There should be little debate anymore over Lupe Fiasco’s position as one of the greatest rappers of all time. If his early classics and mixtapes weren’t enough, his resurgence with such dense, conceptual records like Tetsuo & Youth or Drogas Wave set him over the edge. Well he’s done it again with Drill Music in Zion. He maintains flawless technical ability and pleasing modern jazz production (courtesy of Soundtrakk), but is able to subtly bury countless layers of meaning in every bar. While it obviously isn’t practical to analyze a Lupe album in full here, we will discuss some key moments and share our thoughts.
Famously recorded from scratch in only 72 hours, it’s apparent on cursory listens why Lu has called this his Illmatic; Given the brevity, density, and structure, it’s an apt comparison. Furthermore, the entire atmosphere is very lowkey and gives the impression that he really did just hop in the booth and let loose. Soundtrakk’s beats here are a happy medium of being more engaging and free than Drogas Wave while keeping the spotlight on Lu.
Drill Music in Zion opens with a spoken word piece by Lu’s sister Ayesha, a poet herself. Its here where you get the most direct interpretations of what the album is all about, and the title’s many meanings; The way hiphop simultaneously lifts up African Americans while breeding violence and shallowness, as well as the need to educate yourself and work (run drills, rather) in order to better the world. As you know with Lupe, there are numerous other valid interpretations which are crammed into every subsequent bar, but it is that cycle of success and destruction which prevails throughout.
Where preachers can praise AIDS as God killing the gays
What a fucking phrase, never ceases to amaze
But when he dies from cancer, that’s God’s mysterious ways
Jesus saves, Africans sold slaves
Gabriel’s in Afghanistan passing out AKs
On the album’s first single “Autoboto”, we see the return of his Carrera Lu persona. Perhaps the most energetic cut of the album, he spits about the inevitable consequences (rain, in this metaphor) for rappers who find success through violence, while placing himself on trial. There are also what seem to be subtle references to Pusha T and Kanye West, and some might even stretch this as a judgement by God, hinting at the religious metanarrative woven into Drill Music in Zion.
“Precious Things” jumps out for its Elzhi-esque wordplay, in which Lupe makes references to hands in every bar. This culminates in his own hands lamenting their loss of utility, and the double meaning of a city being left behind by its most successful offspring. Nayirah features once again for a divine hook, tying the whole project together sonically through her appearances.
The next track “Kiosk” is a classic example of Lupe criticizing consumerism and exploitations of black artists. As a jeweler pedals his wares, making the vain case for why a successful young man might need to blow his advance on them, Lupe himself eventually rejects all of the bullshit to show the higher path he has taken (with a clever nod to The Cool).
Lupe Fiasco – 100 Chicagos
Drill Music in Zion‘s centerpiece in many ways, “Ms. Mural” is a worthy culmination of the series and pregnant with meaning. Obviously this interview with an artist is an analysis of the creative process and hiphop’s status as a fine art itself, but you could further interpret Lu’s painting as a representation of hoods further ruined by rappers’ recklessness and institutionalization. Going even deeper, there are hints that the artist is God himself, discussing his decision making and fickle destruction. While this might not be the slab of bars some expect from a “Mural” track, it was a clever subversion of their themes.
The next song “Naomi” is one of the album’s more pleasing on the ear, with Lu really getting bouncy with his flow. It’s one of the tracks that you can tell was a product of the quick recording, as he gets in the booth and just puts on a technical clinic. This Soundtrakk beat really bleeds the Chicago sound as well.
Something which might help to better understand Drill Music in Zion are Hindu cycles, but not only of reincarnation as was so prevalent on Tetsuo & Youth. The god of destruction Shiva is famed not as an evil, senseless source of suffering, but one who tears down in order to create new room for growth and prosperity. It is that very concept which is constantly hinted at across the album, on no song more than its title track. Full of paradoxes and juxtapositions, we must consider how rappers can ever really leave the hood; How they can lift the hood up with them; How a benevolent god could allow senseless hate and suffering for generations.
Facts – I wish that they was lying in their raps
How does that transpire
To be so damned by God, you want your friends to be goddamned liars?
All we talk about are our goddamned priors
Shiny metal boxes on top of goddamned tires
If I say I didn’t indulge, my pants would be on goddamn fire
As we approach the album’s conclusion and its most powerful moments, we get another fun, more upbeat cut with “Seattle”. With some borderline pop sensibility, Nayirah’s hook is an absolute earworm and the flows here are infectious. It gives the sense that no matter where he goes or what happens, Lupe’s heart stays at home.
And finally, there’s “On Feaux Nem”: Instantly one of Lupe’s greatest works, not for density or complexity, but for its frank emotion. The first “verse” obviously speaks for itself, but the quiet which comes after is simply gut wrenching. As Lu croons and dives further into the tragic posturing required to survive in the hood and the rap game, even the prison industrial complex, it all invokes the classic “Hurt Me Soul”. In this case, all the world’s ills sit on 12 inch wax.
There are few other rappers who are able to match Lupe Fiasco on a bar-for-bar basis, let alone the album spanning metaphors and allusions which mark his recent work as true masterpieces. Drill Music in Zion is yet another timely, much needed analysis of the woes plaguing the black community today (enough to make you think twice before cutting on that new Lil Durk), but with a much more approachable sound and structure.