Don’t Ruin Us, God Said

Don’t Ruin Us, God Said

October 5, 2018

On Jan. 20, 2015, Lupe Fiasco released “Tetsuo & Youth”. On Sept. 21, 2018, he released “DROGAS WAVE.” While these two albums are separated by three and a half years and even another Lupe album, they are very tightly linked. “Don’t Ruin Us, God Said”, the backronym for drugs (which Drogas is Spanish for), represents a moral decision Lupe consistently frames us with and is one of the prevailing themes tying the two albums together. On Tetsuo & Youth, he shows scenarios that are capable of breaking humanity, while on DROGAS WAVE his characters overcome them. If Tetsuo & Youth is the predicament, DROGAS WAVE is the solution.

While the Chicago rapper is revered from some of his earlier work, namely two rap classics, “Food & Liquor” and “The Cool,” he has been relegated to the backdrop of the rap scene after disappointments on following records. With Tetsuo & Youth, Fiasco returned to form (or perhaps even surpassed it) and has consistently delivered higher quality projects since, albeit to a smaller audience.

On Tetsuo & Youth (emphasis on “youth”), Lupe begins with “Mural” where in two four-minute verses he paints a picture of childhood, complete with allusions to roadrunner cartoons, monsters on cereal boxes and smuggling porno mags. From there he goes into “Dots & Lines” where he tells us to “Go straight. Don’t sine” and not give ourselves away on a contract (his own toxic contract with Atlantic records being the reference point). After this point, T&Y becomes decidedly darker, perhaps reflecting his own mistake in signing his record contract, a subject dealt with even more explicitly on DROGAS WAVE’s “Imagine.” Tetsuo & Youth ends with a song called They.Resurrect.Over.New. which is where we first hear “Don’t Ruin Us, God Said” in tandem with a comparison between resurrection and advancing to another level in a video game.

The theme of resurrection is prevalent on WAVE which features “Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever,” songs about the widely publicized child deaths of Alan Kurdi and Jonylah Watkins. Both songs reimagine their subjects if they were allowed to live out their lives, during the course of which they eventually save their own child selves. Both songs are simultaneously powerful, sad and inspiring.

But importantly, these songs and this theme of resurrection emphasize spherical narrative. The two songs are microcosms of the two albums when looked at jointly. After the references to the birth of Christ and the resurrection at the end of Tetsuo and Youth, Lupe begins DROGAS WAVE by turning back the clock a couple hundred years and reimagining black life if it wasn’t ruined during its youth by the slave trade.

The album begins by quoting a poem by abolitionist JMW Turner which accompanies his painting “The Slave Ship”, which depicts dead slaves being thrown overboard (and is displayed here in Boston at the MFA, two rooms away from a room full of Monet paintings). The first half of DROGAS WAVE details the story of the “LongChains” slaves that escape captivity and gain the ability to live underwater as nature’s reparations for allowing stars to guide slave ships west and providing the wood that built them. After achieving freedom, some of the LongChains return to Africa while others decide to stay in the sea and sink other slave ships. Those that stay, save themselves just like Alan and Jonylah.

This moral choice that Lupe makes his characters face, choosing whether or not to save themselves, is part of this hope that he has that we won’t ruin ourselves. On Tetsuo & Youth’s “Body Of Work,” he portrays hip-hop as a person being exploited, who has been forced into ingesting drug balloons so they could be smuggled. In DROGAS WAVE, he touches on these themes once more in songs like “Stronger” and “Sun God Sam and the California Drug Deals.” This time though, this is done from the perspective of the victim of greed, rather than the possessor. Later in the album, on songs like “Kingdom” and “Quotations from Chairman Fred,” we are presented with strategies to overcome ruin. On the former, an expression of strength coming from humanity, not its surroundings. The latter includes three breaks for which include more talk of “going to the next level,” quotes from Mao and the teachings of Dr. King. Messages about consumerism, the importance of revolutionary art and how to stave off ruin.

The cover of Tetsuo & Youth is a painting by Lupe himself called Man Eating Tiger. The Tetsuo in the album’s title is a reference to the character from the famous anime Akira who destroys himself through his own greed for power. It is likely that greed, that which leads to ruin, is the man-eating tiger. The cover of WAVE, meanwhile, is of a manilla bracelet, an item that slaves were traded in exchange for. This is yet another symbol of greed which on this cover casts a shadow, expressing the shadow that slavery casts. Yet the manilla and its shadow are surrounded by a light background, as if the greed and its shadow are suffocated, drowned by the light. It’s as if the man-eating tiger has been from T&Y’s cover has been isolated by the light that is these philosophies and stories of hope. Maybe it can’t be erased entirely, even if we imagine supernatural escaped slaves, but greed and ruin can be overcome.

On DROGAS WAVE, Lupe Fiasco answers the questions that Tetsuo & Youth presents. Using his own struggle with Atlantic Records and African-Americans’ fight for existence as examples, he paints a picture of resilience. Three years ago, he represented the destructive forces of the universe on Tetsuo & Youth. Now, in 2018, he is giving us not necessarily an instruction manual but a suggestion box that’s overflowing with folded notes of paper.

Menu Title