On January 19, the night before the release of his fifth album, Tetsuo & Youth, Lupe Fiasco sat for an interview with DJ Skee that was streamed live on YouTube. Over the course of a nearly an hour, the Chicago rapper discussed his new album, his impending departure1 from Atlantic Records — the label with whom he’d feuded for the better part of a decade — quitting Twitter, his principles (“I’m never going to dumb it down again”), and his legacy. It played like an exit interview, a postmortem for his career. But it wasn’t a sad occasion, and Lupe, who can waver between prickly and pedantic in interviews, seemed loose, even happy.
Tetsuo & Youth fulfilled his contractual obligations with Atlantic.
At about the 54-minute mark of the conversation, Skee gave the floor to Lupe for one last album plug. “This is the album, you know what it is,” Lupe said while holding up the physical CD, flashing the cover art, which he had painted. “I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoy it, and there’s a lot to it.”
At this point, he flipped the CD over to display the track list. The CD was also upside down. He ran his index finger down the tracklist, up, and then back down again. He wore a knowing smile throughout. “Put on your thinking caps. Go in a nice dark room every so often and just put it on, let it play all the way through and have fun.” This little gesture sparked something in Lupe Fiasco fans, a fervent, imaginative bunch to begin with. They have since flooded message boards, Reddit forums, rap blogs, and the annotation website Rap Genius with theories on Tetsuo & Youth — the most interesting of which argues that the album is meant to be played in reverse from Track 16 to Track 1.
Tetsuo & Youth, which debuted at no. 14 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling more than 42,000 copies,2 flew under the radar, eclipsed by the big fourth-quarter albums (Nicki Minaj, J. Cole) and surprise releases (Drake, Kendrick Lamar) that dominated the hip-hop conversation last winter. It marked a nadir, commercially, for the rapper, which was something Lupe expected. “I’m not as relevant as I was before,” he told me a few days before Christmas in an interview for Billboard. “It’s kind of a natural irrelevancy that occurs with all artists. I think I had my peak and now I am coming down in relevancy.”
The Billboard 200 includes traditional album sales, track-equivalent albums, and streaming-equivalent albums. Tetsuo & Youth sold a little more than 35,000 traditional albums.
At his peak, Lupe Fiasco was a thrilling rapper. His big break was a guest verse on Kanye West’s 2005 single “Touch the Sky.” The mixtape trilogy Fahrenheit 1/15 Part I-III and two critically acclaimed gold-selling albums, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor and Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, followed. An exceptional lyricist with a gift for crafting dense, conceptual records that, somehow, sound at home on the radio, he scored hits with “Kick, Push,” “Superstar,” and “Hip-Hop Saved My Life”; unlike most other rappers who spit as if rap were a sport scored like Olympic boxing, Lupe had a knack for melody and songwriting. He wrote with empathy, yet wielded a cynical sense of humor. And he remains a versatile MC, proficient at rapping about any subject — sociopolitical issues, human emotions, hip-hop, his love of Mont Blanc pens — while using a variety of flows. Mostly he raps because he loves to rap. Songs like “Failure,” “SLR,” “Mural,” and anything found on the Enemy of the State mixtape are the closest thing hip-hop has to Neil Peart drum solos. Perhaps Pitchfork writer Jayson Greene put it best in his Tetsuo & Youth review: “The words sound and feel gorgeous.”
Lupe Fiasco lost control of the narrative around the turn of the decade: The battle with Atlantic began to define his career; he released the detested Lasers; he released Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, which, despite its lofty title, felt uninspired; his message turned didactic; the production on his tracks became overbearing; he called President Obama a terrorist; he occasionally acted like a jerk on social media. At times, he seemed to enjoy trolling his own fan base. “Half the world hates me,” he told DJ Skee. At another point in the same interview, he was asked to name the biggest misconception about him. “People think I’m a bitch.”
This was the climate Tetsuo & Youth was released into. But the album was a kind of a third-act plot twist: Tetsuo & Youth is really, really good!3 In this strange phase of his career — one of declining relevance — Lupe made an album strictly for the people still interested in Lupe Fiasco albums.
It’s my favorite album since Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.
Making the album was a two-year process, and initially the songs recorded for Tetsuo & Youth skewed pop with radio-friendly songs forming the spine of the record: “Next to It” featuring Ty Dolla $ign, “Old School Love” with Ed Sheerhan, and “Crack,” an unreleased collaboration with Chris Brown, among others. From there, the album took a turn.
“When we met with him on his tour bus [in December 2013], his whole aim was esoteric,” says MoeZ’art, who produced “Prisoner 1 & 2” and coproduced “Deliver” with Marcus Stephens. “I initially played all this hip-hop, melodic stuff with ‘Kick, Push’–like melodies. He was like, ‘No, no, no. I need something different. I need something just a little bit strange.’ When he heard ‘Deliver,’ he went crazy. He just grabbed his head, ran to the back, put his headphones on and was like, ‘I’m writing to this right now.’”
Even more so than his earlier work, the songs on Tetsuo & Youth are layered with multiple narratives threaded through each bar and each verse. And though certain themes — particularly religion — appear throughout, the meanings of the songs are tough to pin down. There are also three tracks (“Mural,” “Prisoner 1 & 2,” and “Chopper”) exceeding eight minutes in length.
Now about this backward theory.4 In addition to the DJ Skee interview, there are clues scattered throughout the album supporting it, most notably on “Blur My Hands”:
Keep in mind this theory, and the assumptions it is based on, are culled from conversations with a friend, listening to the album about 30 times, theories posted to the Kanye to The message boards, and annotations on Rap Genius.
So you starting at the end, that’s the part where you begin / I skip the bullshit so we can start it where we win / Yeah, spoiler alert / I can hear you all saying “Boy, you’re a jerk” / But it’s cool though, know we gotta rule yo / Get it in, then we win and do it all again
If played in reverse order, I think the final four songs on the album (“They. Resurrect. Over. New.,” “Adoration of the Magi,” “Madonna (and Other Mothers in the Hood),” “Deliver”) tell the story of a messiah, from his resurrection to his birth — his life, his death, and then the world he left behind.
Let’s start with the last song on the album:5
“They. Resurrect. Over. New.”
Lupe has said that the four interludes — “Summer,” “Fall,” “Winter,” and “Spring,” tracks 1, 5, 10, and 16, respectively — function as “palate cleansers.”
• Named after the video game played in the movie Tron. Begins with sounds from a video game. The hook is “Proceed to the next level.” Life, or this song, is like a video game — or something. And what happens after the main character dies in a video game? He gets another life. He is reborn! Resurrected.
• On the outro, Troi sings: “We’re going up, we’re going up / Next level, next floor / I’m ready for it / I’ve been waiting all my life / Tron, Tron / We’re going up, we’re going up / Next level, next floor.” Going up? Up where? Up the track list, of course.
“Adoration of the Magi”
• More video game references (Metal Gear Solid and Double Dragon).
• The last lines of the song: “Who got a baby in here with these strippers? / She’s two weeks pregnant / Didn’t even know, he’s dancing with her.”
• 8disqus8 wrote in the comments section of World Star Hip Hop:
In the last verse he reveals that the chick is pregnant. I think the stripper is supposed to represent Mary but she doesn’t know she’s pregnant. The people bringing gifts represents the three wise men who bought gifts for the birth of Jesus. They don’t care the woman is a stripper, they are looking at the bigger picture that she has the savior inside her and they adore her. I think it’s a song to women that people like looking at your body but love/adore the fact that they each have the potential to birth a savior. Just my take on it.
• Lupe posted a screenshot of the comment on his Instagram page, along with the caption “Bingo! (On one level) From the Worldstarhiphop comment section #AdorationOfTheMagi #TetsuoAndYouth.”
• The song was released on the day of the Epiphany, January 6.
“Madonna (and Other Mothers in the Hood)”
• The hook: “No man shall touch this / Lord said nobody can fuck with, your momma.” The pregnant stripper from “Adoration of the Magi” was untouched, meaning her pregnancy was an immaculate conception.
• Her child grows up in a rough world — liquor, pills, murderers, prostitutes, and robbers. At the end of the song, he dies “like Ricky on his mama couch.”
• Reincarnation, conception, birth, then death.
• Opening line of the song: “30-something shots from the ghetto gun.” Following the death of the Madonna’s son, the world has plunged into violence. WHAT HATH WE WROUGHT!?
• The hook begins with the line: “The pizza man don’t come here no more.” Last December, Lupe tweeted another meaning:
That concludes the arc of one character, the son of the Madonna. But what if I told you that beginning with “Chopper,” the song following “Deliver” when Tetsuo & Youth is played in reverse, the rest of the album tells the story of Lupe Fiasco? Crazy, huh? Not really. Once again, let’s present the evidence:
• “Chopper” opens with a formal voice stating, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Lupe Fiasco.”
• “No Scratches” is about a bad relationship.
• On “Body of Work,” Lupe, or whoever the narrator is, has feelings of déjà vu or a previous life: “Have I been this? / Realize my begin when I find where my end is.”
• “Prisoner 1 & 2” is a metaphor for Lupe’s stint on Atlantic (“Your life is just a number and release date”), but also touches upon the prison-industrial complex.
• “Dots & Lines” is about Lupe’s battle with Atlantic Records.
• “Blur My Hands” shows Lupe at his current state: optimistic.
• In our Billboard interview, Lupe compared “Mural,” an eight-and-a-half-minute assault, to a recital. “This is ‘Mural’ and this is what I’ve learned so far, so enjoy,” he said.
• The last line on “Mural,” the last line on the album if you listen in reverse, is “Defeat Samsara, achieves nirvana and brilliance.” In Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths, Samsara is the repeating cycle of life, death, and reincarnation.
Since Lupe has sworn off interviews, the search for answers led me to Brian “Busy” Dackowski, Atlantic Records’ VP of marketing, the A&R for Tetsuo & Youth, and one of the rapper’s closest confidants in the record industry.
What was Lupe going for as far as a theme or story on the album?
I don’t think that was ever the purpose of there being, like, one overall theme sort of like the way The Cool had. There was no structure like he wanted to tell a particular story. I think each song has its own story and message.
Have you heard the theory about playing the album in reverse order?
Yes, I did read that.
Is there any truth to it?
Not that I’m aware of, no. That’s very interesting. The songs were definitely grouped together based upon how they sound — that’s why it was structured the way it was between “Spring,” “Fall, “Summer, “Winter.” He definitely took time in sequencing this thing. Either way, I see how people can feel that. I don’t think that was a conscious decision on his part. But he doesn’t really tell me everything.
People on the message boards point to the DJ Skee interview when Lupe held the album upside down and ran his finger up and down the track list.
He’s no stranger to the message boards, either, so he definitely will play with that one when given the chance. He definitely reads a lot of them. He scans the web from time to time.
He loves the message boards?
He absolutely loves it. That’s why he’ll never go on a Rap Genius and want to explain his lyrics. He loves to just leave it open and let people go crazy in terms of them thinking what this means or that. It started in the early days with him when people thought “Kick, Push” was about drug dealing instead of skateboarding.
Is there any overlap between Tetsuo & Youth and The Cool?
Not that I know specifically. The character of The Cool is definitely on his mind right now, and has been for the last year. I would not be surprised if that pops its head up again pretty soon.
There wasn’t going to be a grand reveal or admission. The conversation lasted less than 10 minutes, but this was good enough. Afterward I went back to something MoeZ’art told me when I asked him if he had heard that Tetsuo & Youth was meant to be played in reverse. “There are a lot of Lupe theories out there. Um, no, I’m not sure about that one,” he said. “He has so many different layers to him. I can’t even begin to understand some of the things. I’m still digesting the album myself.”
Thomas Golianopoulos (@Golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vibe, and Complex.