After a 20-year recording career, Lupe Fiasco still has a lot on his mind. In the past, the Chicago rapper’s thoughts have been bound together by concepts. Parts of his sophomore album, 2007’s The Cool, pitted a zombie drug dealer against the personifications of The Streets and The Game to flesh out ideas about materialism (“Gold Watch”) and the music industry (“Superstar”). Fast forward, 2018’s DROGAS Wave revolved around a group of African slaves thrown off the side of a slave ship who survive and work to sink other slave ships from deep beneath the ocean.
Lupe’s concepts are ambitious and abstract, jumping between overt storytelling and narratives so subtle they require a Wiki and YouTube recap to catch all the details. By comparison, HOUSE—his latest EP, out today via The Orchard—feels decidedly low-stakes. Lupe ditches the album-length epics and shoots off about whatever is on his mind.
Of course, there is still a concept at play. The project opens with a speech from clothing designer and ”humanitarian” Virgil Abloh, which ends with a platitude about modern society:
“Man has flaws; man has power. Everything is man-made, and what’s more dangerous than that?”
These two sentences are the framing device for the bulk of the project’s four songs. “Dinosaurs” charts the history of (and speculations about) the dinosaurs while poking fun at their effect on fossil fuels and pop culture. “Sledom” is about the practical and financial applications of modeling, from fashion to fast food to trafficking.
Some of Lupe’s brainstorms work better in theory than in execution. “Shoes” attempts to connect the story of a hypebeast waiting in line for shoes with another Virgil Abloh speech explaining the concept behind a hypothetical sneaker designed for Georgia shooting victim Ahmaud Arbery. It’s a clunky and awkward experiment bordering on disrespectful.
Obnoxious interludes aside, it sounds like Lupe had a ball unspooling his thoughts in this more comfortable, compact environment. Even closing song “LF95,” with its overt mentions of the coronavirus, eventually descends into random Off-White jokes (“Write Lupe on my Lupe!”) and rap calisthenics involving Anthony Fauci and Chicago rap blogger Andrew Barber. Lupe’s technical sharpness mostly keeps things from meandering.
The standout component of HOUSE is, surprisingly, the production. Lupe’s ear for beat selection has been a consistent point of criticism across his 15-year-plus recording career, but he pairs nicely with Florida producer Kaelin Ellis‘ lush soundscape. Ellis’ piano keys float over tight drums on “Dinosaurs” while synths and a booming low-end march in lockstep across “LF95.” Lupe’s voice zig-zags through Ellis’ rich live instruments with ease. He should consider keeping Ellis on speed dial for his next full-length album.
HOUSE showcases Lupe Fiasco as his loosest and most free-flowing in years. When he’s not tethered to an overbearing concept—and when paired with the right producer—Lupe’s thoughts can still be intriguing enough to build worlds around.
Best song: “LF95”
Best bar: “Tuck it in and square up; get reacquainted with your hairbrush / Just cause Andrew’s a barber, that don’t mean he giving haircuts.”
Best moment: Wondering whether Lupe paid Virgil $50 to use his audio clips.