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Urban Central

From Lupe to Kendrick Lamar: No One Holds A Monopoly on Inspiration and Outputs.

That’s why I take biting as a compliment, it’s a proof of my dominance” — Talib Kweli. “Traveling Light”

Being an average fan of hip-hop’s longest standing hip-hop band the Roots (Migos is a band), of which Black Thought served as primary vocalist, I already knew of the transcendent combo of his godlike pen and his puncturing voice. So, Thought’s internet breaking 10minute freestyle on funkmaster flex was adjacent to seeing a Lionel Messi masterclass — awe-inspiring but not unexpected. A show of Black Thought’s greatness to new audiences and a reminder non-first time listeners didn’t need but were happily treated to.

Across a deep catalogue containing 11 full length the Roots albums (a few seminal projects in there) over a span of about two-and-a-half decades, multiple highlight reel guest verses and a live mixtape, Black Thought’s skill level is yet to show any flailing signs. Whether he’s in your top 5 or not, not many rappers can do what Black Thought can do with words.

Inspired by Black Thought’s freestyle, veteran rapper and show host Joe Budden along with co-hosts Rory and Mal put together a loose list of rappers with an uncanny acumen for bending words to their will on episode 141 of The Joe Budden podcast. Termed the “alien” list, acclaimed rappers like Eminem and Pharaoh Monche easily wrote themselves in, alongside Lupe Fiasco whose name popped up casually but in uncontested fashion.

Words are a malleable tool for Lupe Fiasco, a deeply intellectual rapper with the ability to turn pieces of words into a rubik’s cube. Till this day, “SLR” fucks me up sideways, one of the many glaring examples of the lyrical alchemy that can be found on all of Lupe’s mixtapes and on some of his albums. Lupe’s 6-album discography is riddled with a couple of missteps (Drogas Light, Lasers and MDMA), but his reputation as a top tier wordsmith is not open for debate.

There’s no consensus on which Lupe album should be considered his opus, with his first two albums Food & Liquor and The Cool being cult classics of sorts. While it doesn’t have the same amount of commercial impact as those aforementioned albums, Lupe’s 2015 album Tetsuo & Youth rightly deserves a shout. Situations didn’t align for Lupe to capture the typical audience size that came with his earlier classics — coming off two consecutive full-length projects that didn’t exactly fare well critically, a crappy rollout plan due to the drawn out battle with his then label Atlantic Records and an ability to put his foot in his mouth from controversial comments and unnecessary twitfights. But thankfully, the quality of the music on T&Y wasn’t tainted by these extrinsic factors.

Showcasing an in-form and more emotionally aware Lupe, Tetsuo & Youth is a conceptually tight project buoyed by some of his densest rhymes yet and constantly stellar musical backdrops to accentuate the album’s challenging nature. The album boasts verbal twists and acrobatics that Gabby Douglas would be jealous of, and a mazy puzzle serviced by the type of heavily veiled symbolism that would give Robert Langdon an orgasm. These descriptions are obviously showers of praise, but they are also linked with the problems of Tetsuo & Youth.

In as much as there is a rewarding feeling from unpacking metaphors linked to a central plot, not every rap fan has the detective nous of Robert Langdon. Being a tightly wound project, Tetsuo & Youth leans heavily into abstraction, giving less thought to many enthusiastic listeners who will have a hard time to fully connect with it. It’s a labyrinth that is intriguing, immersive and highly repeatable (because the music is fucking dope), but equally exhaustive.

A useful tactic that many might adopt is simply listening to the album for appreciative purposes, but it’s not quite simple. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve left “Mural” on repeat because of Lupe’s unearthly rapping and the immaculate sampling of “Chanson d’Un Jour d’Hive,” but as the beginning (or end) of the plot with multiple pointers, thoughts of how it ties into the concept filter into my mind. Merely admiring Nikki Jean’s flawless singing on “Little Death” will lead you into annotating when you realise the hook is amorphous, just like how “piece of mind” and “pizza man” are used interchangeably on the hook of “Deliver.”

Everything seems like a clue, and having to pay continual 100% attention to an album that spins itself dizzyling for 78minutes can become arduous.

Turning the album tracklist in a couple of pre-release interviews in a sly attempt to intimate listeners to play the album in backward order was the only major clue offered by Lupe, the only thing needed to send conspiracy theorists digging. In terms of sequencing, the album is better played in its original order, playing it backward goes along okay, but of more consequence is that it sorta makes more sense thematically. Even after hundreds of front-to-end listens and reading multiple theories on the interweb, I still say sorta because my knowledge about T&Y still seems ambiguous.

Tetsuo is Lupe’s least commanding album in terms of figures, but it’s the most discussed due to its sheer density. If you search for music albums that unfold in reverse chronology, theories linking to Tetsuo are the first and commonest result that will greet you. And while this is a testimony to the great work and quality of the album on a path rarely travelled, it doesn’t necessarily make it THE pioneer record.

There is a dearth of albums in which the concept unfurls in backward motion, the first album of that kind I listened to was the Roots 2011 album Undun. Pulling inspiration from Sufjan Steven’s 2003 song “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou),” Undun is the tale of a fictional character — Redford Stevens — that begins at the end of his life, mapping out his life’s path.

As a collection of stories told from the POV of a black man whose cut corners and had several brushes with death in a bid to make a living, Undun could be described as the anecdotal memory flashes that occurs during a man’s final moments. Starting with the sound of an EKG flatline as its opener and a far from resolute melancholic ending, Undun is a cyclical record of sorts, but obviously isn’t meant to be played in reverse order.

Although guests weave in and out of Undun as in typical the Roots’ album, Black Thought comes up with some of the most potent image-conjuring lyricism of his career to become the main thoroughfare of the album. Black Thought’s somewhat stifled vocal range and limited cadence options being a stumbling block to emotional nuance is the album’s major criticism, which doesn’t overly hinder connecting with Redford’s memory bank. The band’s trademark sonic choice of soulful, jazzy groove gets infused with elements of indie rock and classical music to make the music sufficiently scenic.

I’ve searched and asked around for full length projects that predate Undun with a similar concept, zilch has been the return. In as much as Undun might be the record that pioneers this unorthodox approach to crafting albums, bandleader and virtuoso drummer ?uestlove admits that the album cops significant inspiration from Prince Paul’s 1999 classic conceptual album A Prince Amongst Thieves.

There’s a line between brazen biting and creating from influence while maintaining some originality, the latter is the case with the Roots’ Undun and also Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth. Lupe has never admitted to being directly influenced by Undun during the creative stages of Tetsuo — he doesn’t need to because that might not have been his muse, but he did get the spark from somewhere.

Off Nas’ widely acclaimed artistic comeback Stillmatic, “Rewind” is a gangster tale told backwards, like spooling back a movie in real time. It’s poetry in reverse motion, bookended by a superb screenplay penned by one of hip-hop’s most prominent master storytellers. Being a big fan of Nas (Lupe claims to have mirrored his debut like It Was Written,) there’s every possibility Lupe has listened to “Rewind” severally, with the seeds of creating a whole project in the same mould gaining foothold in his mind. A song to a whole album might be seen as a stretch, but it is plausible.

Insinuating that Tetsuo might have been the major creative muse for Kendrick’s latest studio effort DAMN., along with other gripes at a couple of “something borrowed”s and a couple of his occasional swipes at Kendrick is what has gotten Lupe in the news recently. Those incendiary remarks may or may not have truths in them, but they do contain vivid traces of bitterness, and a statement like “You will always reflect me” sticks out as ironical if Lupe aimed it as a dis, because (1) reflecting isn’t quite biting and (2) even if you agree that it is, biting Lupe Fiasco and doing it well is harder than dancing shaku shaku.

I tweeted that DAMN. might have been a brainchild of Undun contrary to Lupe’s allegations, allow me to put on my conspiracy hat for a second to explain my standpoint. (1) He’s a the Roots fan whose definitely studied Black Thought (all your favourite rappers have, don’t front) and inherently listened Undun, (2) Kendrick’s career manifesto track “The Heart, pt. 2” samples the Roots’ “A Piece of Light” from their 2010 album How I Got Over and (3) the samples on the intro of To Pimp A Butterfly and the Roots’ The Tipping Point are different (Boris Gardener’s “Every Nigger is a Star” and Sly Stone & The Family’s “Everybody is a Star” repectively) but they carry the same ethos.

It’s like taking threads and trying to make a solid twine out of it, right?

On closer examination though, DAMN. is an intersect (of sorts) of both albums of interest, combining the best parts and ducking the weak points that bogged down both albums. With the recent release of a collector’s edition that features a reverse tracklist and couple of articles brilliantly highlighting what the differences in path connote, it’s a confirmation that DAMN. works in both orders.

Sonically less dense that its predecessors TPAB and Untitled Unmastered, production on DAMN. is pulled from a palette more diverse than a 5-course meal and very much grounded in rap’s zeitgeist. Every track ticks with a different energy, but services the overall disposition of the album — a well-designed structure housing 14 differently coloured/arranged rooms. This overt lack of cohesion works for the album’s duality in paths, both sonically and thematically.

In theory, DAMN. is an album that lays its foundation on the dual nature embedded in the helix of man’s DNA makeup. Using himself, his story and his heightened cultural and spiritual awareness as the album’s compass, he’s simply on a quest for truth with little emphasis on juxtaposing both sides.

And if the whole dissecting and getting too deep thing doesn’t work for you, simply pressing play and letting the music bump works just fine too, considering it’s his most accessible album yet. The kinetic energy of “DNA” on which Kendrick’s flow cannons off Mike Will Made-It’s steely, bouncy beat like it’s a game of squash and a late wrestlemania-esque switch is the type of unbridled madness that snatches your ear unquestionably. Rihanna and Kendrick as tag-team on the slick “LOYALTY.” is addictive, “FEAR.” is as poignant and emotive as any song Kendrick has created, and the plot construction on “DUCKWRTH.” is unmatched.

Balancing the art of crafting an album that caters to a large audience especially in this playlist era while also filling it with purpose is not an easy task. Kendrick did it with DAMN., an album with strong pop tendencies that has generated several reddit threads, that’s genius.

Lupe wanting to claim credit for inspiring DAMN. is as ambiguous as my understanding of his album, considering that Kendrick’s frighteningly deep arsenal which influenced crafting the highly acclaimed project definitely came about due to his reiterated enthusiasm as a student of the rap game. I do believe Lupe is in the frame somewhere, but his influence is not the only thing on DAMN. There’s the use of Juvenile’s flow on “Ha” as a prime word carrier on “ELEMENT.” and “LUST.” stylistically co-opts sonic ideas from Andre 3000’s “Vibrate.” It’s a mix-mash of influences that still uniquely carries the indelible mark of its creator.

Claiming ownership of an idea to cause a ruckus is a very Lupe thing to do these days, which even feels all the more malicious, considering that Lupe didn’t call out Vince Staples for making his 2016 EP Primma Donna — a short project that uses reverse chronology to tell the story of the death of a rapper due to the trappings of fame. No member of the Roots has accused Vince of jacking their style, with Primma Donna containing some parallels with Undun. Instead, they competently backed him during his performance of “Smile” off the EP during a stop at The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon Show while promoting the project.

If art doesn’t inspire art, art has failed”

The evolution of music is based on old art inspiring new art to push past boundaries unto uncharted territory, hence, the “innovative” inescapably mirrors or iterates something of the past knowingly or otherwise. Whether Tetsuo directly inspired DAMN. or not, the most consequential thing right now is that both masterpieces exists in the world and are bound to influence several artists and albums in the near future.

By Dennis for UrbanCentral @ayo_dennis on Twitter

Holla at us via Twitter @TheUrbanCentral

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