Lupe Fiasco Gives a Deeper Meaning to His Music, Mindset and Martial Arts
Hear Me Clearly
In the 15 years since he appeared on the inaugural XXL Freshman cover, Lupe Fiasco has changed a lot. Yet, he remains one of the illest lyricists in the game.
Interview: C. Vernon Coleman II
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Summer 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
At this point in his Grammy award-winning career, Lupe Fiasco is a reluctant rap star. That's because, at 40, he defines himself as much more than just an MC. Rap renaissance man might be a more apt title. The Chicago native's character arch has been an intriguing one, which includes receiving cosigns from Kanye West and Jay-Z in the mid-2000s and releasing acclaimed debut and sophomore albums, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor (2006), and Lupe Fiasco's The Cool (2007), respectively. The former features his Grammy award-winning track "Daydreamin'" with Jill Scott. However, his own career didn't always play out so blissfully.
No good story comes without conflict and Lupe faced a fair share over the years. Beef with his former label, Atlantic Records, and disparaging comments he made about former President Barack Obama turned Lupe into an industry pariah following the release of his Billboard 200 chart-topping Lasers album in 2011. He remained unwavering, releasing four more albums and five additional projects. He's earned a total of 12 Grammy nods while finding himself and settling into his role as a hiphop elder statesman.
Time and the industry have changed Lupe Fiasco, who will be teaching a course on rap, activism and computing at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall. These days, the rapper is just as likely to be practicing martial arts on Instagram as he is engaging in record industry rigmarole. He likes it better that way. But the bars are definitely still present, as evident on his eighth studio album, Drill Music in Zion, a poignant jazz and boom-bap-fused LP that was created during a 72-hour tour de force in August of 2021. The 1st and 15th indie label co-owner and artist spoke with XXL in May via Zoom about his new LP, mastering martial arts, myths in hip-hop and freedom of speech.
XXL: What's the average day like in the life of Lupe Fiasco these days?
Lupe Fiasco: Days is days. Working on different little projects. It’s a lot of just basic work. The work side of being a rapper. Emails, phone calls, creative discussions. Stuff like that. So, real domestic and real boring as they would say.
Do you enjoy any part of that?
The music business has always been like a thorn in my side because it's so messy. A lot of different kinda agendas and scandals and scams and stuff like that. Not all of it, but like a majority of it. It's not something that I kinda spend my time with or entertain. So, I just try to get it out the way. You can’t just rap. That's the myth. You can't just rap and not be in the business. Especially when you're rapping for the business.
It's been four years since your last album. Why drop a new one now?
’Cause my label wanted me to. [1st and 15th co-owner Charles "Chilly" Patton] hit me and was like, "Yo, do an album for me." And I was like, "Aight." I was working on some other things and that's really how it happened. I don't really have a drive to keep doing records like that. But at the same time, too, you gotta kinda keep the lights on as they say. So, every once in a while, I have to do something for the sake of the biz. The other side to it is, I'm always creating. So, I'm always working on something. Always building something. It's just a matter of when is the best time to let people lean into my world.
What's the premise for the album title Drill Music in Zion?
The Drill Music in Zion actually comes from a freestyle that I did prior to that. I was like, I'ma call my next album Drill Music in Zion. And it was like, Oh shit, I got an album title. And then just riffing off the title, you know, my sister did a poem for me, where she just kinda riffed on all the different avenues and arenas based off the title. It's not so much necessarily about Chicago. It's not so much necessarily about drill music. There's one song that kinda speaks to it, but that's the same critique of that shit that I've had since the beginning. And then kinda coming to terms with it. But the album is not about drill music. It's just the title and it's how does that title guide certain things? And what other elements and aspects of it are to be brought out. But I don't want people to look like, super deep and start seeing shit that's not there. Or knock yourself out. See whatever you want to see. Do that shit, too.
But I wouldn't. It's not really about the city. Drill music's everywhere now. We didn't call it drill music. That's the name that the new generation gave to gangsta rap. ’Cause it's the same shit that we been dealing with forever. Niggas talking about killing other niggas on record. Same shit, and niggas actually going to do it. People say, "Drill music is different ’cause these niggas is actually doing it." No, they was doing this shit before. Niggas was dying and shit before.
A favorite line on the title track is "I'll leave a whole sleeve down in Condoleezza's comments," referring to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Are you still into politics? It seemed like you were more vocal about politics prior.
The last show that I just did, this show was at an Air Force base. And I was always hesitant from the blowback that I had, politically. Talking about the president and politics and shit like that. So, when doing the meet-and-greet, the commanders, they come last. He pulled me to the side, he was like, "Look, man." He said, "I just wanna let you know something. I did a background check on you." They have to, to even let you on the base. Check your whole shit. He was like, "Yeah, so I looked you up, man, and I seen your politics and the shit that you was saying," and this, that and the third. He was like, "I just wanna let you know, that you are who we are fighting for. You are the example of why we do what we do. To go out there and protect your right to say whatever the fuck you wanna say. To speak truth to power."
When you see shit like that happen to you, man, it reframes and recontextualizes the stuff we do, why we do it, who we do it for. And then, what's the goal? What's the success? Is that success? That sound like success to me.
"On Faux Nem," you say, "How does that transpire?/To be so damned by God you want your friends to be goddamn liars?" That's a mind-blown moment, especially within the context of the song. Can you talk about that a little bit?
I wish these niggas was liars. I wish that drill shit was entertainment. And I'm not picking on Chicago. It's all over the world. Niggas is drilling and killing all over the fucking world. I wish this nigga wasn't telling the truth, but they telling the truth. And niggas just hear it as entertainment. So, when I heard it, I didn't hear no fucking entertainment to that shit.
When I hear Pop Smoke, I didn't hear no entertainment to that shit. That shit was fun, it was catchy, but, dang, nigga. We have a problem in New York. We have a problem in London. We have a problem in L.A. We got a problem in Chicago. We got a problem in Atlanta. We got a problem in Texas. We not supposed to be dancing to the shit, man, you feel me? This is different. And the only reason I care so much is these niggas is 13, 14.
Eight albums in at this point. What do you feel your role is in hip-hop?
I don't really feel I have one, to be honest. My era was so long ago. And it was really just to kinda bring lyricism back in a certain way with a certain generation. I think that was my goal. So, I think anything beyond that is just extra. It's just like, bonus points.
In movie terms, you have an interesting character arch. You've been the guy everyone has rooted for. You've been down when you had issues with the label and bounced back up. A Kid Cudi fan might say you've played the role of a villain. What film character would you compare your career to?
It's a little hard to boil it down to. Like, something as simple as a career arch. ’Cause it's so much life and so much happening, so much chaos and so much other things embedded within that process. What movie tells that story, successfully? Avengers? I don't know. Batman in this muthafucka? I don't know.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the first XXL Freshman class, which you were part of. What do you remember most about being a part of that?
Probably meeting Boosie [BadAzz]. He was like, "My kids listen to 'Kick Push,' man. You the skateboard rapper, right?" I was a big, big fan of the South and Boosie.
As an elder statesman in hip-hop now, what are your views on the current crop of rappers overall?
I don't know. I don't really listen to rap. I don't really care about their music and what they're doing because music comes and goes. It changes. It's there, it's not there. It's responsive. It's reactionary. It's all of those things. At the end of the day, when I look at my fellow peers in this craft, I'm just concerned about their well-being. Not how they did on a record.
You have won a Grammy. You have platinum and gold records. What is success to you in 2022?
A lot of that stuff is smoke and mirrors. So, a lot of the things that we consider to be the trophies of our craft, they weren't built for rappers. Platinum plaques weren't built for rappers. Grammys weren't built for rap. But success for me is just, you know, I got breath in my body. That's all I really care about.
You've been heavily into martial arts over the past few years. What exact discipline are you into?
I've been doing martial arts since I was 3 years old. I just let people see it in the last few years. We've been doing karate and judo and aikido and hapkido and ninjutsu and kung fu and wushu and tai chi. It all comes from my dad. He was a martial arts master. His whole life was dedicated to martial arts, in the projects, in Chicago. Went to his first karate school right by the projects.
Recently, it was just, you know, I felt it was kinda important to let people see, oh, I'm in this, too. People thought that shit. They think it's the weirdest shit in the world. So, it's kinda like, Damn, I shouldn't have showed you niggas nothing. I should have kept that shit to myself. But to the people that it inspires, to the people that it reinforces those traditions to, I think it was worth it, you know?
It's a mixed bag of responses to your martial arts videos. Some people see you doing your thing and it's like, "Wow, what the hell?" Then, other people see it and are like, "Whoa, he's really into it. He knows what the hell he's doing."
We been dealing with that for years, man. All the karate schools were in the hood. So, we would be these karate kids running around in karate uniforms. Niggas who walk around, they gang-banging and shit, they look at us like, "Look at these weirdos," you know? "Look at these weird kids." And they'd try to reach and get they ass beat. Then they'd just be like, "Ah yeah, let's leave them alone." But it was really like we running down the street in ninja suits in the ghetto. It's weird. I'm looking at it like, this shit's weird. This is very, very weird.
But, I mean, there's nothing like it. It's the most beautiful shit ever. So, born into it, probably die doing it. My father's instructor is still alive. I think he's like 88 or 80, something like that. I went to go visit during COVID, recently in Chicago. Old Korean dude. Beast. And he was like, "Man, I'ma die on this mat." And when I think about the last moments of the trajectory of my life, it's not rap, you know? I'll probably die on that mat.
What are your top five martial arts films?
Tai Chi Master. Definitely Blood Sport. Definitely [The] Last Dragon, for sure. Super Ninjas was the joint. And then as Jackie Chan movie, Drunken Master. They might not have been the best or even my favorite, but those are the ones that I watch over and over and over and over again. You're big into video games as well. What are your top five martial arts-based video game characters? Ken and Ryu on Street Fighter, for sure, I and II. Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury. Raiden from Mortal Kombat. Kung Lao from Mortal Kombat was a demon, too. Jago from Killer Instinct was my jam. It was a couple from Virtua Fighter that I really dug. The drunken boxer on Virtua Fighter was cool.
You're big into video games as well. What are your top five martial arts-based video games?
Ken and Ryu on Street Fighter, for sure. I and II. Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury. Raiden from Mortal Kombat. Kung Lao from Mortal Kombat was a demon, too. Jago from Killer Instinct was my jam. It was a couple from Virtua Fighter that I really dug. The drunken boxer on Virtua Fighter was cool.
Watch Lupe Fiasco's Exclusive Interview With XXL
Read Lupe Fiasco's interview in the 2022 XXL Freshman issue, on newsstands everywhere now. The issue includes additional interviews with the Freshmen featuring BabyTron, Cochise, Saucy Santana, Babyface Ray, KenTheMan, SoFaygo, Big Scarr, Big30, KayCyy, Doechii, Kali and Nardo Wick, 2022 XXL Freshman producer Wheezy Outta Here; Kevin Gates, Pi'erre Bourne, NLE Choppa, Yvngxchris, producer DJ Dahi, engineer Teezio and singer Chlöe, plus a breakdown of every Freshman Class from a numbers standpoint, a look back at what the 2021 XXL Freshman Class is doing, the story of why the 2016 XXL Freshman Class gets so much respect now, a deep dive into the world of NFTs through hip-hop's lens and exploring rappers' most valuable collections. You can also buy the 2022 XXL Freshman Class issue here.