Lupe Fiasco has never been one to hold his tongue.
It’s why he jokes he’s “already dead”, having been cancelled – way before we ever called it that – for calling President Barack Obama the “biggest terrorist” in an interview in 2011.
Lupe’s comment became a huge story, and he admitted a few years later to being “immediately blackballed” in the backlash.
“I lost a lot of friends… Board members of my foundation stepped down. I lost a lot of sponsorships. I had people threaten me,” he recalled in 2014.
Some things haven’t changed since Lupe made those comments – the United States is still at war in many of the same countries as it was in 2011. But in 2020, Lupe thinks his country’s influence around the world is “dwindling”.
“There’s definitely the theoretical America and then America in reality. Back then there was the expectation that the theoretical America ‘knew better’,” the rapper tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.
“But what you’ve started to see is that America’s not like that. America is very much the world leader in not getting it together – just with Covid-19 for example.”
Lupe says countries “don’t want to be like America, where the police are killing people for nothing… where these people won’t even wear a mask”.
He predicts that in coming decades America will “fall behind the times in a very real way as other countries start to outpace, out-develop, or just ignore America to a certain extent”.
‘I was always thinking about Ahmaud’
Some of these themes are explored on Lupe’s latest release, his five-track EP House, which he made in lockdown after waking up one morning, opening Twitter and spotting a tweet he’d been mentioned in.
“Get this to @LupeFiasco somehow” a user had written below a video of producer Kaelin Ellis crafting a beat.
A few hours later Lupe had screen-recorded the song, put it through Garage Band, written some lyrics and uploaded a version to Instagram.
“That was literally, ‘What can I do in an hour?’ Stream of conscious, reference some COVID-19 things, use it as a platform to tell people to wear a mask and stay in the house.”
When he connected properly with Kaelin, both in their respective homes, and heard more of his music, Lupe began thinking more about what concepts he’d want to feature on a joint album.
“I was always thinking about the tragedy of Ahmaud Arbery… What can I do to speak to that in a meaningful way? To pay homage, but also kind of memorialise?” he says.
The result is Shoes – the type of concept song Lupe has become known for since his debut in 2006 – which tells the imagined story of the trainers Ahmaud was wearing when he was killed while out for a run earlier this year.
“People were already emphasised on running with Ahmaud, and it was like, what shoes would he have been wearing? If the attention is on him jogging, let’s give him the best shoes of all time.”
He sent a text to long-time friend Virgil Abloh, the designer responsible for some of the world’s most sought-after trainers, who replied with voice notes describing what the process behind creating Air Ahmauds would be.
Elsewhere on the EP we’re presented with stories from the modelling industry, inspired by a model friend who told Lupe about services that exist only to kidnap women into human trafficking – and a track about dinosaurs that does a good job of contextualising the strange times we’re living in.
“Just remember at one time this whole world was theirs,” Lupe raps.
“At any given point in time we could be dinosaurs,” he tells us. “Appreciate the time that you have and the opportunity you have.”
‘I won’t vote for him’
When Lupe was asked to feature on Kanye West’s Touch The Sky in 2005, he was new to the industry and yet to release an album.
Today he calls Kanye “the homie” – but says the attention on the rapper since he announced his intention to run for president is a “spectacle”.
“He can’t do it at this point – he’s missed too many of the deadlines to actually get on the ballot.”
Lupe “doesn’t necessarily agree with all the stuff he does” but says in 2024 if Kanye has the “will and the willpower” to run for president, to “knock yourself out”.
“He’s already achieved enough in music. There’s nothing more you can do. He’s made his billion. It just becomes like, what do you want to do next?
“And if he chooses to do it, and he can pull it off? I won’t vote for him. But I support his right to want to do that. And I will hope that he just has a better way of explaining some of the stuff that he says.”
As for Lupe, he says the song Dinosaurs has an extra meaning.
“I feel like I’m one of those dinosaurs stranded on an iceberg somewhere, disconnected from the world. That’s also part of the message in the song. That Lupe Fiasco is a dinosaur.”
The artist, now 38, still “loves to create”.
“I can still make really, really good music and in certain cases, really powerful music.
“Whether that music is accepted commercially or not, doesn’t matter to me anymore.”