Empty words: Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Tetsuo & Youth’
Matt McMahon | Wednesday, January 28, 2015
On Lupe Fiasco’s early album centerpiece “Murals,” the Chicago rapper talks a lot, but doesn’t say much. Across its repetitive, hookless, one-verse, eight-and-a-half minutes of a recycling piano line, Fiasco at one point plays a game of word association that comes across like an amateur improvising a freestyle, scrambling to string together just enough syllables to justify passing the mic off to the next in line. This string of words happens only five minutes into the hour-and-twenty-minute long “Tetsuo & Youth,” a rather empty album full of empty, longwinded choruses on empty, longwinded songs.
On “Tetsuo & Youth,” Fiasco attempts to progress his sound, but sheer quantity and overindulgence cannot adequately mask his shortcomings. The album bounces from classical instrumentation (“Mural”) to soulful hooks (“Little Death,” “No Scratches”), trap (“Chopper”) to cloud (“Deliver”) and jazz (“Adoration of the Magi”). Nothing he tries is overtly bad, but it’s all cripplingly formulaic. Kanye West, whose influence is largely heard on the whole of “Blur My Hands” and the autotuned “Madonna” — and also, perhaps embarrassingly, Fort Minor’s “Believe Me” (“Prisoner 1 & 2”) — has explored all of these variations in more robust, more successful ways 10 years ago.
Fiasco relegates his grander experimentations to standalone sections that will not jeopardize or interrupt his base songs. A unique, question-raising banjo riff enters during the intro to “Dots & Lines” — which does exhibit one of the better choruses and aural hooks on the album — but fades before the real meat of the song, which features instead a melody-mimicking violin line, and only comes back into play to bookend the song. Not once does Fiasco incorporate the banjo’s distinctive qualities into the main production of “Dots & Lines,” or any other track across the album. Similarly, a saxophone solo closes out “Body of Work,” but is otherwise completely unrelated to and separate from the rest of the song and album.
Elsewhere, the empty sonic gestures are even more unforgiving. Nine-minute posse cut “Chopper” drives home a hodgepodge reduction of buzzworthy social and political issues faced by Fiasco and his peers. The sloppy hook quickly alludes to food stamps, medical cards and background checks for guns in an aimless manner, ad nauseam. Thankfully, Fiasco chooses a somewhat dynamic drill beat, so he does not put his audience through the vague suffering detailed by the song’s hook for nine minutes, and it’s broken up by some standout verses from Glasses Malone, Buk of Psychodrama and Trae tha Truth. “They.Resurrect.Over.New” name checks a loving tribute to a fallen friend in “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” and turns it into a glitchy, cacophonous TRON reference that has nothing in common with the superb Pete Rock and CL Smooth original. And Fiasco’s flow, here and on other tracks, confirms that punchline rap died with Lil Wayne’s rap career in 2010
The most appealing elements of the album lie in the consistencies. When Fiasco employs acoustic instrumentation on “Little Death,” the track gains energy and soul, like in the Jazzy horns on “Adoration of the Magi,” which actually stick around past the intro. Unfortunately he strays from this aesthetic too often. Otherwise, the most welcomed sections of the album are the shortest: the instrumental interludes depicting the changing of seasons throughout the album. These short wordless compositions are much more varied and beautiful than anything else on the album and offer short respites to gather oneself before having to embark on another single minded, five-plus minute track. Still, by the time “Winter” rolls around 10 songs in, Fiasco might have done better condensing the album rather than including the now necessary interludes.