Lupe Fiasco Preaches Without Being Preachy on 'DRILL MUSIC IN ZION'

Lupe Fiasco Preaches Without Being Preachy on 'DRILL MUSIC IN ZION'
Before Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Wale or Chance the Rapper, Lupe Fiasco was mainstream hip-hop's voice of reason. Once co-signed by giants like Jay-Z and Kanye West, the Chicago native's debut three-album run is up there with one of the best of all times. From the jazzy-inspired Food & Liquor to the alt-rock in-fused The Cool to the techno-heavy Lasers, there was a period where Fiasco was undoubtedly the man. While behind-the-scenes label disputes have all but forced Fiasco into hip-hop's underground, he has never stopped making great music, with his last three albums, Tetsuo & Youth, DROGAS Light and DROGAS Wave, all receiving little to no industry support despite being Grammy nomination worthy, giving life to his claim of being the "most black-balled rapper ever."

Four years removed from his last project, Lupe is back with his eighth studio album, DRILL MUSIC IN ZION, dubbing it his Illmatic, it's easily one of the best albums nobody but Lupe's core fans will listen to this year. 

Written and recorded in three days, Lupe Fiasco raps with a sense of urgency on DRILL MUSIC IN ZION. Still a master wordsmith whose pen can go head-to-head with hip-hop's greats, Lupe is as sharp as ever, delivering his signature thought-provoking lyricism without coming across as too preachy, even when he is literally preaching. The album starts with the poetic "THE LION'S DEEN," an ode to his debut album Food & Liquor, which also begins with a poem written and performed by his sister Ayesha Jaco, setting the stage for the album by linking it with his best work. Jaco explains the meaning behind the album title on the track, particularly zoning in on the word "drill." A deceptive play on the name of the trap style of rap that originated in Lupe's hometown of Chicago, the poem is a very biblical call to action, directly speaking to hip-hop's underbelly to "drill down" and find the God within you. It is also a clear indicator that this is not a trap album. 

Throughout the remainder of the album, Lupe employs many of the original formulas that made him a success. This means digging into a crate of unused beats from producer and long-time associate Soundtrakk, who is responsible for the beats behind a large chunk of his biggest hits ("Kick, Push," "Superstar," and "Paris, Tokyo," to name a few). The choice of jazz-inspired beats gives the album its cohesiveness. On all of them, Lupe raps his ass off, making for 40-minutes of killer and no filler, beginning with the boom-bap "GHOTI" and then the more fast-paced melodic "AUTOBOTO."

Lupe's lyrics are both his greatest strength and biggest weakness. With bars like "Egyptian museum, they keep the kings in crates / Thrones out on loan, and they keep their rings in safes" throughout the album, Lupe leaves little room for anything but tight bars filled with deep historical, biblical and spiritual references. While the quality of his bars is awe-inspiring and thought-provoking, Lupe repeatedly hits the hammer so hard that it's not always fun to listen to. New fans, or fans returning from Lasers and unfamiliar with his current "black-ball" status, will particularly have trouble keeping up. 

In many respects, this is an album for Lupe's core fans and will appeal mainly to those who have followed him to the underground, especially hardcore fans who consider him a martyr and know his struggles. On "Ms. Mural," Lupe digs into his crate of underground hits again and continues a trilogy of songs started in 2015 on Tetsuo & Youth with "Mural" and followed up in 2018 on DROGAS Wave with "Mural Jr." Like the other songs in the trilogy, Lupe goes from beginning to end without a hook, this time presenting a critique on the relationship between musicians and music industry execs, telling a compelling story of how executive interference can ruin a piece of art — a story that mirrors the fraught creation of Lasers.

Of all the amazing bars on this album, Lupe's most memorable verse contains only four words: "Rappers die too much." The opening verse of closer "ON FAUX NEM," it's a gritty final critique of the culture that rivals what Kendrick Lamar did earlier this year on "The Heart Part 5." Cleverly following the tension-building silence of the four word verse, Lupe goes on to say, "Silence reflection was the first verse's mission / I ain't want to water it down with a bunch of conditions." It's easily the highlight of the album. 

Lupe Fiasco's career can be divided into three eras: his years as a frustrated artist with a message in the industry, his years as an angry disruptor kicked out of the industry, and now his new phase as a veteran at peace, happy not to be a part of it at all. After yelling warnings outside the gates for nearly a decade, at 40 years old, Lupe has managed to get his message across more effectively with a whisper on DRILL MUSIC IN ZION. With nothing to prove, no features or flashy hooks or bells and whistles, it is his most accessible album in seven years. In Hebrew, the word Zion means a "land of peace," and that is clearly where Lupe makes music from these days.  (1st & 15 / Thirty Tigers)