• Courtesy of Lupe Fiasco’s Facebook
  • Lupe Fiasco

We live in an age where there are a multitude of avenues for you to stick your foot in your mouth, and Lupe Fiasco has suffered for it. The public can handle mercurial musicians—hell, celeb-centric media requires them to stay ahead of the information—but it helps when these artists create work that stirs something in people (see Kanye). That hasn’t been the case for Lupe in recent years.

The Chicago rapper’s gossip-fueling comments and public flare-ups of late have left more of an impression than his last album, 2012’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1. His off-the-cuff remarks actually rear their head on that album’s third song, “ITAL (Roses),” in which he describes the fallout from when he infamously called Obama a terrorist on CBS’s What’s Happening: “Called the president a terrorist / Corporate sponsors like, how the fuck you gon’ embarrass us? / Ain’t my fault, I was just repeatin’ this / Professor Emeritus from America.” Lupe’s erudite, sure, but his performances lack the fire that his initial comments provoke. Much of Food & Liquor II feels as drawn-out and dull as the album’s lengthy title.

Fortunately Lupe’s brand-new fifth album, Tetsuo & Youth, doesn’t show the lethargy that made Food & Liquor II a slog. The rapper has sounded rejuvenated since June, which is when he released the scrambled-funk single “Next to It.” The track sneaks up on you with its sultry, inviting, chopped-up sax sample, and Lupe ditches his overly complicated, blunt rhymes for party-friendly bars that explore the gray area of the endless search for greener grass. The fact that “Next to It” isn’t one of the 16 songs on Tetsuo & Youth might be one of the biggest marks against the album.

But Lupe brought some of the ideas he employed on “Next to It” to Tetsuo & Youth, specifically his role as an all-seeing narrator who isn’t necessarily all-knowing. The MC’s intelligence can be as much of a problem as it is a boon for his music, and some of his past material struggles under the weight of complex moralisms. Lupe’s ambitious, but his execution can backfire, as was the case with one of the Food & Liquor II singles, “Bitch Bad.”

“Bitch Bad” is a well-intentioned critique of negative slang that’s not particularly good, but the song’s release date did more damage than Lupe might have predicted. The tune came out in the summer of 2012, around the time the term “mansplain” went viral. After a couple Spin writers (one of whom is a friend) chastised Lupe for mansplaining misogyny, the rapper called for a boycott of the magazine, and the whole affair became tabloid fodder that remains on the song’s Wikipedia entry.

Tetsuo & Youth is another story. On the album’s best material Lupe speaks levelheadedly and lends a sympathetic voice without much finger-pointing. His language can still be pointed, but the MC softens it with perspective; his politics are still in play, he’s just left the soapbox. “Deliver” is about impoverished, segregated neighborhoods where folks can’t even get a pizza man to come anywhere close—Lupe uses scraps of food as a symbol for salvation (“Can I get delivered from this sin? / Get a little slice of heaven, I can enter in again”), and in doing so points at the extremes of life in food deserts.

Religious themes pop up throughout the album, and Lupe has a way of coming up with a good allegory. On “Prisoner 1 & 2” he uses collect calls from prison as a sign of a reformed sinner seeking redemption on the chorus: “I just wanna be collected when I call, God damn / I don’t wanna be accepted, not as all as I am.” There’s a vagueness to the chorus, and even with a cloud of religion hanging over the track Lupe could very well be talking to a friend or family member. Hell, he could even be addressing his fans who weren’t sure what to think of his shakier career moves. The song excels in part because Lupe embraces the ambiguity.

“Prisoner 1 & 2” is a little more than eight and a half minutes long, which makes it the third-longest song on Tetsuo & Youth. The second-longest, “Mural,” is the first proper track on the album, and Lupe coasts through the thing like a bike messenger weaving through traffic; he manages to keep the energy high through a long cut with no distinct hook, and it makes for one of the album’s most masterful strokes. Tetsuo & Youth is long, dense, and filled with experimental flourishes. There’s a lot on here that requires time to fully unpack, and fortunately Lupe’s performance is the thing that’ll encourage people to give the album the time it deserves.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.