Doc Zeus doesn’t get anime references
In today’s bleak major label climate, struggling artists often feud with their labels for album release dates, royalties and promotional support hoping to force their label to release a long-promised album. With razor-thin profit margins and high production costs, the majors simply don’t release an album unless there is a groundswell of public support or a flagship artist that is so famous that they can spring an album overnight and do big sales. If you aren’t either one of those things, an artist is often doomed to flail around blindly until they are either dropped, quit or the divine hand of God changes their situation for them.
For an artist that has enjoyed a certain amount of success, Lupe Fiasco is a bigger cautionary tale than most. Lupe’s relationship with the music industry has been tortured from the start. His debut album, Food & Liquor, was plagued with leaks online. His famously delayed third album, Lasers, was a resounding critical flop due to a series of comically ill-fitting singles that desperately tried to ape the arena rap success of fellow Atlantic label mate B.o.B. Meanwhile, his career has been habitually plagued with public relations disasters both minor (his numerous, nonsensical Twitter rants) and major (his flubbing of A Tribe Called Quest’s lyrics at VH1 Hip-Hop Honors). In a few short years, Lupe Fiasco’s career had gone from one of the most promising new acts in hip-hop to rapidly become a punchline for fans to slander on Twitter.
Lupe’s recent troubles are a prelude to the release of his fifth (and potentially final) album, Tetsuo & Youth. After the album was heavily delayed, rumor has it that Atlantic Records only agreed to release the album after notorious hacker collective, Anonymous, threatened to attack the music conglomerate if they failed to release the album. Despite the controversy and delays, Tetsuo & Youth finds Lupe delivering his best (if deeply flawed) album since 2007’s The Cool – a minor renaissance for an artist that has been largely written off.
The album finds Lupe giving up the comical commercial aspirations of Lasers and the toast dry didacticism that dogged his previous album, Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1. Instead, Lupe is doubling down on the skill that made him famous in the first place – his prodigious lyricism. Make no mistake, Lupe is making a concerted effort to really, really rap on this album. There are stretches where Lupe completely abandons traditional songwriting structure to deliver epically long rap verses without a hook in sight. The album’s opener, “Mural,” is a nearly nine-minute hookless lyrical exercise which finds Lupe referencing Alyssa Milano, Contra and Count Chocula. The impressive, sneering posse cut “Chopper” bangs with a visceral immediacy that has not been felt from Lupe in nearly a decade. M-Phazes, S1,, and DJ Dahi deliver a conventionally orthodox production backdrop that is closer in line with Lupe’s early career classics Food & Liquor and The Cool.
Of course, the album is too flawed for it to be considered truly triumphant. The massively long running time for many of these songs make the album feel overly indulgent. There really isn’t a need for three separate songs to feature track times that last more than eight minutes outside of a jazz LP. His indulgences lead to unfocused and unintentionally comedic lyrics. Lupe’s rhymes have always been more poetic than punchline heavy but often the way his words connect with each other are overtly nonsensical. “Such is life, odd as Egg McMuffins at night,” he raps at on “Little Death.” Head-scratching groaners pop up to plague the album at a disappointing frequency. If Lupe would curb some of his self-gratifying tendencies, you could easily imagine Tetsuo & Youth being a classic comeback album in line with LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out or Nas’ Stillmatic.
Still, it is a minor miracle that a lyrics heavy rap album with no overt commercial single could receive a major label release date in a culture where commercial heavyweights like Lil Wayne are suing their long term labels for failing to release his album. If Tetsuo & Youth is the final chapter in Lupe’s career as a major label artist, his tale is being rewritten from Comic Cautionary Tale to an artist going out on his own terms.