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Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth is the Journey of a Lifetime (Literally)

First of all, I want to thank Lupe Fiasco for creating a masterpiece, as well as Genius for annotating these extremely intricate and deep lyrics.

I don’t write about music too often here, but this album completely blew me away…

“Tetsuo & Youth” is a holistic depiction of life and death, seamlessly weaving themes of spirituality, religion, reincarnation, struggle, freedom and, as the title implies, youth. All of this is subtly and contextually coated with the concept of life being akin to a video game. Lupe’s lyricism is as skillful as I’ve ever heard. Every line is loaded with complex rhyme schemes, alliteration, double entendres, hidden meanings, clever punchlines and eccentric references. The lyrics are masterfully crafted, leaving the listener deciphering deeper meaning with each listen. The exquisitely adept rapping is silhouetted by beautiful soundscapes, which artfully match the ever-evolving emotional tone of the album.

The musical experience of “Tetsuo & Youth” is transformative, as it speaks to everyone in unique ways and sheds perspective on your own experience of this journey we call life.

The Cover:
The cover artwork for the album is an original painting by Lupe entitled “Man Eating Tiger” (Is it a man eating a tiger? Or a man-eating-tiger?) Like the album itself, it’s a constantly shifting depiction of life and death, with multiple meanings and layers. Here’s what Lupe himself has to say about it:
“For me as the guy who painted it. I see a tiger descending into the body of a man, being consumed. You see the inside of man. But I also see a tiger in the process of ripping a man to pieces. A very chaotic scene of violence. The meaning of this painting is constantly shifting and changing. I see death and life and a constant pursuit of these two goals.”

The Title: Tetsuo & Youth

Some more hints from Lupe:

“For me, Tetsuo sounds cool. You can hate him for what he’s done, but it’s not just him being an asshole. How that relates to me as a person — you can take that however you want, but it was more like, let me get to the emotion of that misguided anger and make this sound like a song.”

“I wanted to just write about youth and children and their experiences cause I feel like I’m a child. I miss my youth, I wish I had a different path when I was younger […] If people want to know what the ‘Youth’ meant in the title, it’s in the interludes — those kids and the absence of kids; youth and the absence of youth.”

Seasons

There are four interlude tracks on the album, for each of the four seasons. Lupe refers to them as “sonic palette cleanses.” These interludes are brief pieces of classical music accommodated by the sound of children (or lack thereof, in the case of “Winter”). Each season has a unique feel, both in terms of the music and the background sound of youth.

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Story Time

The album is a story, but it’s also a story in reverse. It’s revelatory to listen to it from front-to-back, then back-to-front, as I’ll soon explain.

The album’s story isn’t so much an individual story, but more like a skillfully knitted story of the seasons of life. It’s like a tapestry of existence, a “mural”, if you will (see what I did there?).

Listening to the album in the forward direction, Tetsuo & Youth opens with the “Summer” intro. Then immediately kicks into high gear with “Mural”, a truly momentous, lyrical journey. It’s like a soul hyped up to incarnate into the world. Lupe maintains a certain youthful exuberance in “Blur My Hands” and “Dots & Lines.” But “Dots & Lines” could also represent him losing his freedom (the dots and lines of contracts), because it is followed by the “Fall” interlude. “Fall” seems to symbolize a fall from grace, which carries from “Prisoner 1 & 2” all the way through to “Madonna.” “Winter” is akin to the ‘dark night of the soul’ and the album tosses the listener into the dangerously chaotic environments of “Chopper” and “Deliver.” “Madonna” is interwoven with hope and hopelessness; birth and death. “Adoration of the Magi” incorporates almost every theme of the album. Is it about birth? Is it about death? It’s definitely a short journey into the totality of the human experience, dipped in religious references while simultaneously transcending the downfalls of organized religion. The last full song is “They.Resurrect.Over.New” which is about reincarnation from the perspective of playing a video game. It leaves the listener questioning whether it’s really the end, or a new beginning. The album closes (or opens?) with “Spring” which is basically the aural interpretation of pure, youthful joy.

While the forward-moving story plays out like a fall from grace, with the opportunity reincarnate and try again, listening to it in reverse is that new attempt within the video game of life.

Lupe hints at this multiple times throughout the album…

In “Blur My Hands” he says…

“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 in, then we win and do it all again, ho”

And in “Body of Work” he hints at it again…

“Realize my begin when I find where my end is.”

There are no coincidences when it comes to Lupe Fiasco. He’s absolutely meticulous with his compositions and packs them with as much meaning as he can muster.

The Journey Back Home

If you listen to the album in reverse, it is positively mind-blowing. It’s essentially incarnating into the video game of life and achieving ultimate victory. The journey back home starts with “Spring” and insinuates reincarnation with the “proceed to the next level” theme of “They.Resurrect.Over.New.” Next, the narrative moves on to “Adoration of the Magi” which heavily plays upon the themes of birth and infancy. Then it proceeds through the journey of life before climaxing with “Mural.” “Mural” is like the culmination of everything, the final boss of the video game. That’s why Lupe ends “Mural” by emphatically stating “defeat samsara, achieve nirvana and brilliance.”

A Brief Song-by-Song Breakdown When Listening to the Album in Reverse Order (AKA The Journey Back Home):

“Spring” – This outro, or intro in this case, is utterly joyful. When used as the intro, it gives a heavenly vibe (or however you want to describe a utopian reality existing beyond this one). So it’s like hanging out in a blissful wonderland before you jump into the challenging video game of life.

“They.Resurrect.Over.New” – Heavily plays on video game themes and reincarnation. It’s also a turbulent swirl of altered states of consciousness and mythology amidst the unfathomable depth of the universe (or multi-verse). The song almost gives you the feeling of what it what be like to enter this reality; a chaotic blend of confusion and excited confidence. And the fact that Ab-Soul has the final verse adds to the mystery. Are him and Lupe blending identities? Is it hinting at multiple people reincarnating in groups? It adds an even greater enigmatic quality to the album.

“Adoration of the Magi” – The term “adoration of the magi” traditionally refers to the nativity of Jesus in art, surrounded by the 3 magi. This song is conceptual brilliance, blending religion (while constructively criticizing it as well), youth, loss of innocence, video games and reincarnation intermixed with the reality of the world today. (See my breakdown of some of the lyrics below. It’s mind-blowing.)

The middle of the album incorporates the bittersweetness of worldly struggle. The listener incarnates into a whirlwind of harsh environments, which is the equivalent of playing the video game on expert level.

“Madonna [And Other Mothers in the Hood]” – It’s a swirl of life, death, birth and struggle with a calling for the divine feminine. Because it blends multiple themes (like so many songs on Tetsuo & Youth), it could be the end of one story, yet the start of another.

“Deliver” – This song throws the listener into the grim reality of the ghetto. Lupe draws upon motifs of food and religion to paint a captivating, yet bleak, picture. And both motifs are incorporated in the chorus. “Pizza man don’t come here no more… deliver.” (Drawing upon the common Christian phrase “deliver us from evil.”)

“Chopper” – Chopper is the only song on the album with multiple guest verses. It feels like an act in a play where different characters step to the front of the stage to recite their soliloquy. “Chopper” is the testimony of toughened souls ‘playing the video game on expert level’. To give it even more of a thematic, character-driven vibe, the song starts with a voice saying “Ladies and gentleman, Lupe Fiasco.” Chopper is slang for both a gun and a helicopter, so it’s like going into a war zone. And it definitely feels like one.

“Winter” – The most foreboding of the interludes. The sad classical tune with the absence of any sounds of youth makes it a bit creepy.

“No Scratches” – A slow, emotional song about relationships that plays upon the metaphor of a car crash. It advises to walk away with no scratches from a dysfunctional relationship “before we hit a wall.”

“Little Death” – This song is a plethora of parallel themes seamlessly laid atop one another. Sex (La petite mort), killing animals, ego death, the death of childlike innocence, the justice system, the Universe’s cycles and the death of creativity within people.

One line that stands out to me is “And more mercifully murdered Pisces” which incorporates both the topic of killing animals and universal cycles. In terms of astrology, the age of Pisces is coming to an end and we’re entering the age of Aquarius (hence “murdered Pisces”). This is also something that Lupe references multiple times throughout the album.

“Body of Work” – Subtly about hip-hop, with so many great lines, references and rhyme schemes. Some of Lupe’s best technical rapping of the album is on this track.

“Prisoner 1 & 2” – This song is a mini-epic, divided into two parts. Prisoner 1 is from the prisoners’ point of view. The bowling metaphor at the end of the first verse is just superb, and he does it while simultaneously painting a captivating image of prison life. Prisoner 2 is from the guards’ perspective, who are just as much prisoners as the prisoners themselves. Both are colorful descriptions of this ominous reality. In narrating from the sides of both prisoners and prison guards, Lupe emphasizes a crucial point… Even though people appear dualistic on the surface, we all have a connection point. And everyone shares a lot in common on a deep level.

Also, the acronyms of the chorus are fantastic:
+ “LOVE is Looking Over Various Errors”
“HATE is Habitually Accelerating Terror, Everywhere, but the mural.” (with the mural reference, he’s referring back to the song “Mural.” I think he may also be alluding that hate can’t touch the collective that we’re all a part of. It can’t reach our true essence.)

And LOVE being Looking Over Various Errors is a call for a new way to deal with morality, because it’s obvious that privatized prisons (with a ridiculously disproportionate number of minorities confined within their walls) aren’t working out for us. It reminds me of this story that’s been floating around social media about a particular African tribe: (here’s where I saw it)

When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him. For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done. The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as GOOD, each of us desiring safety, love, peace, happiness. But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help. They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true Nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth from which he’d temporarily been disconnected: “I AM GOOD”

“Fall” – When moving through the album in reverse, “Fall” is a time of change. It could be looked at as death of the ego-self and the clearing of all negativity.

“Dots & Lines” is a song of freedom and spiritual growth. ‘Beautiful’ sums up this composition, complete with references to sacred geometry and the intrinsic conncectedness of everything. Lupe also discusses how the natural cycles of the universe override anything man-made that isn’t in harmony with those inherent principles. Sacred geometry is mentioned in the chorus and these concepts are also discussed in lines such as:

“The applause and patience of the laws in nature
Override lies and the laws of nations”

“Sun positions overcome traditions”

“Where the golden means, so the overseer gets overseen”

The golden mean is the golden ratio, also known as the Fibonacci Sequence (or Fibonacci Spiral), which is observed in both the macrocosms and the microcosms of the universe (as above, so below). These geometric principles “oversee” man-made reality. So if an “overseer” creates a system not in harmony with these principles, it will create dysfunction and inevitably crumble. One example of this is the concept of time. Everything moves in a spiral pattern (the Fibonacci spiral) and in cycles, yet we measure time in a linear fashion. That’s why our (man-made) concept of time causes so much anxiety for most people. (Read more about the concept of time in this post.)

“Blur My Hands” is almost like a victory song. It’s about transmuting hate into love, and pokes fun at road rage. What’s the best response to someone giving you the finger? “Yeah that’s cool, cause I think you’re number one too.” Brilliant.

The title, along with hinting at the censorship of the middle finger, could be referencing blurring the hands of a clock; signifying the transcendence of time and becoming eternal. Lupe’s opening line is “take TIME to learn me…”

“Mural” is the climax, the culmination, the final boss. It’s a lyrical epic, through the magical mystery of infinite possibility.

Concluding the song with “defeat samsara, achieve nirvana and brilliance” is the ultimate happy ending. And then it fades into the interlude of “Summer” to allow the listener to soak in that state of nirvana.

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Breakdowns of some of the most profound lines:

They.Resurrect.Over.New

Meditate until there’s no mind
Decorate me with shine till I go blind
BDSM dominated it with no bind
Safe word is don’t stop, both or don’t go no times

These lines are far deeper than just meditation, wearing jewelry and bondage/discipline/sadomasochism. And there’s a reason why the “safe words” for the self-imposed bondage are so confusing…

Two scenarios are depicted here. One being someone leaving this world, and another entering this world.

Picture an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, or high priest preparing for death. Meditating until they merge with all of existence, their bodies adorned with jewelry for the afterlife and they might even still be alive during their death preparations. So they may have entered a tomb while still alive, with no way out.

The other image that these lines create are that of a soul incarnating into the world. Being in the peaceful stillness of deep meditation, then coming out into the bright lights of the world as an infant emerging from the darkness of the womb. And spiritual beings choosing to come to this world of suffering and extreme limitation are subjecting themselves to a spiritual form of BDSM. But growth only happens when we overcome obstacles. So by subjecting itself to limitation, a spiritual being can continue to grow. And the video game (being in a human body) inherently comes with amnesia, so that’s why the “safe words” are purposefully confusing. Because the human experience wouldn’t be fulfilling if we already knew everything. It’s meaningful because we’re constantly learning and growing.

Adoration of the Magi

Quiet is kept like Rosicrucians meet Cosa Nostras on Oprah’s sofa
With both controllers
Watchin’ Gazans and Ashkenazzis ride roller coasters
Say yeah
Yeah, lots of options, now up is down, two player
Now A is jump and B is punch
You seein’ somethin’ that weren’t there
To find friendliness in a nemesis, it’s a old test
3 buttons, see somethin’
That’s emphasis on genesis

Quiet is kept like Rosicrucians meet Cosa Nostras on Oprah’s sofa = Secret societies hiding in plain sight.

With both controllers = Secret societies (mentioned in the line above), operating from behind the scenes act as the “controllers” to manipulate conflicts (see the next line). This is also the opening to a video game reference, comparing life to a video game.

Watchin’ Gazans and Ashkenazzis ride roller coasters = Those “controllers” manipulated the Israel-Palestine conflict from behind the scenes. Riding roller coasters might be referring to the classic Bill Hicks stand-up about how life is just a ride.

now up is down = Inversion pervades our society. Also keeps with the video game reference.

“Just look at us. Everything is backwards, everything is upside down. Doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, psychiatrists destroy minds, scientists destroy truth, major media destroys information, religions destroy spirituality and governments destroy freedom.” – Michael Ellner

two player = A reference to the concept of duality. And still keeping the video game theme.

Now A is jump and B is punch = Along with saying “two player”, talking about playing the Sega Genesis video game Double Dragon (Is this a reptilian reference too?)

You seein’ somethin’ that weren’t there = A world of illusion

To find friendliness in a nemesis, it’s a old test = People allow themselves to be divided because of the old testament, when we should all unite as one. “Old test” could also be referring to life as a test, like Killah Priest in the song B.I.B.L.E.

3 buttons, see somethin’ = Gain a higher perspective using your third eye and transcend the meaningless conflict. And this of course continues the video game theme.

That’s emphasis on genesis = Nicely wraps up both the religious and video game references. And acts as a call for a new beginning.

The chorus of “Adoration of the Magi” is ingenious as well:
Why you ready to die? You just a baby
Why them tears up under your eyes? You just a baby
Keep your head up in the sky, you just a baby
Quit chasing money, never mind, you just a baby
Why you wanna be born again? You just a baby
Why you playing in the streets? You just a baby

The hook incorporates the continuous themes of youth, innocence, life, death, birth and reincarnation. And I’ll let these images explain how clever the wordplay is…

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Courtesy of Rap Genius

Body of Work

God is great, but it’s snakes on my soul plane

There are four references here, along with alluding to snakes in the music industry (because the song is about hip-hop).
1. Biblical reference
Referencing two movies:
2. Snakes on a Plane
3. Soul Plane
4. Referring to the theory of reptilian entities inhabiting the astral (soul) plane.

Yeah… Lupe dives deep.

Dots & Lines

And your reflection is your connection to more collections of more directions and paths
If your reflection is a mask, then you’re reflective of mass
To see yourself just look at me then split your reflection in half

With the first line, Lupe is saying to look within (your reflection), as that is “your connection to more collections of more directions and paths.” Self-mastery is the gateway to enlightenment.

In the second line, he’s saying that if you’re not authentic, or you’re entire identity is your ego (mask), then you’re merely reflecting what everyone else is doing; groupthink, sheep/herd mentality and succumbing to peer pressure when we’re all really unique individuals. Also, mass not only refers to the majority, but to organized religion as well (whose followers tend to blindly follow everything).

To see yourself just look at me then split your reflection in half – This is hinting at us all being aspects of each other and intimately connected. He refers to himself as “your reflection” which is quite interesting. Some quantum physics experiments point towards reality being a projection of our consciousness; so imagine a massive, ultra-realistic version of those online, multi-player video games. That may be life. So in that sense “you” are a reflection of “me” and “I” am a reflection of “you.” And if you really get down to it, we’re all unique parts of the same “mural.” And speaking of which…

Mural

Are we apps or are we bodies filled with apparitions?
Operating applications, stuck inside an Apple prison

Questioning if we’re just biological technology, or technology being operated by some higher consciousness. Apps are usually used to describe applications within Apple products, like computers or iPhones. He’s also asking if we’re bodies being piloted by something non-physical, like a ghost in the machine. And then, Apple prison refers back to the company Apple as well as the story of Adam and Eve, who was tempted by the snake to eat the apple. So Lupe is questioning if that story (or whatever that story is actually talking about, because it’s allegorical) caused humanity to be trapped in a prison, or matrix (hint, hint).

Rewrite history, liberty needs a better bell
Maybe harder irons and carbon fibers that never fail
Smarter science mixed with a odd alliance of fairy tale

Obviously referring to the liberty bell and how history is written by the winners of wars, with hidden agendas. We need a new beginning, a better way of doing things. “Harder irons” = stronger bonds. And carbon fibers are long, thin strands that collectively form an immensely strong material. We, as individuals, need to be like these carbon fibers, to form a strong collective. This intertwinement of fibers also hints at something akin to… (guess what?) a mural.

Smarter science mixed with a odd alliance of fairy tale – In saying “smarter science” Lupe is advocating applying science to areas that benefit us. Instead of building weapons and technological militarization, we should be using science to explore the world around us and improve ourselves. “Odd alliance of fairy tale” mentions “Fairy Tale” which is an anime series with wizards, dragon slayers…etc. So Lupe is saying the world would be a better place if we used smart science, blended with some healthy mysticism.

Simple as a Buddhist monk in a temple standing in some heel groove with the abbot, practicing stillness
Real still til he realizes his realness
Defeat samsara achieve nirvana and brilliance

That first line creates a clear image of a Buddhist monk in a temple. A heel groove is an indentation made by standing in the same place (usually on a wooden floor) for a prolonged period of time. But it could also be a homonym for “heal groove” implying that the music of silence is healing.

Real still til he realizes his realness – Our realness (who we really are) can be found in the stillness of meditation.

Defeat samsara achieve nirvana and brilliance – Samsara is the continuous cycle of reincarnation, and achieving nirvana breaks that cycle, reuniting us with our true essence.

Is there a better way to end a song!?

Bringing It All Together

The messages that Lupe is conveying with Tetsuo & Youth, in my opinion, are that life is like a video game. Beginnings and ends are blurred together within the mysterious mural of existence. Everyone will struggle, and struggle is inevitable. But it’s up to you to overcome the obstacles in your path and transmute fear into love. It’s up to you to absorb the useful spiritual concepts, while transcending the aspects of religious control. Ultimately, it’s up to you to find inner peace in the stillness of who you really are; to “defeat samsara, achieve nirvana and brilliance.”

One love.

– Stevie P!

PS – I also made a video about 5 life lessons learned from Tetsuo & Youth. Check it out…


 

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Stevie P

  • Willie Rouse

    That was as thorough a breakdown as I’ve seen on this work of art. Well done, sir.

  • Matt Brady

    This is great man, you really helped me to understand Dots & Lines. I wrote an analysis of Adoration of the Magi back in April for a poetry analysis course, check it out if you get the chance, maybe you’ll find something in it you hadn’t yet noticed. That song has so much potential for discussion so if I missed anything let me know. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bzqa581uNxu4sijSKRKmX8gzV0o3ixOTCJXuvkumyFs/edit?usp=sharing

    • Stevie P

      Thank you. I’ll check out you analysis too. The whole album is masterful.