Lupe Fiasco arguably has never made a great album. He nearly used up the goodwill he built up during his Revenge of the Nerds and protégé phase with his needlessly crass tweets, which was even more infuriating because he masked them in the guise of meaningful social commentary. He jousted with tweeters over his Iggy Azalea defense, took another hit when he posted an image of himself in a KKK outfit (which landed him at odds with Freddie Gibbs) and got accused of being crass for the sake of selling copies of his latest album, Tetsuo & Youth. The latter is a bit inaccurate— at this point, you’re either here for post-Lasers Lupe Fiasco or not. That said, Tetsuo & Youth has a shot at permeating through that divisiveness.
At his best, he fractures lyrical potency and goodwill with poor cohesion (Food and Liquor). At his worst, he’s proselytizing over painfully unimaginative backdrops (Lasers, Food & Liquor II: The Great Rap Album Pt. 1). Fiasco’s fifth effort doesn’t have those trappings. Tetsuo & Youth is his most ambitious project. It also happens to be his most consistent — and arguably his best.
You may not infer this from his Twitter account, but sometime in the past year, Fiasco figured out that maybe fighting the good fight just means to rap. He’s never really had the vocal intensity it takes to preach on record like forefathers Kanye West and Nas. But Fiasco does find something powerful in subsistence in two tracks: the sprawling “Mural” and “Prisoner 1 & 2.” The former doesn’t rest on complexity, but also on its lucidity and urgency, switching between bleak humor (“Now what’s a coffin with a scratched ceiling?”), name dropping Morocco Mole and non-sequiturs (“What taste like hot dogs and tear drips”). The second half of “Prisoner” is overlong, but it doesn’t blunt the immediacy of producer MoeZ’art’s grandiosity nor Fiasco’s point. The new Jim Crow still exists and young Black lives are at stake, but there’s a liveliness here throughout that adds a level of humanity absent from Fiasco’s prior two albums.
Tetsuo & Youth is sectioned into three parts, separated by instrumentals named after seasons. They’re not integral to understanding the album, but you will catch tonal switches. Summer, the lesser of the three, is more optimistic, while “Mural” is followed by the comparatively listless “Blur My Hands” and “Dots & Lines.” Fall starts the stronger run of tracks. Intimate and breathy, the four-song section—threaded by Nikki Jean and Troi on the hooks—meshes Fiasco’s mellifluousness with honeyed production. Terrace Martin’s saxophone coda acts to transcend the corruption on “Body of Work” before moving into the lyrically tangled “Little Death.” Even if Fall isn’t peak Lupe, he’s ironically more potent when he sounds relaxed.
Winter, the final seasonal section, is the more jagged of the trio. There are some late album highlights like “Deliver” and “They.Resurrect.Over.New” (which features Ab-Soul and his mad scientist witticisms). But it’s around this time it dawns that 78 minutes is too long. After all, even 140 characters were pushing it to begin with. The clumps of fat are in the unjustifiably long posse cut “Chopper” and middling hook on “Madonna” — a track filled with on-the-nose dramatics. Draining, but not damning.
The immediate triumph of Tetsuo & Youth is that despite the social media tiffs, listeners are reminded that 60 minutes of solid Lupe is a good thing. It’s grounded not just in its anti-establishment austerity, but rather how it’s a multicolored articulation of the oppressed that bridges idealism and pragmatism. Maybe Fiasco finally has it figured out.