Written by DeRa Brinson
This week’s Sonic Breakdown features Lupe Fiasco’s album Tetsuo & Youth. I am acquainted with every industry album he has released thus far, and I will review this album by giving a breakdown of each track followed by a conclusion on the album as a whole.
As the title states, this instrumental provides a sense of that summertime feeling. Joy is portrayed by children playing outside, having fun, laughing, and splashing behind what sounds like a harp. It all feels like a scene from a foreign film.
This is the most lyrically dense song on the album with no featured artists. The concept of the song is alluded to by the title “Murals.” Murals are large pieces of art, usually taking up entire walls or ceilings. The song is lengthy and takes several listens to catch all the lines, giving it high replay-ability. The lyrics are very deep, smart, retro, and even funny at times. The repeating piano scale matches Lupe’s cadences, allowing for a yearning for him to keep flowing. This sonically provides a feeling of witnessing a great artist like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, if we are continuing with the mural theme. The angelic harmony in the background supports that religious feeling while the bass and kick drum gives enough contrast to keep the song grounded. By the end of the song, the listener has a sense of just how special Lupe can be lyrically. It gave me the feeling that I had when I first heard his second album, The Cool.
“Blur My Hands”
The organ and electric guitar draws you in and gives off a hip-hop/Lenny Kravitz vibe. Guy Sebastian adds a smooth, soulful quality by singing the chorus. There are some religious tones throughout this song that deals with death and the afterlife. The main subject of the song is doing something worth being remembered for, even after your death. Lupe wants that legacy to be something positive, long lasting, and not just record sales or money.
“Dots & Lines”
This track has an interesting banjo solo in the beginning and the end. This is significant because the banjo solo is a representation of different dots and lines through sound in a musical form. The mixture of the strings, harmonica, and bass combined with the snare helps promote the theme, the sense of geometry tied in with love. There is a very light quality with a Southern aspect to the beat as Lupe uses an airy flow. He also touches on relinquishing the love of money and transferring it to the love of humanity with lines like “it’s the pursuit of gold that turns the goals of man into trash, the souls is gold and they turning gold into cash.” The final banjo solo is segued in by the layers of the beat dying away, leaving just the violins.
This season still has children playing outside as adults are raking leaves with a cool jazz stand-up bass and a single violin as the only two instruments. It does provide a feeling of being colder in comparison to the instrumental interlude “Summer.” This cold feeling sets up the following song.
“Prisoner 1 & 2”
The first sound heard is a recording of an automated phone system making the connection to someone from an inmate in jail. A man with a strong accent indicates that the song involves the music industry as well as prison. Lupe is using a double entendre of a prisoner in jail and an artist on a record label. The tone in which he flows through the chorus over an instrumental is charged with anxious aggression to the point of numbness. “Prisoner 1” is presented from the perspective of the prisoner and how he is feeling. Sound effects thrown in at the right time engulfs the mind, pulling us deeper into the darkness accompanied by the immense agitation and paranoia that prison can cause one to develop.
“Prisoner 2” begins with the automated machine again followed by an officer dragging his night stick against prison bars, matched with stringed instruments and cell doors being closed. This provides the changing of perspectives from looking through the bars in a jumpsuit to looking through the bars wearing a guard uniform. A poem spoken from Ayesha Jacobs about the new Jim Crow, referring to how it has, in essence, evolved from blatant acts of hanging black people to locking them up for life. The beat is very dark and ominous, lending the feeling of being in an Edgar Allan Poe poem. Lupe is speaking from the perspective of a guard that hates the prisoners and would like to keep them in their cells forever. The chorus “you better watch these niggas, en garde” is pretty ingenious to me because en garde sounds like on guard if one is not paying close attention, and it took me several listens before I became aware. En garde is a French term which translates literally to on guard, but it is used as a call to a fencer to adopt a defensive stance in readiness for an attack or bout. This can then be interpreted as the guards being en garde for an attack at all times while they are on guard, creating a prison of paranoia for them as well.
“Body of Work”
The first sound heard is exploding fireworks followed by a deep bass line and Troi wonderfully crooning the chorus, insinuating the song is about a woman being used. The bass guitar has a Marcus Miller (bass guitarist) coolness to it. The song has a push-pull feeling which coincides with the lyrics explaining that Lupe loves this woman (hip-hop) but hates how her beautiful body is smuggling drugs (negative stereotypes/materialism/messages/ideologies). Terrace Martin’s sax solo is simply amazing. It begins with a high tempo, lending an air of increasing tension while at the same time exuding a feeling of calmness as Troi sings sweeter and softer and the strings have a slower staccato pace that counters the sax. The image that best describes the feeling is seeing a hummingbird eating neater, the hummingbird’s wings are flapping at a tremendous pace while the bird looks like it is floating. The sax then has a sophisticated, slower piece that invokes many emotions in waves, from being frustrated to the point of aggression to rage to a melancholy pain for the plight of women that are subjected to this in real life, and also a different kind of pain from the messages that youth take to heart from hip-hop, that they actually try to live and emulate and that produces false ideals of the world and how it works. The Terrace Martin piece felt like a fourth verse of lyrics; his sax speaks to the heart and soul, at times sounding as if it is crying out in anger, morphing to actual sadness, then to wailing, and finally to sobbing while maintaining the sweet crispness a sax can provide. The downheartedness of this song is shared only in title with the next song.
The instrumental begins with a slightly lighter feel than the last track because of Nikki Jean. The horns give it a freshness, like a breeze on a hot day, allowing for a cool feeling. Nikki Jean’s voice also adds richness to the texture. Lupe’s first verse has several references to sex and sexual situations. The flow on this song is in a capricious tone. The second verse deals more with the treatment of the food we eat, from how chickens are slaughtered, causing loss in flavor, to only eating rice. In the last verse, Lupe breaks down his feelings on our government and legal system. The sax again adds a quality to this song that amplifies the tone.
A feeling of being in a climactic scene of a movie is presented by the use of the electric guitar and sparing deep bass rumble. A car crash is the symbol behind the concept, representing a relationship ending. Lupe is inferring this couple should break up now before things get too involved, causing them to hate each other like a car crash can kill you. He wants to walk away now without any emotional scars.
This interlude is a sound of wind rushing through a violin and some strings being played pizzicato-style. It is reminiscent of the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is in the house during the tornado.
This is the only song that has a trap(place to buy or sell drugs) music feel with a heavy Houston influence. A gaggle of features can be found on this lengthy track. The running theme is the struggle of living in what most consider to be non-reputable neighborhoods. Every feature has a rough gangsta infliction in their voice with a slow tone that brings flashbacks of the rapper Scarface. Lupe finishes the song with his version of a trap lord flow with high lyrical consciousness.
The use of a harp promotes a dreamy feeling matched with the lyrics, causing the sensation being in a lucid dream. The chorus of “pizza man doesn’t come here no mo” insinuates that our neighborhood is so bad that delivery people are afraid to venture there. The idea that your neighborhood can be so bad that most people don’t want to go there makes you wish it were only a bad dream. A tweet by Lupe (paraphrased here) said that the pizza man could also be “peace of man,” suggesting that violence permeates the hood to the point where peace can’t be found. The snappy rhythm of the song makes the chorus stand out even more, allowing for a nice bounce.
“Madonna (And Other Mother in the Hood)”
The religious tone begins with sort of humming which forms a hymn combined with the vibe that people are taking a stand. Some layers of the beat have moments similar to another Chicago artist, Kanye West, on the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This mixed with Nikki Jean’s sultry voice helps carry the message of love and caring. Lupe combines the religious corollaries between Mother Mary and mothers in impoverished areas, both fearing for the safety of their children.
“Adoration of the Magi”
A very slow jazz feeling that again has a saxophone section reminiscent of a section played by Kenneth Whalum on Maxwell’s song “Fistfuls of Tears” on a great album, BLACKsummer’snight. An aura of dreaminess is spilling throughout the song that is still tied to religion, as was the previous track. The chorus references leaders/leadership all converging to a common thread: Jesus. The initial line of “like contemporary museum of art that farts” is juvenile but is used to illustrate the flaws that we all have. Crystal “Rovel” Torres’s and Lupe’s voices blend together in a very sultry manner, allowing the track to maintain its smooth jazz quality. Lupe mixes religious and classic video game vernacular to illustrate youth in a unique manner.
“They. Resurrect. Over. New.”
The video game inspiration is followed here by a pinball machine being played, setting up the beat. Lupe is rapping at a rapid rate while maintaining a clear tone. Troi’s singing of the chorus takes the track to a more futuristic place. Ab Soul has a nice featured section and rides over the beat like it was his song. The song as a whole sounds like a song that could have been on his album, These Days. The song is promoting the ideology of continuing to do better then you currently are, always striving to push yourself farther while never settling.
Children are heard again playing with birds flying and squawking above. The strings have a lightness and softness accompanied by marching staccato strings, giving the imagery of rebirth as the album ends.
This album is similar to Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly in how much thought and depth, from the concept, tone, lyrics, and instrumentation all the way to the artwork, went into the project. The albums are very different sonically while sharing similar themes and messages. Let’s start with the title. Tetsuo, to my understanding, is an anime character whose body slowly transforms into random pieces of metal. Youth defines the point where you have the ability to become whomever you want. The song “Body of Work,” even though the emotions are dark and depressing, sonically is a work of art, needing every component including the producer, Terrace Martin, Troi, and of course, Lupe’s lyrics. This and “Adoration of the Magi” are stand-out tracks for me. The quality of this album is equivalent to Food and Liquor and The Cool. The Ab Soul feature just increases wanting to hear more from him and other TDE artists like Jay Rock and Isaiah Rashad. It is the best album from Lupe Fiasco in a long time. It seems as though he really made the album he wanted to with the content he wanted.
Thank you for reading this review, and check back next week for another Sonic Breakdown on J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive.