Musicians around the world have been improvising to create art during the coronavirus, but Lupe Fiasco took it a step further: He’s released an entire new project, HOUSE, that likely would not exist if not for social distancing. When 23-year-old Orlando, Florida, electronic/beat-scene producer Kaelin Ellis — whose work recalls dance producers like Kaytranada, Sango, Waldo, Deffie, and even K-pop — uploaded a jazzy, reclining beat to his Twitter on May 4, a user responded, “Get this to @LupeFiasco somehow.” The famed Chicago rapper saw the tweet in his mentions and decided to rip the beat from Ellis’s Twitter and spit a quick freestyle over it. What started as a simple lyrical exercise turned into a full EP: Ellis sent Lupe more beats that he liked, and Lupe created four more tracks, adding spoken-word clips from his longtime friend, renowned designer Virgil Abloh. HOUSE was completed in a week.
In a little over 20 minutes, Lupe covers the highs and terrifying lows of the modeling industry, uses a conceptual song about sneakers to somehow critique capitalism while honoring the life of unarmed gunshot victim Ahmaud Arbery, and imagines the prehistoric age while comparing himself and other veteran rappers to the dinosaurs that once roamed the earth. The cover art is a painting created by Peter Gellatly, the father of Lupe’s friend, Sky; Peter died from COVID-19, and the liner notes see Sky eulogizing his dad. HOUSE is the first of a string of releases Lupe has in the works: He’s creating a project that honors Amy Winehouse; a separate project by his longtime producer, Soundtrakk; and Skulls, which he has said will be his final album. And if things go his way, he’ll be working on an EP with Nas (he texted the idea to the Queensbridge MC but hasn’t received a reply).
Beyond music, these days Lupe is often seen on Instagram talking to fans and fellow rappers about everything from his appreciation for cars to politics while encouraging all his followers to do their role in protecting each other from the coronavirus. In a recent call with Vulture from Los Angeles, he was candid on everything from his creative process to his issues with fellow rap rebel Joe Budden after an impromptu appearance on the retired MC’s podcast on July 25 that ranged from friendly to contentious. “The issue that I had with Joe is that you think I’m just doing this because I ain’t got nothing else to talk about,” he says. “But the whole music industry has been primed to just listen to people talking about the same shit to different beats … There’s so much to talk about if you allow yourself to not get caught up in the status quo.”
What attracted you to that initial beat in the first place, and what made you decide to do a full on EP with it?
My creative process is very simple: Either I can rap to it or I can’t. If this beat is inspiring very basic words, then I move on. If some beats are just really good, then I’m willing to come outside of my comfort zone. For Kaelin, that was a process. The first beat was just something like, Yeah, I can rap to that. As I heard it, it was like, Mm-hmm, yep, yep. Mm-hmm, got ideas. Yep, let’s do it. My incentives for doing it were to kind of like surprise this dude — freestyle over a beat he just threw out in like an hour, like, Oh shit. When he sent more beats that would eventually become the EP [I was like], Oh, I can rap to this. Oh, I can rap to that too. There were others that I couldn’t rap to, but for the majority of his work, I found beats that I could rap to. Okay, EP done. On to the next.
Your fans are used to your projects appearing as if they’re sketched out for a long time. Drogas Wave, The Cool, Food & Liquor, and Tetsuo & Youth all feel like they were years in the making. But HOUSE feels spontaneous, though the lyrics are still thoughtful. How often do you actually take the approach of working on the fly for a whole project?
It depends on the project. At any given time, I’m working on one, two, three, four, five things, and there are different levels of conceptual complexity. So this one [Skulls] is going to take years and then it’s just within the spaces that they’re occurring. If I’m on tour, there’s no rush to get it done. It’ll get done when it gets done. Within those years that it’s going to take, I might have a day to work on this and then a month later I might have another two days to work. Then [it’s a matter of]: Am I going to be inspired on those days to actually put some bars down to it or not? Or sit, listen to beats, and wait for inspiration to come. I think the beats for Skulls are from 2012. There’s other records where the songs are done, the songs are recorded, but there’s still issues of thematic continuity that need to be solved, and I may or may not have the inspiration to finish that piece. There’s other records like HOUSE, which are like, I’m finishing this in a week.
The payoff, if you get it right, is massive. You look at it as kind of like an investment, like a venture-capitalist firm: If one of these things pop, you’re a billionaire. There is an incentive to sit back and take as much time as you need because if that shit works, you’re out of here. Once you already have that foundation laid that you’re going to rap regardless, then you have the freedom to be like, “Let me put a little bit more time into this, and to maybe make it a little bit more commercially acceptable.” Or “Let me put a little bit more time into this to make this a little bit more avant-garde.” Or “Let me take the time because, at the end of the day, it’s always going to be some rap shit that’s dope.” Some dope high-level rap shit that all of the peers are going to respect.
One element of your career that I always felt was underaddressed is your ear for production. Early on, you worked with Kanye and Pharrell, but Tetsuo & Youth and Drogas Wave have these cinematic, layered productions. Tell me about the process that you take behind your production choices and how it enhances your storytelling in unexpected ways.
I have added elements of production, but it’s more just, “Hey, this needs some horns, and it needs this melody. Crystal [Torres, his instrumentalist], come in bright.” Does that mean I’m a producer? I don’t know, maybe. I do understand trying to set scenes and themes and what a certain song should feel like. Like “The Coolest” off of The Cool. It should feel very cathedral, Baptist church with a weird orchestral, angelic, big Bible vibe. I want to put you in the place of this dude coming back to life, and it is pulled from watching horror films. You want those strings, and you want those operatic vocalizations happening in different places, and a hollowness to it to feel like you’re in this big space. There’s beats that feel very open, very closed, very private, very happy, very sad. There’s a range of things, and it depends on what I feel the story demands.
“Cripple” from Drogas Wave was a completely different beat, but because of the samples, it becomes Soundtrakk making two different versions. One is more jazzy, one is more hip-hop, but none of them are like what I originally wrote to. If we’re going to do the jazzy version now, we might as well go fully in, so let me go get Elena Pinderhughes to play the flute on this now, and then, “Crystal Torres, I need you to come back in and hit it with these horns, and let’s really make it a jazzy thing.” I think that’s part of the beauty of the creative process — working through certain constraints that gets you to new places. Some cases it’s like that; some cases it’s not. Some cases it’s just like: Kaelin Ellis brought these beats … and those are the beats [Laughs].
When you called into The Joe Budden Podcast, they were initially clowning you for your song “Dinosaurs.”
Yeah, but fuck them n - - - - - . Fuck all them n - - - - - . I’ll fuck with Joe. Fuck all them n - - - - - though. In real life too, though, that’s real. But anyway, as you were saying [Laughs].
When you called back and explained the concept to them, they appeared to change their minds. A lot of rappers take pride in having a concept or a punch line that goes over people’s heads on first glance, or it makes them think twice, and your music definitely has that capability. But you’re also a person who I think has been misunderstood and criticized based on public comments and lyrics, like “Bitch Bad.” How do you react when you hear someone being completely off about your music?
I try not to allow myself to do these overcategorizations on things and try to serve too many masters. I don’t give a fuck what podcasts have to say. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll entertain it. I just thought Joe Budden was just calling me; I didn’t know he was having me patched in as some circus sideshow to his fucking show. But I’m like, Cool, we’re promoting. I’ll take it. It’s free. I know how to engage the press in that capacity. It’s this hypercritical, almost antagonistic relationship that we have. But as long as the fans are happy, I’m cool. There’s people in my audience who like chasing lyrics, figuring out what things are, unpacking things, being able to sit and theorize about different concepts. There are certain songs that cater to that, so they can have their “Mural” and just sit there for years breaking this shit down. And there’s other fans who just want you to do “The Show Goes On,” “Superstar,” “Battle Scars,” and they’re good. I’m cool with that — that’s why I made those songs. But once you do that, you’re able to identify that everybody isn’t the same. You will lose people because they’re like, “I fucking hate Lasers.” Because you didn’t listen to the shit. You heard “The Show Goes On,” and you was like, “Fuck that album.” But if you would have listened to the album, that’s the same album that has “Words I Never Said” and “All Black Everything” — very powerful joints.
So even with the Joe Budden thing, like, “N - - - - , you didn’t even listen to the EP. You’re going off first listen: You see something that you don’t like, and immediately you’re like, ‘I don’t like that.’ That’s why I kind of don’t take press seriously, because you’re not engaged the way a fan is. “Dinosaurs” wasn’t meant for adults. It was born out of me going to the Museum of Natural History with my godson years ago, when he was a little guy, and he wanted to see the dinosaurs. It was me if I had to explain dinosaurs to a kid. So to see a grown man convulsing at the seams that he doesn’t like this record, it’s like, “It’s not even for you.” So whose fault is that? Is it my fault? Probably.
The issue that I had with Joe is that you think I’m just doing this because I ain’t got nothing else to talk about. But the whole music industry has been primed to just listen to people talking about the same shit to different beats. [Revered Queens indie rapper] Homeboy Sandman is my homie and one of the people I’m trying to be like creatively. And he sent me a joint out of the blue, and, of course, it was ridiculous. I just sent him “Dinosaurs,” kind of tit for tat. He responds with, “Yo, I love this shit. There’s so much in the world to talk about. It’s beautiful.” That’s why he loves rap — because there’s so much to talk about if you allow yourself to not get caught up in the status quo or trying to appease fucking Mal and Rory, or rep the fucking Joe Budden Podcast, when you’re trying to really experience the fullness that the world has to give.
But even outside of press, how important is it to you for a fan to catch everything you say? Someone may like one of your songs a lot as a fan, but they may only be getting half of the references.
You’re talking to a person who’s somewhat personally responsible for building an industry of annotating lyrics. When Rap Genius came out, I met with the owners … That shit exists for the sole purpose of “Because it’s n - - - - - like Lupe who say shit that I don’t understand. And I need to figure that shit out.” It’s not just rap for Genius — it’s speeches, all kinds of shit. I think it speaks to how much people don’t really know the basics of any fucking thing, let alone Lupe Fiasco rap. You can either look at that as being a negative, or you can look at it as being a great occasion or opportunity to explore, to discover new things.
You can have a motherfucker sit up there all day and just hit you with the same rigmarole, the same basic terminology — no metaphors, no similes, no references, no outside meanings, no entendre, no layered wordplay or any of that shit. It doesn’t educate you; it doesn’t build you up; it doesn’t get your mind to think. But you like the beat, the melodies, the way they’re saying it. All of these complex top lines and these dips of intonation and pitch, and that’s engaging to you.
But I don’t do any of that stuff. I deal with words, and I deal with reference points. That’s like my job. That’s what I’m good at, and that’s what I choose to do. I’m not trying to belittle you if you don’t understand it. I’m not trying to set up this category of elite people who only believe you have to be of a certain level of intelligence to “get it.” You have some really smart people that listen to really dumb shit, and you got really dumb people who listen to really sophisticated shit. I try to split the difference. You may not get half of it, but there’s somebody else who’s going to get the other half that you’re not getting. Hopefully, you will connect with that other person and then they’ll give you the other half.
Life is very complicated, from my understanding. So I think, in certain capacities, when you listen to Lupe Fiasco music, you get a reflection of the complexity of the situations that we find ourselves in. I just don’t put “Fuck the police,” and that’s it. It’s like, “Why are we fucking the police? Is it even cool to say ‘Fuck the police’? What does that do with the police? What are we going to do if we don’t have police?” Let’s break it down and get into the nuts and bolts. I think that is where you find the solutions, if you’re willing to do the work.
If you say you don’t really fuck with the press like that, what made you decide to actually do interviews this time?
Because of Kaelin. I didn’t want to just do this project with the dude and then just … it’s fifty-fifty. It’s me and him. It’s not just Lupe. When it’s just Lupe, I can do whatever the fuck I want. But when it’s him and then not only him but the label … I didn’t do any press with Drogas Wave or for Drogas Light because the press is a slippery slope. Even with the BBC article. Where did I mention Obama in that shit? Why is that the headline? What the fuck? I was actually pretty upset with that. It was kind of like, See, this is why I don’t do press.
So instead of the press, you’ve turned to social media.
There’s people who never ever need to be on TV or push a CD or do any of that shit. They could experience their entire career on TikTok. They don’t even need to have a YouTube page. “I just need this quick one-minute situation, and I’m going to build an entire career just off that.” Or an Instagram video, 60 seconds … It’s kind of very hyperpersonal, but I don’t talk to everybody. Some of the time, I’ve identified a certain group of people that I’m just going to talk to continuously on a specific subject — almost like co-hosts or experts like CNN has. But it’s also been about telling people about COVID-19. How many people are wearing masks that are Lupe Fiasco fans? Hopefully all of them. Fuck music — I would like to keep you and your family alive and not sick.
How do you think hip-hop has performed in terms of using its platform to help fight COVID?
To be honest, if you have to grade it, I’ll give it a C-minus. There’s certain folks in the hip-hop space who come from a place of rebelliousness, not trusting the system. That shit’s real. Motherfuckers ain’t just saying “Fuck the police.” I’m saying “Fuck the police” as an example of just a general complex of their worldview. They really mean it. I don’t want to say it’s their fault, but when it comes to COVID, when it comes to understanding epidemiology and biology and the nature of viruses and how they work, and the difference between having something that’s been put through a clinical trial versus something that’s just a folkloric type of medicinal treatment? There’s people who just don’t understand that shit. You got motherfuckers that dropped out of high school, and we expect them to be trusting the epidemiologists on TV telling them about masks.
My producer, Soundtrakk, caught COVID-19. This is the guy who made “Kick, Push” and “Superstar” and “Paris, Tokyo.” Without Soundtrakk, there’s no Lupe Fiasco. He had it and was in a coma, and other homies who are super-close to me that haven’t said it publicly, but they call me, like, “Yeah, I got COVID, bro. I’m fucked up.” These are people I’ve done records with, and now it’s real for them. I think when Scarface caught it, and when Slim Thug caught it, it was like, Oh shit, the OGs can catch it? And, unfortunately, Fred the Godson passed away — rest in peace — and another brother caught it and unfortunately passed away. [Editor’s note: Ty, a Mercury Prize–nominated rapper from the U.K., died from pneumonia due to the coronavirus in May.] So we had figures in the community [affected by it], and I think there’s certain people who silently are just turning a corner, like, “This shit is real.” As much as you don’t trust the government, when your grandma catches it, when I catch it, when one of our favorite rappers catches it, we have to at least [face] certain facts. When it comes to a virus in the world that is actively killing people, we’ve got to be a little bit more careful with what we say.
HOUSE features appearances by Virgil Abloh just a few weeks after he was criticized on social media for what people thought were small donations to Fempower, which was raising money for protesters’ legal fees. What made you decide to get Virgil on this project after knowing him so long but also knowing that controversy? And what is it like to see a friend of yours be criticized online like that?
To answer the second question first, this is part of not doing due diligence, taking things for face value. I feel like that’s been the theme of this conversation. People critiquing EPs that they didn’t even listen to. People not doing their due diligence about wearing a mask. When you look at the people that are critiquing Virgil, how much did you give, first? It was just one instance of a person who had people giving money to an organization in D.C. that was bailing people out of jail. This is at the height of the protest. But D.C. hasn’t had cash bail since 1992. So when you do the due diligence, who are you giving money to? That’s the type of people that you’re dealing with in these hysterical times.
To be clear, I’m joking a little bit. But there were people who were criticizing Virgil for posting up that he gave 50 bucks but not understanding that he had already given tens of thousands of dollars and, in the process, was raising millions of dollars for all kinds of things. You weren’t beating down Virgil’s door to do anything prior to this shit, but this is the shit that he was already doing. And the reason that he posted up the thing about 50 bucks was because the campaign was for people who were saying, “Man, I can’t donate $1,000. I’m not rich like Virgil.” There was a certain level of disingenuousness to it that I didn’t really fuck with. If we really want to start saying that the amount of money you give dictates your relationship to the struggle, that’s absurd. So, for me, it was depressing not because of what Virgil had to go through; Virgil don’t give a fuck about that shit. It was just that, even in moments of actual potential and raw revolution, we still have this toxin in our system.
In terms of having Virgil on the project, me and him go all the way back. He made all the merch for Lasers; I don’t know if that merch ever came out. Me and Virgil have been collaborating in different spaces for a while, prior to Pyrex and Off-White. So when it came around to doing “SHOES,” the initial collaboration was, “I want to make this song about Ahmaud Arbery, and I want to focus on his shoes and this aspect of him running. What would be the most fitting thing to do?” It would be to design a pair of shoes. And who is the best running-shoe designer in the world? Virgil is super-creative, super-forward-thinking, and super-artistic, and so it was easy. We did it before all of that shit [with the donation] jumped off. So it wasn’t done to reframe Virgil into “I’m really a good guy. Look at this song I made about Ahmaud Arbery.”
“SHOES” is the latest of a beautiful series of songs that you’ve made to memorialize people who have died unjustly [see also: “Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever”]. Many people feel the best way to honor these people is to lament their deaths and rally about how they shouldn’t have died. Your approach is to revive them and give them new life through music. What inspires that?
Everybody has to die — we’re not going to escape that. It’s not really death that bothers some people. The process of dying is what people kind of get caught up into. The way I was raised, the way of the things that my father instilled in us — specifically training through the martial arts and Bushido and samurai code — all that shit is a relationship to death. My father used to have these placards made that would have sayings on them. He put one in a Chrysler and it said “Die Well” — to put yourself in a position to have a death that is meaningful and consequential. Or live a life that, when you die, the content of your life will be of such a caliber that it’s like you can’t die, because you’ve left so much of yourself in the world that transcends the physical existence in your physical body.
You take someone like Jonylah and someone like Alan — they were unable to do that. So the only way to give them that opportunity is through the imagination: grow them up and give them purpose through the art. With Ahmaud, it’s a little different. He’s lived not a full life, but he’s already lived to a certain extent. He already expressed the things that he wanted to do and be and experienced some of those things. So it’s less about trying to bring him back to life but more about memorializing or amplifying the effects of his death. Some people, you’re going to create statues of, name a building after, name a street after; some people, you got to make a pair of shoes. It’s the effect that a person can have after their death, not just as an example of racism in America. I would want my legacy to be — which Virgil then kind of put it succinctly — that running is freedom.
Many people who are involved in social-justice work, or work made to memorialize lost lives, grow exasperated. Not you?
For me, there is a certain level of relief. Every time that I’m making a “Forever” [tribute song], I cry like a baby. It’s like a strange affirmation that it’s complete. When I finished “Jonylah Forever,” I was a mess. “Alan Forever,” I was a mess. “SHOES,” not like a mess mess, but crying. When I did the other piece with Kaelin for George Floyd, which didn’t make the record, that was less about the EP and more than just about being in the moment. You cry because these people mean something. I don’t mind crying, but it takes something to make me cry. It’s more about that, coming to terms with it, having that emotional reaction to it and then finding peace in that process.
Unfortunately, you see there’s other Jonylahs: This little kid gets murdered in Chicago; a 1-year old gets murdered in Brooklyn. Right after Ahmaud Arbery, you get George Floyd. Alan is mirrored in kids in Syria and kids in Yemen, kids in war zones that are just kind of casualties of war, externalities. Stop this shit. Stop shooting at kids. Stop dropping bombs on apartment buildings and fucking hospitals. Stop trying to be vigilantes only for Black people. I’m at my best when I’m doing that work, but that work requires a relationship to mortality and death and crisis and tragedy, which I can stand. I can fight that fight, but I do cry every time I make these fucking songs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.