There was a time where Lupe Fiasco represented the notion of youth. His was a new, dense voice from Chicago that liked bright colors but knew what it felt like when things got dark. Contrary to his current reputation, he wasn't always angry: on his debut Food & Liquor, as well as the classic freestyles scattered across his Fahrenheit 1/15 mixtapes, Lupe was lucidly aware, inquisitive, and disarmingly content with the societal perils he sharply articulated. He could tell you how fucked the world was, then grin and put you onto some new Nikes to lighten the mood. In a 2006 interview with Pitchfork, the then 23-year-old explained his passive perspective: "To me, you can't win… I'm going to put my message in such a palatable format that you won't even know what I'm talking about until it hits you. And they're going to listen to it."
After almost a decade as a fan, I found myself interviewing Lupe in 2012 as a music journalist, so I was the guy asking "When's the album dropping?" "Why did you name it this?" "What does that mean?" These are questions that most artists hate to answer—especially Lupe, who had at this point suffered a series of grievances with his label, Atlantic, that played out publicly. Traditional promotion techniques had failed him with every release, the maladies ranging from album leaks to A&R-compromised singles. With Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, Lupe seemed to mock the mechanism he despised—the derisive "Bitch Bad" certainly suggested as much—and he wasn't ready to give me any easy answers. "When you do that 15, 20 times a day, you get fed up," he explained to me. "Not with fans, but with the industry. You get fed up with interviewers and magazines, you get fed up with blogs, that whole piece. Like, my man, why are you interviewing me if you already got the answers to the questions in your head?"
He was right. The tense, pointed interview felt emblematic of the barrier to entry that fans have faced since first encountering The Cool's "Dumb It Down": even at his best, Lupe's always been too self-aware and too defensive to let himself create for creation's sake. He'd aged fifty years in the span of five, a consequence of being brilliant beyond your age in an era where information moved—and cycled—faster than ever.
These growing pains may be why "Mural," the opening nine-minute monologue to Lupe's latest LP Tetsuo & Youth, is so fascinating. If you know his catalog, you know he probably freestyled it—the way he tumbles over words like "rain" and "queen," squeezing out every shade of meaning and connotation, recalls the jaw-dropping lyrical ability he'd showcased time and again in the past. The rest of the record sounds just as revelatory: lushly straightforward production landing somewhere between the whimsy of the first Food & Liquor and the storm-cloud bass of The Cool, with concepts just as fully realized. Signifiers pointing to his early work abound: Cortex samples? Check. Nikki Jean? Check. On "Adoration of the Magi" he even name-drops Metal Gear Solid. "Day one Lupe Fiasco fans, from 2003 or 2004, they're gonna get a lot of that back," Lupe said of the project in late 2013. "You gotta have those five or so years to have that retrospective moment."
Spread across four season-themed interludes, Lupe takes on the dual persona of inmate and corrections officer on "Prisoner 1 & 2," pokes at political binaries on "Little Death," and reduces the spectrum of life—birth to death—to a level in a video game on "Adoration of the Magi." It's as heavy as anything he's dropped before, but with a sensitivity and transparency he'd previously risked losing. See first I had patience, and a nigga had energy, but now I'm weak, he raps on "No Scratches," the closest to a first-person confessional that appears on Tetsuo & Youth. The production is scattered but alive, a melange of electric, shiny samples that keep up with the raps. The album sounds more like a conversation than an argument, the druggy wooze of "Chopper" representing the broadest concession to current rap sounds.
The record might be most aptly compared to Mos Def's The Ecstatic: a decade out from a meteoric breakthrough, it reflects a rapper who's grown into his head, delivering the sibling to his debut that fans hoped for but never expected to receive. His recent distancing tactics from traditional promotion—for example, declining an interview with the FADER around this album cycle—may scan as bitterness to some, but it also suggests a freedom from what seemed to leave him most fraught: the idea of making music as an obligation, instead of as an expression. Lupe Fiasco isn't young anymore, but he hasn't sounded this ageless in a decade.