Lupe Fiasco’s Call to Conscience

Claude Atcho

The most important verse of Lupe Fiasco’s eighth album, Drill Music in Zion, is not a display of his trademark acrobatic lyricism. It is a cryptic statement that doesn’t even rhyme:

Rappers die too much

That's it, that's the verse

Though rarely reluctant to flip the recording booth into a soapbox, Lupe’s moralist streak has seldom been so simple and so timely. Since Nipsey Hussle’s murder in 2019, over a dozen rappers have been murdered, including Pop Smoke, King Von, Young Dolph, and Trouble—as well as young teens trying make it onto the scene. For all the tragic violence that’s plagued the genre, it’s comparatively rare to hear mainstream rappers of current or former stature use their own records to wield a sustained prophetic voice against the bloodshed.

Where immensely popular and talented stars like Drake double down on the same braggadocious bars and aging legends like Jay-Z wax eloquent about generational wealth, Lupe Fiasco speaks from the far margins of the mainstream like a weeping prophet. Lupe’s terse, prophetic moralism demonstrates that standing up means standing out, whether or not listeners care to listen or any of his contemporaries care to, on records, take a similar stance.

The album’s title, Drill Music in Zion, suggests the violence Lupe laments is particular to drill music, a subset of hip hop influenced by Altanta trap but bred in his home of Chicago. Drill music, popularized in Chicago’s South Side by rappers like Chief Keef and King Louie and New Yorker rappers like the late Pop Smoke, is distinguished by its moody, brooding production and its often violent content.

As rappers both in and outside the drill scene are gunned down and violence and inequalities rise, there is no shalom, no forthcoming Zion in our cities. But if you listened to the music of rap’s leading voices—cultural prophets in their own right—listeners would not realize the true state of moral emergency. Answer this question without saying “Kendrick Lamar”: When’s the last time you heard a song from a star in the genre doing something musically to curb a culture of death?

Lupe Fiasco stands apart by calling listeners to weep and mourn with the spoken intensity of a jeremiad. His words, delivered with a mix of disgust and resignation, transform the otherwise dreamy, jazz production on the album into a nightmarish confrontation with the cold truth. The spacious, mellow musicality gives listeners no choice but to sit and soak in the seriousness of Lupe’s message. On “On Faux Nem,” after the two brisk bars quoted above, Lupe returns to his typical lyrical patterns:

Yeah, silent reflection was the first verse's mission

I ain't want to water it down with a whole bunch of conditions

Just give it to you raw how a n**** really feelin'

"Rappers get shot too much" probably has a lot more precision

But that was the dеcision, and with that, I'ma stick

I don't really support n***** 'cause the s*** bе making me sick

Look at what we say in this b**** just to get rich

These are righteous words delivered in common vernacular. Without minimizing other societal factors (“I ain't want to water it down with a whole bunch of conditions”), Lupe makes the crucial connection between a culture of death promoted and described in rhyme and the chance to strike it rich as an artist. What is said “just to get rich” is the popularization and expansion of a culture of death. This is no small thing. Indeed, Jesus himself made it clear that humanity has a real enemy who seeks to “steal, kill, and destroy.” Thus, when the glorification and proliferation of death actually lines the pockets of individuals, streaming companies, and record labels—while the marginalized and impoverished are gunned down—we can be certain we are confronting a systemic injustice of a satanic sort.

These are righteous words delivered in common vernacular.

A proper wake-up call to such a dire situation means the prophetic message and medium must align. In the Old Testament, God often gave the prophet Jeremiah both a message to proclaim and a parable to enact, as when Jeremiah is instructed to break a jar of clay to portray the judgment to come upon God’s idolatrous people. No doubt such a harsh word to his own people brought Jeremiah no joy; in fact, based on Lamentations, many have called Jeremiah the weeping prophet.

There is a similar measure of symbolic action in Lupe Fiasco’s prophetic cry. Limited to the power of words, Lupe creates a prophetic drama in “On Faux Nem” as his minimalist language—“Rappers die too much / That's it, that's the verse”—culminates in maximalist profanity in order to embody a deep anguish and God-forsakenness:

Facts, I wish that they was lying in they raps

How does that transpire

To be so damned by God, you want your friends to be g**damned liars?

All we talk about are our g**damned priors

Shiny metal boxes on top of g**damned tires

I'm g**damned tired

If I say I didn't indulge, my pants would be on g**damn fire

For attentive Christian listeners, Lupe’s lament evokes the condemnation described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1. This passage teaches that when idolatry is chosen, God hands humanity over to our darkened devices and desires; as a result, sin and death gain a deeper grip on our rationality. The human bent to boast in death, vice, and violence is a sign of sin’s reign and God’s condemnation. The ferocity of Romans 1 intensifies when Paul speaks of idolaters’ sin—“They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice”—and then points to the idolaters who are culpable through their applause of such brokenness: “. . . they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

Speaking of what attracts listeners to drill music, Lupe Fiasco has said, “I think what excites people is the violence, and that the violence is actually tethered to real-life violence.” Pressed on whether this makes audiences complicit, Lupe speaks with the clear-eyed morality of a prophet or the apostle penning Romans 1: “Absolutely . . . Why wouldn’t it?

Drill Music in Zion is thus not only good art and a return to form for an all-time hip-hop talent; it is a much-needed prophetic confrontation with the sort of moral question listeners must not refuse. Will we evaluate our culpability in the culture of death that surrounds us? And will we care enough to stop and ask the questions most artists hesitate to present to us?

Topics: Music