Staying in the House with Lupe Fiasco

“Who knows? The universe is the best organizer sometimes.“

It’s early May, in what seems to be a perpetual state of quarantine and Lupe Fiasco lays in bed scrolling through his mentions. At the same time, Orlando producer Kaelin Ellis shares a loose instrumental of him jamming in his room, grooving to a looped growling bass, a fluttering of eerie keys and a Rhodes riff that Robert Glasper would be proud of, and the rest as they say, is Twitter history.

“The event was very much accidental, I didn’t even know what it was, and it just turned out to be a beat, actually the video of Kaelin producing the beat, which is kind of the signature thing he’s been doing during this time, and somebody simply said, ‘Get this to Lupe.’” Obligingly, Lupe got it, screen recorded it, dropped it in GarageBand, freestyled over it, exported it in Quicktime, and shared the song with the masses. “I was like cool, the beat is dope so I rapped on it and put it back out merely as a freestyle and just called it #LF95,” he shares. “I put it out and I still didn’t even know who he was, then he reached out like, ‘I did the beat!’ so I was like okay, let me give him credit and onto the next one. But then we linked up on the DMs side and he said he had some more.”

For someone who has undoubtedly cemented his status in the Hip-Hop sphere as one of the greatest lyricists of all time, Lupe has no shortage of budding producers raring to get a slice of the pie, “I get beat tapes from people and just have them there without the intention to really do anything with them. I only use beats from a few people that are in my circle and I rarely step outside of that,” he shares. “Producers, artists, singers, just people who want to collab. I’m not really into collaboration like that anymore and producers are still kind of a thing where you have to take it with a grain of salt because I’ve had some bad things happen on the legal side of things in the past.”

Whilst the frailties of copyright law and international clearance issues continue to plight musicians today, Lupe tells me how Ellis’ approach was little different. “Kaelin produces everything himself, which is probably one of the reasons we could turn it around so fast – we didn’t have to deal with clearing samples cos he does everything himself as an instrumentalist,” he says. “I’ve been around instrumentalists almost since the beginning of my career, so I’m used to working with musicians on the road or in the studio.” Asking whether there was a certain aspect of Ellis’ production that resonated with him, Lupe admits, “For me it’s not like ‘special’ because I know a hundred people who can play on beats, but because he’s able to do that, he’s already checked the boxes. It immediately becomes easier if there’s an edit that needs to be done for instance, because he played it, he can alter it in a certain way. But for someone who’s just hitting chops its much different, for them it’s like ‘gimme a day to go away and come back to you.’ With Kaelin, we’re both speaking the same language, so it doesn’t take up efficiency or money or time.”

Time, as Lupe alludes to, became an important factor to the project, with both artists being able to explore this creative space chiefly by virtue of the pandemic. Asking whether such a chance encounter would’ve happened organically, he wonders, “Probably not, because I wouldn’t have been around. And he probably wouldn’t have even making those beats because he could’ve been on tour or doing other things. So it’s literally just that; the music worked, I had the time to do it, and instead of just doing a freestyle I said let’s put it out for real. Who knows? The universe is the best organizer sometimes.”

The release of the 5-track EP entitled HOUSE is a far cry from the weightiness of Lupe’s last full-length release DROGAS Wave, but carries with it some similar messages. On lead single ‘SHOES,’ Lupe creates a vivid alternate reality where he conceptually explores the idea behind the trainers that Ahmaud Arbery was wearing when he was murdered. Assisted by a spoken word piece from long-time friend and fellow Illinois creative Virgil Abloh, he hypothesises over the sneaker design and dives a little deeper into the story.

“I do these ‘Forever’ songs that are meant to take a tragic circumstance and then keep those people alive in the music after they die in real life. I’m picking up where that life ends and then creating a narrative and looping that in a way where the person is still alive.” Referring to ‘Jonylah Forever,’ inspired by the heart-breaking shooting of 6-month old infant Jonylah Watkins in Chicago, “In that song she becomes a doctor and comes back to the scene of the shooting and in the end she saves herself. So I’ve been doing records like that, memorials or eulogies if you want to call it, to people; so Ahmaud Arbery was no different.”

Acting as a powerful and poignant reminder to keep the global dialogue moving forward, ‘SHOES’ is as masterful and reflective as expected, but Lupe makes sure to move the spotlight away from himself and onto the conversation, “I always reference current events and current times, to be relevant in that capacity, but I was interested in what Ahmaud would think about this, which is an impossibility at this point. I’m not doing it for everyone else, this isn’t for the service or to be applauded by other folks to say that Lupe is dope, it’s to bring attention in the same way that someone would create a painting, or create a statue of someone that was valuable, and I like to do that in my space via music, via raps via lyrics,” he explains. “I wanted to create something for Ahmaud and expand on that a little bit and get a little deeper in the story. There was the whole Run With Ahmaud campaign with a focus on the activity, him jogging. So I asked myself, ‘What would it look like if Ahmaud Arbery had his own running shoe?’”

“Conceptually it was interesting to design these shoes in an audio format where you can just imagine what they look like and putting yourself in his shoes literally, not figuratively.”

Laced with a swinging drum pattern and Nujabes-esque keys, the spoken word aspect had to be equally as powerful to keep a sense of authenticity on the record, so Lupe reached out to close friend Virgil Abloh to deliver a touching tribute. “Me and Virgil have been friends for a very long time, from way back in the day. We’ve collaborated in multiple mediums; we’ve done clothing, we’ve chatted on art and design in a real deep way, and we’ve worked on little visual things – logos etc. But we’ve never done anything in the audio space, in my space. I had this idea of trying to memorialise Ahmaud Aubery so I asked him, ‘You design shoes for a living, what would that look like?’ I told him to just ramble at length and I’ll plug it into the record,” he explains. “It was kind of unexpected how deep Virgil would go, it was very powerful, very poignant and all those emotions – celebrating in the dark is what it feels like.”

The EP overall is a thoroughly reflective and sombre collection and touches on current issues addressing climate change, the complexities of the modelling industry and the COVID-19 pandemic, which is an ever-present trope, even on the album artwork. “My friend, Sky [Gellatly] we go way back, and his father Peter passed away earlier this year. He was a painter and possibly his cause of death was COVID-19 but it happened so early in the pandemic that it wasn’t really on the radar. So as COVID takes over the scene the epidemiology and symptoms match exactly the symptoms Sky’s father had,” Lupe reflects. “So when I linked up with Kaelin we landed on a kind of jazz style for the artwork, which could’ve gone in two directions – we noticed with jazz albums there’s always two kinds; there’s that abstract art piece (see Brubeck, Mingus) or there’s a photo of the musicians doing what they do, like John Coltrane with the horn. So with his father being an amazing painter, there was one painting that I always loved, which was a painting of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, which was one of his earliest works when he was studying at Art School. On the abstract side, it was immediately like ‘House,’ I’ve got the perfect painting. So I hit Sky and he was like, ‘Which artist do you want, we could get Futura, we could get KAWS,’ – he was thinking who do I want from the streets, and I said no; your Dad. And he was just blown away.”

Fittingly, it’s a tribute that to most will go unnoticed but the colourful pastiche is a subtle reminder of the impact this virus has taken on the world, as ever with Lupe’s work there is a duality in meaning for most things this mythical man touches. “It feels like one of those old jazz records, the colours are kind of abstract but it still has content. It’s a little left of field where it catches the eye, but deep down at the roots its paying homage to one my best friends’ father who passed, again extending that memorialisation. It all came together very perfectly and very evenly.”

The EP, although short in length is a body of work with a slick production that is crying out to be heard live at some point, and having not graced UK shores in a minute Lupe is awaiting a return. “I was supposed to be there now actually, I haven’t performed in London in ten years officially – I actually performed with Robert Glasper at Roundhouse last year, as I just happened to be in London. But prior to that I hadn’t performed in London for a long time, so those shows got pushed back all the way until next year. In terms of being back on the road nobody knows, even if I wanted to do a show in the UK right now I’d have to self-quarantine for 14 days and nobody wants that, so I’d rather just wait,” he says.

Interested to get his take on the issue given the Chicago link and prior collaborations, we talk on to the complexity of unpacking Kanye West. That iconic, explosive verse on ‘Touch The Sky’ was for many a gateway into the world of Lupe Fiasco but time has certainly moved on from then, with the two noticeably at different directions in their respective lives. “Honestly I don’t care as deeply as you do,” he laughs. “It’s interesting to see people’s reactions and responses as if Kanye betrayed you or something as if he was your homie. Now there’s people who are Kanye’s homies who I know, as the people he came up with, so in terms of being hurt or being let down then that’s for his homies and his family to feel. But at the same time, Kanye has his points of view and it may seem that they’re radical or wild but they’re no wilder than the average person’s point of view. There are people who don’t believe Coronavirus exists, so are we feeling let down or betrayed by them? No,” he says.

I mention The College Dropout as being a first touchpoint with hearing his voice for many, but Lupe rightly questions the role of celebrity in society in our day and age, “I think people may have a deeper relationship to Kanye because it was their first time, or he took their virginity. They build up themselves next to Kanye and when he betrays that trust –” he reflects, “As opposed to thinking about Kanye, they should be thinking, ‘What allowed me to invest so deeply into this guy?’ ‘Is that really the path I should be on?’ ‘Should I really be looking at musicians or celebrities like that?’ ‘Are you deeply indebted to these people like that?’ ‘Is that where you should be?’ ‘Is that a safe space for people to be, that you’re so invested or indebted to these people like that?’ So the instant they say something you don’t agree with – not necessarily that they’re wrong, just that you don’t agree with, is it time to kick them to the curb? I’ve had diehard fans kick me to the curb for shit you wouldn’t even believe,” he laughs, “Why are you so worried about what I think about that?”

Convivially light-hearted yet endlessly well-informed, Lupe is no stranger to calling it how it is – a trait that has often left him as a Hip-Hop marmite if you were, to some. “Everybody’s weird from what I’ve learned. Not even weird, it’s that they have a public side and a personal side. If you saw your boss or co-worker, or cousin’s personal side, and they were like ‘Yeah I’ve been collecting squirrels this whole time, or that I have hamburgers in my closet –  what, you didn’t know!?’” he jokes…

“I would say it’s a sign that people invested too deeply than what they should really be thinking about; I don’t really give a fuck to be honest.”

Outside of the immediacy of the HOUSE EP release, he shares that he has some special ideas in the works, “I’m working on a project around Amy Winehouse in the same vein as SHOES or those Forever songs, it’s fulfilling that ‘I want more of this’ need.” Asking whether he wanted to immortalise or continue her legacy, he adds, “She’s left a legacy that is solid – tragic of course, but it’s actually based on a statement she said in her documentary, where she says that she keeps coming up with these battle raps – to paraphrase the quote. And I had to pause it and I was like, ‘Wait, Amy Winehouse was a battle rapper?! Hmm, I wonder what those bars are.’ So I got fixated on that and started to create that; it’s not about her per-se but its more exploring that question. I’m eight or nine songs deep with that, some of it’s good, some of its not so good – we’ll figure it out.”

His brutal honesty, vivid storytelling and studied critical thinking are characteristics which many early fans fell in love with, and as one of the pioneers and figureheads of the Conscious Rap bracket, Lupe continues to push the envelope with provoking lyrics, double-entendres and weighty punchlines. This time though he has a canvas of slick neo-soul production to paint to, a combination that is safe as houses.

HOUSE EP is available below.