Lupe Fiasco can be a bit on the unpredictable side. Just ask concert organizers in DC who pulled the plug on his Barack Obama pre-inaugural 30-minutes straight protest performance of "Words I Never Said" two years ago. Or bring it back to OC at the Anaheim House of Blues in 2008 when he waited until the encore to perform cuts off his then-newly released The Cool.
A few songs into last night's performance at the Observatory in Santa Ana, though, it became readily apparent that the set list would be the tracklist from his latest album Tetsuo & Youth, and that didn't bode well for the rest of the show.
There was something very Shakespearean about the stage setup with a red skull resting front and center atop a table. At one point, Fiasco even got all existential and Hamlet-like hoisting it in hand as if to contemplate his mortality. The ambiance is fitting with the rapper being one of hip-hop's premiere literary and lyrical geniuses of all time.
Fiasco came onstage and sat quietly upon a royal throne with his painted Tetsuo & Youth album cover artwork hanging as the backdrop. He emerged after the interlude "Summer" ended to kick off the show with the nearly nine-minute long rappity rap overindulgence that is "Mural." In professorial terms, it's less Cornel West and more Michael Eric Dyson, a verbose exercise in masturbatory drivel.
The rhymer really believes in his work and it showed. Fiasco stated on Sway's radio program awhile back that Tetsuo & Youth is his best work. He communed with the melodies, playfully admonished his fans to "put your phones down" when recording and energetically sprinted across both ends of the stage. The crowd chanted "Lu-pe! Lu-pe! Lu-pe!" along the way.
It's not that his latest album is terrible. It definitely has its moments with Fiasco powering through songs like the smooth "Little Death" assisted on stage by soulful crooner Nikki Jean. He placed a theatrical pizza order over the phone before jumping into his tales from the hood flavored "Deliver." But Tetsuo & Youth isn't something to be performed in its entirety, not on its merits and not with the rapper's catalog of classics from studio albums to masterful mixtapes.
With every instrumental interlude, Fiasco returned to his throne. "Spring" brought the hour-long album performance to an end. Jean reappeared to play keys and sing her memorable chorus from the rapper's "Hip Hop Saved My Life." The mellowed out version teased but never picked up the pace of the original. Either way, it would have served as a dope intro to a six-song encore of hits.
But that didn't happen. Fiasco brought out two rappers from backstage instead to spit some bars without a backing beat. There were memorable lines like "I get these Penny's the harder way," a riff off the former Orlando Magic guard's name (or b-ball kicks, the best pair I ever owned!) and the moment made you feel like you were at a rap battle in a record store.
When the two rappers challenged Fiasco to step up next with a freestyle, he opted, as planned, to break into "Kick Push" pumping up the energy to another level…that is until he cut the song off halfway letting the crowd get a chorus chant in before saying his goodbye.
It was that kind of night.
Critic's bias: I used to brag to my nephews when Lupe Fiasco retweeted my stories about his music before he quit Twitter.
Overheard: "Did he play any of his old stuff yet?"
The Crowd: LupeStans armed with cardboard cutouts of his likeness
Blur My Hands
Dots & Lines
Prisoner 1 & 2
Body Of Work
Little Death (With Nikki Jean)
No Scratches (With Nikki Jean)
Madonna (And Other Mothers In The Hood) (With Nikki Jean)
Adoration Of The Magi
They.Resurrect.Over.New (With Troi)
Hip Hop Saved My Life (With Nikkie Jean)