Lupe Fiasco ended “Form Follows Function,” a song from Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Part 1, his last album, with confidence, saying, “If you function properly, then the form will come out of it, and whatever it is, it just be what it is, you know?” On that same album, Lupe functioned as a didact, addressing social and political topics with dry righteousness and flat song structure. The resulting form was a messy and dull album that lacked both feeling and swagger. On Tetsuo and Youth, he functions as a rap purist. No longer convinced that form inevitably follows function, he hunkers down on his fundamentals—meticulous, detailed rapping—and makes the form take the shape he intends. The result of this focus on fundamentals is nearly two hours of intricate, unhinged verses.
The album begins with “Summer,” a, string-driven instrumental that features children playing and water running. Serving as the calm before the storm, it cushions the transition into “Mural,” a lengthy track where Lupe presents a towering wall of words, rapping for nearly seven minutes straight with few pauses and zero hooks, bridges or refrains. It also lacks a central topic, with the sheer breadth of the song seeming to be its main subject. As it stretches on, the somber instrumental and Lupe’s unstrained voice meld together, becoming one sound. It’s really not a particularly exciting song. In fact, despite its rich content, it is performed with a notable tranquility, a disinterest in excitement. This should undermine the song, but it actually strengthens it. Lupe wants to takes self-expression to its limits, so he commits to it fully, sacrificing even his own passion.
Though “Mural” introduces the album’s emphasis on lyricism, the rest of the record isn’t as dispassionate or as intense. Lupe has always been more than a lyricist, and he continues that tradition throughout the rest of the album, which features songs with normal structures. Even “Chopper,” a nine-minute posse cut, has a solid chorus.
That said, Lupe isn’t quite back to his normal self. Like the album’s cover, his lyrics are frequently abstract, almost to the point of opacity. On “Dots and Lines,” a song with a beautiful string arrangement that he actually helped produce, he uses terms from geometry, physics and alchemy to discuss his upcoming release from Atlantic Records, where he has been signed for nearly a decade. Lupe has always had a knack for wordplay, but here the “play” is absent, with the words being used somewhat sterilely, without humor or grace. It’s impressive, but mostly in terms of technique, not effect.
His collaborators could help salvage the songs from his abstractions, but they often just contribute to it. Nikki Jean, known for her wispy vocals on “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” one of Fiasco’s early hits, contributes vocals to nearly half of the album’s non-instrumental songs (five out of 12), but her lines are just as opaque as his. On “Little Death,” for example, she offers three distinct choruses, but the reason for these nuances is unclear.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Fiasco’s turns toward abstraction, especially since his rapping is still impeccable. But relative to other moments on the album, the abstractions feel under-realized. For instance, “Prisoner 1 & 2” is a straightforward yet dense song about the prison industrial complex. Produced by MoeZ’art, who may be the only producer to ever sample a Fort Minor song, the song expertly details the experiences of both convicts and guards within the current prison system. Lupe’s delivery is masterful, featuring multiple flows, multiple perspectives and genuine craftsmanship. Opening with an automated voice from Securus, a company that makes money from prison phone calls, Lupe takes every word of “prison industrial complex” seriously, depicting it as a living and breathing system that siphons life, money and opportunity from communities and families, white and black, guard and convict.
“Deliver,” a song about the complete and utter abandonment of ghettoes, even by pizza men, who have stopped making deliveries, is just as straightforward, evocative and dense. Again, Lupe masterfully dives into the issue, considering the perspectives of the ghettoes that have been abandoned as well as the pizza man who fears for his safety when entering that ghetto. On an album where Fiasco provides such bare rhymes that openly address their intended topics, his tendencies toward abstraction feel like failures, form following function and not following direction, purpose, ambition.
On the whole, Tetsuo and Youth is a shaky album by a newly energized Lupe Fiasco. This energy isn’t always wielded coherently or even interestingly, but he seems to have found comfort in his murals and dots and lines, which is a triumph considering his palpable discomfort on his previous two albums. The album concludes with “Spring,” another calm, string-driven instrumental that features children playing and birds chirping. This reborn, springtime Lupe Fiasco is more of an aesthete than an expressionist, more of a technician than a stylist, but at the end of the day he’s still Lupe Fiasco, and Atlantic Records be damned, there’s still some promise in that name.