go ahead and listen to the leak; I always seem to consume albums the best in the latest of hours. I truly wasn’t ready to experience a song like “Mural.” This didn’t sound like Lupe Fiasco was “back.”  No, this was something else – something that couldn’t simply be described with such a clichéd reaction. Maybe it was the nostalgic mix of the introduction, the production or just the aesthetic of the song, but I felt that Lupe didn’t have to “get back” to anything. It felt like this was 2008 and “Mural” was the opening song to the album that followed The Cool, with Lupe’s position as one of the heavy hitters in the game, artistically and critically, thoroughly intact.  It sounded like Lupe was unscathed, devoid of any inauguration uproars and social network battles. This was Lupe Fiasco blacking out lyrically like he did in his “Fahrenheit 1/15” days. He wasn’t competing with anyone on "Mural," not his new rap contemporaries or the old versions of himself. This was the Lupe Fiasco everyone used to be scared of; the power of captivating lyricism; that idea that he's about to shake up the world and there's nothing his peers can do about it. “Now that’s how you start an album! From now on, that’s how you start an album!” (Mike Lawry voice).

Throughout the album, Lupe describes his trials and tribulations in the artistic ways we remember Lupe for being great for, notably on standout, “Dots and Lines." In the past years, one of the biggest complaints about Lupe has been his seeming bitterness about his position in the rap game and how he felt about newer guys getting recognition. (He has spoken about Kendrick and J. Cole multiple times.) “Dots and Lines” touches on this topic, but instead of approaching it directly, he uses metaphor and illustration to speak on the rap game's transition. “Where the golden means, so the overseer gets overseen,” could be seen as a reference to putting money over God, but I also interpreted it as the idea of the innovator becoming overlooked; the idea that no matter how far new artists like Kendrick and Cole go, they will reflect him. In 2015 though, people may no longer make that connection. It just comes with the moving of time and generations - ask a JAY Z fan about Big Daddy Kane?

Those songs alone could prove my point, but Lupe was just getting started. “Prisoner 1 & 2” initially threw me off – is this a Garageband Loop from the early 2000s? - but that's likely something only an audio nerd like me would notice. After I got past that, I embraced Lupe’s continued theme of freedom and imprisonment. The layered narratives are mind-blowing, it's a song you have to play back and look up the lyrics to fully understand. Leave it to Lupe to expound on the interworking of the prison system, a topic that’s only been touched in previous songs. The multiple narratives, from the perspectives of the prisoner to the C.O. and beyond, shed light on the paradoxes of perception of the situation. It’s a deep record and one of the most conceptually impressive from Lupe since "Lamborghini Angels.” Plus, the trill switch-up on “Prisoner 2” needs to be its own entity. 

Similarly, “Body Of Work” is hands down my favorite song on the album. For the first few listens I honestly wasn’t paying attention to what Lupe was saying. It’s one of those songs where you can experience as a piece of music and get loss a trance. But it was all the better when I went back and figured out that Lupe was following in Common's “I Used To Love H.E.R” tradition and using an extended metaphor to describe the state of hip-hop. Who knew pointing out the ugly realities and fallacies of hip-hop could sound so beautiful? And to showcase his versatility, we also got beautiful compositions like “Little Death” and “No Scratches,” proving what an amazing duo Lupe and Nikki Jean are, right alongside some "ratchet" influence in the form of “Chopper.” I’m always down for street-ready record from Lupe to point to when people say he’s always rapping out of a dictionary. He’s still CHICAGO, MANE! All of these tracks solidified the overall feeling of Tetsuo & Youth - Lupe is free right now.

Tetsuo & Youth is exactly what a veteran artists’ album is supposed to sound like. Lupe is no longer trying to keep up or catch up. He’s not the old man from the porch, shaking his fist at the kids these days. He’s not the distressed rapper, feeling trapped and dealing with ideas of suicide and leaving this world. He's a grown man, reflecting on the state of the game from the most intelligent of viewpoints, without trying to prove that he’s smarter than the world. He’s not sacrificing superb production and artistic value to hopefully make something that appeals to the new generation. But in the same sense, he’s not trying to overload us with knowledge like a college course; two fallacies of both Lasers and F&L 2. For me the album solidified a vast confidence about the Lupe we are going to hear for the next 10 years of his career, as he steps into the independent realm. He’s a certified veteran, and rather than let his last album really be the last struggle hoorah, a disappointing reflection of the decline of his legacy, he’s made everyone look up again in astonishment.

Lupe Fiasco isn’t just Kanye’s ex’mansnem. He’s God level and deserved to be in the same realm as a JAY Z and Kanye West in terms of mainstream status, but the chips just didn’t fall that that way. Maybe it wasn't meant to be. Maybe Lupe is a little more complex, and complexity and greatness don’t always translate into high ranks and positions in the kingdom. But as a fan, it’s the man and the artist that I’m always more concerned with. The spirit that's now oozing from Lupe is that he’s finally made it through the storm.

He is liberated. He is finally free.

[By Michael Hannah, a.k.a. Mike Dreams, a writer and artist who can be listened to here and tweeted at here.] 

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