There is a video on MIT’s website of Lupe Fiasco, the Chicago rapper famous for self-consciously multilayered songwriting and motifs that span multiple albums across many years, explaining the premise of Code Cypher, a one-day “programming competition for language and rhythm” that he cohosted as a visiting artist at the school in the fall 2021. “A cypher has multiple meanings,” says Lupe, now 40, bits of gray hair poking out from under a backward baseball cap. “Decoding something, encoding something, sending secret messages—hiding messages within other messages.” Computer science majors in surgical masks rap about pandemic loneliness; electrical engineers show off data sets that allegedly predict chord progression.
This school year, Lupe is returning to MIT as part of its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professors and Scholars Program, which will see him teach a course on rap that he says will trace the relationship between the form and scientific disciplines like astrophysics and evolutionary biology. Speaking to The Ringer by phone, however, he describes the more familiar kind of study that he practices in his career as an artist. “A lot of my style is pieces and parts of everybody else’s,” he says, recounting his teenaged years poring over the work of rappers like Jay-Z, MJG, Aesop Rock, and 2Pac. “Now I need to study Lil Uzi Vert. Now, I need to study Durk—and it never stops. For me, professionally, I’m always learning, building up my skill set. That doesn’t necessarily mean that when I do a project, that I’m going to make a project that covers all of those styles. I want to reduce all of that stuff, all that training data, into something that is novelly mine.”
Lupe’s eighth album, DRILL MUSIC IN ZION, was recorded in three days last year and released in June to little fanfare and somewhat tepid reviews—a shame, considering it’s his strongest LP since 2007’s The Cool. DRILL MUSIC is a taut analysis of the material lives of artists and the value of mall-kiosk diamonds, produced entirely by Lupe’s longtime collaborator Soundtrakk and shot through with jazz flourishes; the contemporary study Lupe details is evident in songs like “AUTOBOTO,” with its rolling flow and foregrounded phonetics, while the pocket on “NAOMI” is one that he could have burrowed into back in 2005. Many of the record’s most arresting moments, though, are on the page, and concern the tension between subject and audience. This plays out on “MS. MURAL,” which ends with a painter’s studio burning to the ground, and on album closer “ON FAUX NEM,” where Lupe raps:
From the window of a plane, I’ve seen the window of a cell
The plane started to fly, the rain started to fell
That’s LaGuardia and Rikers, a airport next to a jail
I took a picture, looked like my window was crying
’Cause it was sad that all they saw every day was somebody flying
And they was trapped… this shit is wack
But it was crack—hung it on my wall like a plaque
Yet for all his talk of crypticism, Lupe is remarkably blunt about one of the album’s ostensible topics: drill music, the brash, gothic style that emerged from Chicago in the early 2010s and has more recently been adopted by young rappers in London and New York. “It’s kind of an extension of trap music, just way more violent,” Lupe says of drill. “Sometimes aesthetics isn’t just the form and shape—it’s the content. I think what excites people is the violence, and that the violence is actually tethered to real-life violence. It’s not just for the sake of posturing.
“I don’t think there’s anything too novel about the shape of it,” he continues, “this BPM, this kick drum, this style of rapping at this pace, or this slang. All of that has been done before in other places. I think it’s more so the fact that [the content is] real that excites people. It doesn’t excite me. I think the shit is terrible, in that sense. But looking at it from an artistic standpoint, structurally, it’s no different than trap music.” Many drill artists—they are, almost invariably, young Black men—have been victims of gun violence, the survival and perpetration of which is a frequent topic of their songs. When asked whether this makes audiences complicit in said violence, Lupe is similarly unequivocal. “Absolutely,” he says. “Why wouldn’t it?”
His assessment of drill’s aesthetic qualities is unreasonably dismissive—it is, for example, rooted in Chicago’s dance music in a way that the trap codified in Atlanta could never be—but his moral unease leads him into fascinatingly knotty space. “How does that transpire?” he asks later on “FAUX NEM,” on the topic of his peers’ nominally true-to-life writing. “To be so damned by God, you want your friends to be goddamned liars?”
You said to the Financial Times: “We’re not basketball players, who have a limit to their bodies and taper off. Rappers only get more skilled as we get older, because we have more experiences to draw from .” But there is of course a perception that many rappers fall off as they get older; I’m sure you and I could cite people who we felt that way about as fans.
That quote—or, not necessarily the quote, but the concept—actually came from Cassidy. I was just aping what he said. We had a conversation on IG Live one time and he mentioned that our skill sets, our craft isn’t based on anything physical. It’s not like we need knees to rap, need ACLs to rap. The things that come under pressure and get damaged in the career of a basketball player—we don’t have those. Our muscle is our cognition. Neuroplasticity lasts throughout your entire life. Even if you get to be 90 years old, your brain is still creating new pathways—maybe not at the speed or at the intensity it did when you were a child. I mean, the majority of your neuronal growth happens when you’re a baby, in terms of speed. Do you hear any babies rapping?
I have a 5-month-old, I’m trying to put her on Spice 1 but it’s not working.
Right [laughs]. That idea that rappers fall off isn’t from the rapper, it’s from the audience. The audience falls off. Rappers just get better and better and better and better. Melle Mel is just as good—he’s probably better now, 40 years later, than he was when he first started. You said rappers fall off—no, rappers don’t fall off. They don’t get worse at rapping. What happens is the audience changes, they lose interest. The dopamine, that wash of neurotransmitters that you got that first time you heard it, it tapers over time. Does weed fall off? Nah, the weed is just as strong as it was when you smoked it the first time, in terms of its biochemical properties. But your brain has become used to it, and requires higher and higher and higher and higher dosages to achieve that same effect that you had when you hit it the first time.
I look at it as, what’s changing in the audience? My skill set is getting better and better, but I’m selling less and less records. So what else is happening? There’s new beats, there’s new forms of music. Rappers don’t necessarily make the beats, so we’re not necessarily in tune with controlling how the music goes, how the music is changing. We’re interfacing with new producers, new sounds, new technology. Literally new synthesizers that have a whole bank of new sounds, and that feel and sound better at different tempos that we weren’t used to rapping over in 1985. You get a rapper from 1985 who honed their skill set in 1985 terms and expect him or her to rap over trap beats with the same intensity—no, it’s still a learning curve.
I do think there are some rappers and producers who aren’t interested in being relevant or novel in every field or style of the time. Even at the A&R level—you have record execs who retire because they were more interested and had more of a grasp on the technicalities and mechanics of the music business in the ’80s than in the ’90s. A&Rs in the ’90s might have quit in the 2000s because it was just a different type of music, a different feel, with different expectations. That don’t mean that they’re terrible A&Rs—that don’t mean that they lost their edge. I think it’s all contextual. The best of us, the ones who are able to navigate—somebody like Drake, for example, he just copies and pastes to a certain degree, right? “This is a new style? OK, I’m taking that whole style and I’ma put Drake on it.” And he’s interested in that. He wants that type of relevance, and he maintains it. It’s “Everybody’s not interested in doing that” versus “Everybody’s not capable of it.”
That progression you describe means that, as an artist, you need to constantly be adapting to new styles or confident in the decision to ignore them.
There’s always opportunity cost, right? I don’t want to make trap music. I can do it, but I don’t want to do that. I want to make boom-bap, extra lyrical, triple-entendre rap. I want to make backpack rap. I don’t want to make drill music. I can do it, and I can do it very well, and I could probably sell a bunch of records doing it. But it’s not something that I want to do. Ethically, I don’t want to do that. Professionally? I’ll do it. But personally, ethically, spiritually, intellectually, it doesn’t really interest me. And it’s no shot at the concept or the construct of what those [genres] are. And it’s not even moral in terms of what they represent—I have a critique of drill music for its content because it actually gets people killed, not “I have something wrong with people talking about killing people.” If that was the case, then I’d have the same critique of The Matrix, or Rambo.
I think there are things that people just don’t want to do. Is that valid? Should you have that right to say that as a person who services the public? But if you can find publics who are willing to pay for and support what you want to do, versus what somebody else wants you to do or what the trends are suggesting you do, then it doesn’t matter. It’s a moot point. If what you want to do also gives you commercial success and interviews at The Ringer and teaching positions at MIT, then what are we talking about?
Well, I remember in the Fahrenheit 1/15 days, it was a big deal if you rapped on, like, the “Still Tippin’” beat. It seemed like you were hungry to prove you could execute styles that people might not associate you with.
There are different types of rappers, right? I’ve mentioned that there are things I don’t want to do—personally, ethically. But professionally, I make sure I’m able to do everything. Because as a professional, if the audience demands a break in the backpack, rappity-rap rap, a cognitive break to lighten the load so they can have fun—or if you need to teach a certain lesson [without feeling like you’re] trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. Sometimes you need to master the square hole if you look at yourself as a professional, and as providing a service to a community.
This is a 50/50 thing: I’m going to give you 50 percent of what I want, and then I’m gonna give you 50 percent of what you want. That’s how we maintain this longevity, because this is a partnership, it’s a trade, versus me just telling you what the fuck it should be, and beating you over the head with these bars. In order to have that type of 50/50 relationship, that equality, you need to have the ability to operate in as many arenas as possible. When you’re learning how to rap, since there was no formal training in rapping—there will be, from this point forward—but when I grew up, there was no formal training. There was no school for rap, there was no hip-hop classes, none of that. You had to kind of lean into what you liked, and either you made the decision to stay there or not. You can be more places if you know how to do more things. It’s a professional decision. Nobody knows except the guys I grew up rapping with how we were rapping, what was the goal of rapping, what was the point of learning all these different styles. And a lot of it was just to find my style.
But rap music is almost always received as either autobiography or an experiment totally divorced from it. When you were first signed to Atlantic, I would go online and see people post songs like “Pop Pop” or “Fire” as a sort of gotcha, like you were hiding something, and others would defend you, saying the songs were ironic, or they were parody. Did you feel, early on, that you were being shoved into one ideological box?
Even though I say it all the time … I’m from Chicago. And I’m not from Michigan Avenue, I’m not from Wicker fucking Park. I’m from the ghetto. I’m from Madison and Albany. I’m from right next to Holy City, right next to Fifth City. I come from one of the most violent neighborhoods in the world, and have seen and experienced everything that’s on every trap record ever. Death, violence, drugs, prostitution—the whole range of things, I’ve experienced. I grew up with guns my whole life. And as much as I try to make sure that’s in the biography, people—fans, interviewers—people have what they want a person to be. So if I mention that I didn’t grow up on A Tribe Called Quest, that’s blasphemous to rappers from the East Coast. They say, “Well, what did you grow up on?” and I’m like, “Spice 1.” Spice 1 was more relevant. I grew up on Snoop Dogg, and 8Ball & MJG, and Geto Boys, and N.W.A, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. They say, “How, though, how did that produce … “ but that’s what I grew up on.
Now, when I started rapping, I trained with Q-Tip and Jay-Z and Nas. But that’s separate. I grew up on gangsta rap. And not just grew up on it as entertainment at a distance, but gangsta rap was playing out in my life, in my neighborhood. There was gangbanging—we didn’t have Bloods and Crips but we had GDs, Vice Lords, Latin Kings, King Cobras, Black Souls, BDs, we had all the others. Maybe people don’t really appreciate that those gangs are just as strong, or stronger in their neighborhoods than Bloods and Crips—Bloods and Crips just have a better brand—but [Chicago-founded gangs are] just as violent, just as influential. And I think sometimes people miss that that’s a part of my DNA—that I come from the streets.
All my homies are gangbangers and drug dealers and killers. There’s other homies I have that are computer scientists, but the computer scientists are less a formational aspect of my life. It’s more so the gangbangers. So when I’m speaking to different audiences or going to different places, I want to have that rich, robust style—that means everybody’s story is in there. The whole range of individuals and ideologies are in there, even those criminal ideologies, because they’re part of who I am. They’re a part of my experience. And they’re teachable moments for me, to provide you with the antithesis to your computer science or your neurology or whatever your highfalutin point of view on life is. Here’s this other, more gutter, savage [perspective] in opposition. And hopefully it pushes you to some type of central balance, which is the goal.
So you get Food and Liquor, right, which is about the extremes, but you’ve got to have the liquor, not just the food. Trying to live food all the time and be super positive, or be super negative and live in the liquor—nobody’s life plays out like that. So why would you try to create pieces, or build a career, that focuses solely on one pole? It’s not true to me, it’s not true to reality. So I understand that fans may feel a little bit betrayed by certain aspects, or feel like the rug was pulled from under them, but I have to remind them, as I remind myself, that I’ve been very blunt and open about who I am and where I come from since I started.
In “MS. MURAL,” there’s a conversation between an artist and his patron. You’ve been very candid about your experiences with major labels, and you’re now operating independently. Who do you see as your patron today—the audience in the aggregate?
I mean, there’s a lot of micro forces and macro forces at play, so it’d be a disservice to even categorize them. It’s best to title the whole thing “patrons.” All of those forces. The force of your landlord: “You need to pay the rent next month, Lupe, how are you going to do that?” All the way up to the distributor, or all the way up to my publicity team going, “Hey, you’ve gotta do these interviews, dog.” And I don’t like doing interviews. But it’s like, all right, let me put myself in shape to be somewhat, I guess, nice about these things.
“MS. MURAL” plays on a lot of different fronts. It speaks to a lot of different people. Sometimes the audience becomes the painter in that piece, because they destroyed it all. They threw the baby out with the bathwater. You make one mistake, and they’re throwing out—not just the painting, the whole fucking studio. Your career is over. That happened to me. So in some cases, it’s both—again, back to that duality, you can’t isolate these things. We have to talk about them isolated, as a teaching tool, but at the end of the day, these things are the same. You could picture [the characters in] “MS. MURAL” as one person, talking to himself. Setting himself on fire, as some kind of postmodern, Vietnamese, flaming Buddha-type protest against all the shit that he or she has to go through.
So the nuances are there if you choose to dive into them, and hopefully people do. But it’s not about pointing the finger—it’s about holding it in your hand, if that analogy makes more sense. It’s about it being visceral, and about being honest with folks like, “Yo … this shit kinda sucks.” Just like your job sucks, just like this person’s job sucks. The job that they love! But Tuesdays and Wednesdays? It fucking sucks. Because that’s inventory day. I want to be showing people new styles, I don’t want to be in the back counting shoestrings. But you’ve gotta do that if you wanna do the other side of it.
So there is the suffering. I think some fans don’t understand that. What you see on the front end, the end product, that 40 minutes? Even though it took me three days to do, it took me 20 years to get to that point to be able to do that. And 90 percent of that 20 years was suffering. From physical suffering—literally, I’ve got a herniated disc in my back, I’ve got sciatica, and it hurts to perform—to financial suffering, to mental suffering, to intellectual suffering, to beating yourself up because you don’t think you’re good enough, to getting beat up because people think you’re too good, even though you’re thinking [to yourself], like, “I suck.” There’s a lot of suffering that goes into the art, and I wanted “MS. MURAL” to represent that suffering. At the very least, here’s an artist dealing with all of these different layers and complexities—and at the end of his diatribe, all that the patron says is what? “Wow.”
Apple commissioned you to make a song for its Juneteenth package, and you did an interview with Zane Lowe about it. It was interesting to hear you say, in a subsequent interview, that Apple cut out some of your comments about their Juneteenth campaign.
The only thing that was interesting in that interview was the editorial decision to take out the critique of Apple participating in the commodification of Juneteenth. The same thing’s happening with Pride month, where you see these corporations looking at the opportunity to commodify somebody’s really deep, personal experience. [Apple left in] the majority of everything else, but they were very keen on removing their name and their complicity from that. Even though … it’s cool! It’s a thing, but everything’s not gonna be the best decision. Everything’s gonna come with some layer of bullshit, right? [Editor’s note: Apple Music is a competitor of Spotify, The Ringer’s parent company.]
But the win-win is that now more people know about it. Sometimes it requires capital, and capitalism, and commodification, and market forces to step in and cement these kind of cultural, personal experiences so that they get a level of effect that they deserve, that they wouldn’t get otherwise. Sometimes people jump on the socialist bandwagon or the “fuck money” bandwagon, the “fuck capital” bandwagon, a little too soon, not realizing that they learned all of that in a public school, which would not exist without corporations and capitalism. A lot of those public schools are either substantiated or founded by folks who are from capital. The name of my public school was Crown Academy. The Crown family is industrialists. They make submarines and bombs. There’s a tradeoff. Albert Einstein was great, but guess what, he’s one of the reasons we have the nuclear bomb.
In certain cases, especially if you’re going to be literally guiding and stewarding Earth for at least the next 200 years, you have to be held accountable. We should be able to lay out all the cards on the table. You don’t have to be necessarily invisible, but you can’t be completely opaque either. There has to be some credibility through visibility and making people aware of the decisions that are made and your complicity in them.
What are you getting better at today, as a writer, as a vocalist?
I’m more comfortable on stage. It took me 20 years to get to the point of, “Oh, I can do this.” It’s not the same stress or anxiety anymore, so that’s one thing. In terms of writing, I can get to eight bars very quickly now, and not even realize it. Now, eight bars or 16 bars a verse feels short. It’s like: I can do more. At one point in my professional career, starting when I decided to become a rapper at 17, to get to eight bars could take weeks—I don’t want to mythologize it too much, but it could take a very long time to successfully get eight bars. And now, I could do a whole song in an hour. I could do 50 bars in half an hour—50 good, quality, no-filler bars. It’s part of that gradual layering, that accretion of skills and technique that I’m experiencing now. It feels good to be at 40, and have been doing this for 20 solid years, to now be at a point where eight bars just comes; it feels really good to have got to this level. I’m excited for what happens next—what does eight bars look like when I’m 50?
On a technical level: When Food & Liquor came out, one of the big criticisms was about your breath control. Now, on a song like “AUTOBOTO,” the breathing sounds seamless.
That’s a myth. Everybody breathes into the mic. Engineers take it out. They’ve been taking it out since the beginning of engineers. Everybody huffs and puffs. What happened with Food & Liquor is they didn’t take it out. There’s an engineer by the name of Joey [“The Don”] Donatello, from way back in the day, big guy, he passed away a few years ago. He’d call them whales—when you’d come up for air. He would go into Pro Tools and he would remove the whales: “Look, make sure you take care of the whales.” You could see them: verse, verse, verse, then a gasp. Verse, verse, verse, gasp. He made it very clear that one of his things was to take out the whales. The engineer for Food & Liquor didn’t take out the whales [laughs]. Listen, I’m still huffing and puffing to this day. I just take out the whales.
OK, one more question. Did you write “Allure”?
Did I write “Allure”? No, I did not write “Allure.” I wasn’t in Baseline [Studios, the Midtown Manhattan lair where Jay-Z often recorded] when that record occurred, but I was in Baseline for a big part of—not even a big part, I don’t know why I keep saying that. But I was in Baseline when he was doing The Black Album. And when I heard “Allure,” I was like,”‘Oh, that’s optimal Jay-Z. That’s the guy I’ve been studying since I was 15.” So then it becomes a flip-flop, right? Did “Allure” write Lupe Fiasco? That’s when it becomes interesting.
I literally studied Jay since I was a teenager, wanted to rap and walk and talk and do the things that Jay-Z did, in addition to everybody else, in addition to Nas and Ghostface like I said—Biggie, Mos Def, everybody else. I’ll give you a better story. It’s more recent. I was in the studio with Nas a few years ago, pre-covid. Nas was like, “Yo, that song, ‘King Nas’—Erykah Badu hit me and let me know that you know that you had a nephew named King and a nephew named Nas and that that’s what it’s about.” And he mentioned this one line in the record. He says he was telling his homies, “This Lupe, I don’t know how he did that …” And I looked him in the face and was like, “Bro that’s you. That’s me doing you. That ain’t me.”
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.