Our Take: Lupe Fiasco Goes Jazzy, Stays Provocative on ‘Drill Music in Zion’

Lupe Fiasco © 2022
Lupe Fiasco © 2022

Josh's Take

8 Music Quality
7 Production
8 Content Originality
7 Memorability
9 Lyricism
6 Sonic Diversity
8 Arranging
Lupe Fiasco channeled “wabi-sabi” – the perfection of imperfection – for this quickly compiled LP, but ‘Drill Music in Zion’ has way fewer serious flaws than such a premise might have indicated.
Stream: ‘Drill Music in Zion’ – Lupe Fiasco

Way back when in 2005, Lupe Fiasco first entered mainstream consciousness via a stunner guest verse on fellow Chicagoan Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky.” That same breathlessness was maintained a year later on his universally acclaimed debut album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor. “If I wake up in the morning now I gotta give ’em sight, make ’em see, break ’em free, ain’t a G, show you right,” he rapped with incredible verbal energy in the record’s early moments, and maintained the momentum throughout what endures as one of rap music’s finest first LPs.

Drill Music In Zion - Lupe Fiasco
Drill Music In Zion – Lupe Fiasco

Fast forward to 2022. Lupe Fiasco is now a rap veteran who’s put out his eighth album, Drill Music in Zion — and you could often be readily forgiven for thinking that the 40-year-old MC on this record is a different one from he who motor-mouthed his way through all of that killer material back in his early years. Granted, “old Lupe” put out plenty of slower-paced music as well— “Daydreamin” and “Sunshine” among the popular examples of that formula— but the current “old Lupe” is one whose voice sounds noticeably aged, whose ability to speed-rap with “Go Go Gadget Flow”-like ease has seemingly declined, and whose choice in production includes soft piano playing, gentle saxophone, and other instrumentals more associable with small, smoky jazz bars than any of the wide-open spaces that the fiery youngster accelerating his way through a single called “Touch The Sky” once evoked.

There are two ways to look at this state of affairs. One is to conclude that age has caught up with the old sap. The other is to appreciate that he’s heading in a different artistic direction than ever before in his nearly two decades in the rap game. Both of these interpretations have their merits. Wasalu Muhammad Jaco has tested many creative waters throughout his impressive career, but as best as one can tell, this is the first time he’s ever embraced the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi – the perfection of imperfection – and put out an album that he recorded in just three days, flaws and all, for experimentation’s sake. That was how Lupe Fiasco conceived his eighth record (except that he originally wanted to get it all done in one day, not three), and with the help of his longtime collaborator Soundtrakk (“longtime,” as in, this guy produced Lupe’s first single as a lead artist, 2006’s “Kick, Push”), Drill Music in Zion has indeed taken its final form.

For the many fans who have the hungry young Lupe still indelibly embedded in their minds, it may take them some effort to transition to this newer version of the hip-hop vet. But it’s worth the effort: Drill Music in Zion is full of commendable qualities, including several well-crafted jazzy beats by Soundtrakk, and plenty of impressive work by the lead man himself. He remains a nimble and infectious MC – “I’m Carrera-era-era,” he bounces along on lead single “Autoboto,” apparently a reference to his alter ego, Carrera Lu – and also knows how to serve up an anti-establishment lyric or two.

The album’s title track skewers the widespread devastation of mass consumerism, arguing that the world’s economic elite are willing to put all of the planet and society at risk because they’re “desperate for the credits to come tumbling through the conflict.” Such commentary continues on tracks like “Kiosk,” which takes repeated swipes at our widespread lust for diamonds – perhaps a euphemism for capitalism at large? – and “On Faux Nem,” which possibly echoes Kendrick Lamar by declaring that “a dollar’s worth what a dollar buys, go monetize.” While he likely remains a fan of “the city in the Midwest” he once famously dubbed “the best city in the whole wide, wide world,” Mr. Fiasco recognizes his hometown still isn’t perfect and decries the gang violence that remains all too prevalent there on several tracks. “

Lupe Fiasco has long been hailed for biting social commentary of this nature, and he’s also been regularly saluted for his gift for effective duets (heck, that’s how he first got his foot in the door alongside Kanye, after all). True to tradition, Drill Music in Zion makes room for many effective vocal collaborators – the first of whom, his sister Ayesha, makes her mark before Lupe has even shown up, with a powerful spoken-word introduction to the album’s main themes on “The Lion’s Deen.” Later on, Mr. Fiasco invites independent rapper Nayriah for a total of three tracks. Although she’s far from a household name –  all the better; it conforms with Lupe’s long-running shift away from “mainstream palatability” – Nayirah proves her worth on all three occasions, including when she and Lupe outline the woes of their mutual hometown of Chicago on the puzzlingly titled “Seattle.”

Drill in Music Zion won’t go down as a “landmark Lupe Fiasco album” the way that Food & Liquor, The Cool, and a few others are, but it’s great to have such a hip-hop Hall of Famer demonstrate that he’s got plenty of life left in him yet – and new things still to say on this impressively focused and lyrically intricate new LP.

Wabi-Sabi proved to be the right call in this instance.

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Stream: ‘Drill Music in Zion’ – Lupe Fiasco

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