If there’s anything to be learned from Lupe Fiasco’s online presence over the last few years it’s that the long-time Atlantic signee has grown weary of his role as rap’s perennial social justice warrior (a role he has often thrust upon himself by publicizing controversial, sociopolitical opinions and seeking out conflict), or rather, the often thankless response it provokes. He locked his Twitter account in 2013 following backlash from comments about the George Zimmerman trial. After unlocking last year, he went through public online feuds with Azealia Banks and Kid Cudi. He has since abandoned Twitter again after lyrics tweeted from the Big K.R.I.T. collaboration “Lost Generation”—most notably, “Fuck Martin Luther King, nigga. Fuck change.”—offended users who took the words out of context. It’s the latest in a series of public meltdowns spawned by miscommunication. The Internet has often been Fiasco’s unwitting accomplice in self-destruction.
It’s ironic, then, that the Internet is primarily responsible for liberating Lupe Fiasco’s often in-flux fifth studio album, Tetsuo & Youth, via intervention from the world’s foremost network of cyber activists, Anonymous, and that it did so because of the frequent pervasiveness of the rapper’s weighty message. “We wish music that is educating the masses to keep being released,” the hacktivists said in a statement taking credit for the album’s release. “This is music we will fight for.”
The music they got is actually quite different than the music they thought they were fighting for: Tetsuo & Youth is a tapestry of experimental ideas and sounds that avoids delivering heavy-handed sermons by putting on an apolitical front and letting the commentary play in the margins. The album is the best Lupe Fiasco has been in years, mostly because it forgoes the previously self-imposed mandates of his savior complex in favor of a balanced view from both intrapersonal and interpersonal lenses.
Past releases, like his last album, 2012’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album PT. 1, have been weighed down by Fiasco’s inability to budge from his pulpit. Tetsuo & Youth finds its equilibrium by not pushing as hard, opting for subtle and interesting angles to get points across (See: “Deliver”). He still enjoys sending listeners on fishing expeditions, forcing them to dig in search of some deeper meaning, but where past quests may have proven empty and unfruitful, songs like “Adoration Of The Magi” and “Prisoner 1 & 2,” which finds parallels between convicts and the correctional officers that supervise them, lead to big payoffs for Rap Genius annotator types.
Lupe Fiasco’s music is most impactful when he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers and he doesn’t chastise listeners for not having them, either; on “Little Death,” he weaves imagery of a gay wedding before conceding an ideological stalemate, “If that sickens you, you a bigot / If it doesn’t, well then you’re wicked … Such is life.” From the beginning of “Madonna (And Other Mothers In The Hood),” he acknowledges the hollowness of institutions: “Tried to go to church, church ain’t work / Still wanna kill niggas,” he raps. The Chicago rapper is at his very best when he avoids spoon-feeding all-knowing insights on the human condition. He rediscovers his own voice when he stops trying to be the forced voice of a movement.