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Lupe Fiasco Walks Us Through His Amy Winehouse-Inspired Battle-Rap Album ‘Samurai’

During a segment in the 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, a voicemail plays of the singer-songwriter telling producer Salaam Remi that she’s been writing battle-rap-style rhymes and that she’s become a lyrical “samurai.” The world would never get to hear those bars, but Lupe Fiasco gave us an imaginative depiction of Amy Winehouse the battle rapper on the song “Samurai,” from his latest album of the same name. Produced by his longtime collaborator Soundtrakk, Lupe says the project was “just supposed to be one song. It wasn’t like we were going to do a whole album.” 

Lupe tells Rolling Stone the nine-track project developed over time. “When it developed into ‘There’s another record in there potentially,’ and building off the scene that was set up on ‘Samurai,’ it was like, ‘What’s the next step? I got to tell people what the story is about.’“ While Lupe says the album wasn’t written as a straight-through narrative, he wrote songs that highlighted various junctures in Samurai Amy’s journey as a battle rapper and opera singer: “Cake” is about the sweetness of lyrical supremacy, while “Bigfoot” is a “modular” track with multiple functions.

Lupe started working on Samurai during the Covid-19 quarantine era while creating other projects, including 2022’s Drill Music In Zion. “With Lupe, I throw big batches of tracks towards him, and they go in every direction,” Soundtrakk tells Rolling Stone during his first interview in more than 19 years. “I’ll have five boom bap ones on there, then I’ll have some trap. I just have everything in there. It’s a mixed bag, and he pretty much takes whatever moves him and pieces it together from the different batches.” Their groove is cultivated over two decades of working with each other (with more work to come, they tell us). “I think there’s something [to] growing with a partner in music and learning how to bring the best out of each other,” Lupe says. 

Last year, Lupe’s longtime manager Charles “Chilly” Patton was released from prison after serving 16 years — both Lupe and Soundtrakk credit him for helping sequence the album, offering his input on production, as well as suggesting when it was time to stop working. “If I had to continue working on it, you wouldn’t have Samurai for another three years.” 

Lupe says that Chilly’s presence has allowed him to simply focus on music as opposed to the other figurative hats he’s had to wear over the years. “I am in a place now as an artist where I just get to be an artist,” he says. “I don’t make managerial decisions, I don’t make label decisions. And if management says, ‘Oh, we done,’ then we done. And then I work on things.”

Time will tell if he’ll ever explore a Samurai sequel, but for now, we have what Lupe calls a “whimsical” portrait of an artist’s journey, crafted with the elite lyricism that’s made him one of the world’s most respected MCs. Though Amy’s quote inspired the project, Lupe is clear that he’s not attempting to speak for her. 

“It’s not an autobiography or even an attempt to tell Amy Winehouse’s story. That’s for her estate and her family and people who are in control of her legacy,” he says. “For me, it was literally just that one quote. I wouldn’t dare try to rewrite or even postscript her legacy in any way other than just imagine everything like, ‘Yo, what if she was a battle rapper?’”

And Lupe tells us that even through his storytelling, the project is also laced with personal reflections on his own life and times. “You’ll see pieces of it on ‘Palaces,’ you’ll get pieces of it in ‘Till Eternity.’ You’ll get pieces of it in ‘Outside.’ It’s fragmented and broken up in Easter eggs throughout the piece. But at the same time, too, the artist’s struggle is the artist’s struggle. Every artist goes through similar things in the music business, in the underground, trying to put their career together, the aftermath, having things fall apart, and stuff like that. And then being in the midst of the heights of their career, there are still things they got to deal with. So I think it tells the story of all artists to a degree. I tell my story as an artist and it dovetails and universalizes with a lot of different other artists’ struggles.”

Lupe and Soundtrakk tell us the story of Samurai, track by track, below:

“Samurai”

Soundtrakk: I was digging, I found that sample, and it moved me. I channeled RZA with that one, I went Wu-Tang with it. I sent it to Lu and it had certain sections, [and] once he finished the song he sent it back. And then we tried to replay the sample; Chilly didn’t like the replay. I used the layers, the flutes and horns, and live bass and synths, and arranged it and sectioned it off, and created a buildup which turned out really nice. It was just a beautiful sample.

Lupe: [I wanted it to] lyrically be a portrait of Amy Winehouse. And that’s where you hear certain references and stuff, maybe certain British slang or something there, or just cultural pieces and situations. And then imagining and exaggerating other pieces and parts. But it was just meant to serve as if it never turned into an album. It’d just be like a dope song. And if I never told you that it was about Amy Winehouse, it could have just been about anybody, etc. But once it became like, “Oh no, this is going to become a project,” then it became, “Oh, that’s the optimal introduction.” And then you start to use that as a foundation, and then just build from there with the rest of the album.

“Mumble Rap”

Lupe: “Samurai” starts with that Nineties boom-bap vibe. It was like, “OK, let’s continue that, but I need a different version of it.” Like a storytelling bit as opposed to a series of just images or concepts. “Mumble Rap” was meant to be a linear story to [inform you] this is how she got her battle-rap powers, in this weird moment with this old dude. And then here’s a piece of the battle. It was meant to be a big, heavy, solid, establish the plot, establish the character [kind of song]. [The hook] is really just a reference that just became the chorus. [I did] a little bit of scatting, giving myself permission to get free with it in the feel of a jazz vocalist, where they’ll scat some things out. And then you go back to it and it’s like, “You know what? That is the hook. That’s what it should be.” As opposed to like, “Yo, let me try and suffer through trying to come up with words to make it make sense and make it fit.” It’s like, “No, sometimes it’s that first or second pass on it.” 

Soundtrakk: And on the production end, it had a Tribe Called Quest type of groove to it, but I also channeled “Ms. Fat Booty” on it, too. It was a sample I slowed down dramatically and then put a break on it. I named the beat “Tribe Bop” when I sent it, and it was purposely done Nineties [style]. [It] might’ve been in the same batch as the “Samurai” beat, because all these beats were made in the same year. Even if they were from different batches, I was still in my Nineties-style bag during that time.

Lupe: And then that’s me on the trumpet, too. Underneath it was like, “Oh, I got this melody on the trumpet. Let me bang that out real quick and then just lay on top of that melody.”

Soundtrakk: [With] “Mumble Rap,” Lupe arranged the whole beat. I don’t think that beat was finished. I think it was a loop with the bass on it, a loop without it. He chopped the heck out of it, and I had to make the beat match what he did because he kept putting the bass in and out, wherever he felt like it should be. So he arranged the heck out of that one, for sure.

Lupe: Sometimes Trakk could send me just 30 seconds or something, or it might be like a minute and I’ll be like, “Hey, go back and sequence that.” Or I’ll do a reference sequence, real heavy-handed in GarageBand or whatever. So if I go back through the sessions and I take a look, I’ll be able to be like, “Oh, yeah, I did chop that one up and then I put this here.” I might move certain things. So the workflow is what the workflow is, but it all starts as “Here’s a little reference, let’s play around with it and then build on it.”

“Cake”

Soundtrakk: I started with the drum pattern, and that one was inspired by “The Glory,” off of Kanye’s Graduation. I did that type of bounce, tempo, and drum pattern. And then off of that I found a jazz sample, and I chopped it up DJ Premier style. I gave it to Lupe 70 percent complete. He mapped the entire song out. I don’t like overproducing stuff anymore because I did that back in the day. Ten years ago I used to add a lot of stuff in the production and make it grand, but now I scaled back. But this one I felt like needed some type of big switch, big outro. So I pulled in one of my producer homies, and she came in and I had her do the outro on purpose to add contrast and tension, so we could have a nice switch and feel good. A lot of the album I did leave close to as is, but some of them I needed to find places where I wanted to keep it from being static, boring. So I had to add change-ups and contrast and a bunch. 

Lupe: It was meant to be the record after the battle was won. “All right, cool.” That’s like the triumphant, talk-your-shit record. That’s the purpose it served in the narrative.

“Palaces”

Soundtrakk: Lupe was in the studio for this one. He only had the hook. When we got together it was me, him, and Chilly in the lab in Chicago. And he wrote it in front of us and told us we need to change up [the beat] for the third verse so I can have as much contrast, as much tension as I can. I added my guys, who was part of the production squad with First and 15th, Tremaine Jordan and Nicholas Isaiah. I wanted a 100 percent contrast, so we let them take care of that outro. 

Lupe: “Palaces” was the only record that, from the beginning, all I had was the chorus. I didn’t have any verses for it all the way up until the day we recorded. And it was the last song on the project. I had the chorus for three, four years, just sitting there. And I would just go back and listen because I knew the chorus was just, I had the same feeling when I did “Superstar.” I was like, “Yo, this is a joint. This one of them ones.”

When I do that, I’m very careful about the verse side of it. I take some time. That’s why sometimes the projects can take years. I got some of the records sitting with just choruses on them, just waiting for that moment for the optimal version. Or if it’s a whole project, what is the rest of the project doing or what has it done, and what is it missing? And then I’m going to use that record to fill in the gaps, the one that I know is a knockout at the end to cover any bases or fill in any gaps. But “Palaces” is the one that I actually didn’t have. All I had was just that chorus. And then when we got in the studio together, then I started to bang everything out in that one session.

I recorded everything in my living room in L.A. on the cheap mic in the GarageBand. We got this big crazy studio [in Chicago], but I rarely record there. All the equipment there is super high-end, my shit all cheap. So I brought my equipment to the studio and finished the songs that were started on GarageBand and the cheap mic. And that would’ve been “No. 1 Headband,” third verse, the second verse for “Cake,” and then “Palaces.” 

“No. 1 Headband”

Soundtrakk: That’s the oldest beat on the album. I did that in 2016. I sat down with a keyboardist and asked him to make me a “Paris, Tokyo” feel, a Nineties feel. He made me that loop real quick, left it with me, and then I added my drum breaks. I decided on that one to do two different drum-break techniques. I did it on “Dumb It Down” back in the day, where I kept switching back and forth between two different sets of drums every four bars. I pulled that technique back out for “No. 1 Headband,” just to keep it entertaining. Also, I added a little switch-up. I pulled in another producer again to add the surprise switch-up on the third verse. Same person who added the drums on the “Cake.” 

Lupe: I can’t remember 100 percent where it was supposed to be. If it was supposed to be a filler extension of “Cake” to a degree, or meant to be another battle record, almost like a final boss battle that she would’ve did. And then “No. 1 Headband” would’ve came after that. So some of the record was done in different periods for different things. The idea was the “No. 1 Headband” from Afro Samurai, where that was his quest. It was like, “You’re a samurai, so you’re on a quest to get the number one headband.” So it would’ve been this final big boss battle, and then she would’ve got the number one headband. But it ended up just as what it is, just sitting in the middle of the record to build upon “Cake,” but just with a little bit more laid-back feel.

And then you steer away a little bit from the concept and get into a more loose area, where it’s not tied too much to the rest of the record, other than just thematically and some boastful stuff like that. And then the third verse is completely new. It was the last verse we did for the project. But that was about it. Sometimes when you tell stories, at least for me, you got to lighten it up a little bit in terms of the bars. So I wanted to make sure that we had at least 60 percent of the album that was just barred out. So I used “No. 1 Headband” for that space. 

Soundtrakk: The rest of the [beats on the] album are from 2018. This was before Drill Music in Zion, all of this production. Drill Music in Zion’s production is two, three years newer. I’m somewhere else right now production-wise. 

Lupe: I got tons of [beats from Soundtrakk]. They’re like time capsules. Trakk will send me a batch of joints from a particular year, [it’s] almost like wine. I just let it sit and then open it up once it’s mature. Certain things are full songs, maybe written but not recorded type situation. So we got a lot of different pieces and parts. Samurai’s one of the first projects I started through the pandemic. And then Chilly called from jail. It was like, “Man, I need an album.” I was like, “I got the Samurai thing.” He’s like, “Nah, I’m going to do something new.” So we did.

“Bigfoot”

Lupe: Similar to Trakk, when Trakk be making beats and using samples and stuff like that. Some of the stuff I record or write or come up with—I would love to have such and such on here, but I know I’m not going to get it. I would like to have this person singing a chorus or I would like to have [that] person doing this. And so you might see me mimicking certain things or pretending to be a thing. And then it’s like we never get that person or something don’t get cleared or whatever happened, and I just leave me on there. But yeah.

“Bigfoot” was less about the battle rap space and more so just in that opera singer, jazz singer space. So you could look at it as “Bigfoot” could come after “Samurai.” With all these records, they’re their own records. You don’t necessarily need the concept to be able to enjoy them or process them. So “Bigfoot” takes liberties in that space. But if you wanted to shoehorn into the project in terms of the narrative, it would be somewhere in that pre-getting battle rap powers-type space. You’re just like an artist again. You’re singing on the street for people and then you go to a show, ain’t nobody really there type of thing. You’re going through the trials and tribulations. But it also can serve as an end after everything’s over and you come back to reality. If you listen to the end of “Mumble Rap,” an alarm goes off. So the whole thing was a dream. You’re out of the concept after “Mumble Rap” and back into the real world. So you can take liberties to move it around. It’s a little bit more modular. But that was the piece, that real-world snap back to reality.

Soundtrakk: I was in my piano chopping mode with that one. There’s a lot of chopped pianos all over this album. I had a break. This one’s a slower BPM, more of a slower bounce. I stopped overproducing stuff and making stuff grand and adding. This one, I decided to do that. I brought the whole production team called Open Session. They helped me out with Drill Music in Zion as well. I brought them in on this track in particular and had them inject a lot, add a lot of extra production on this one. The second verse [is] me by myself if you want to hear what the original beat sounded like. But the rest of it is them infused in it.

This is a team production piece on the album. I wanted to add a different energy because I don’t want the same energy over and over again. I tried my best to have the energy switch. So [on] this one I purposely added everybody onto it to throw an energy change on the album, just to keep things interesting. I know the album is cohesive and it all ties together. But I tried my best to give it as much variation as I could with this. That one involved five different producers.

“Outside”

Lupe: Lyrically, ‘Outside” served as the battle was over. In my mind, it was a whole scene where it was like she trying to get out of the club, people [are] talking to her and she’s having these rap conversations with these people. If you listen to the end of “Mumble Rap,” it’s like, “Hey, Shorty, let me come talk to you.” And then there’d been some follow-up banter and that’s what the record is about. It’s like she’s talking about who had the best verse. But somebody was outside waiting and that’s why there’s that gap in the third verse; you switch to the perspective of the person that’s outside, waiting for them to come outside. And it was a weird filler piece, but I really liked the vibe of it and just laid it. I’m surprised that “Outside” stayed on the project, to be honest. Because it’s the weirdest of the records in terms of the purpose that it serves. In terms of the concept, was that it was like, “The battle’s over, everybody going home, waiting for me outside.”

Soundtrakk: It was a weird sample for that one too. One of my boys told me it sounded like Mario Brothers on it. It was a jazz sample I chopped up DJ Premier style once again. Took a lot of pieces from all over the sample. I purposely did trappy, big 808 Lil Jon type of bass on it just to contrast the laid-backness of the sample. I think that’s one of the slower records on the album. Most of the album, we kept it in the 90 BPMs. This one’s like 83. 

And I added the same person who added drums to “Cake” on this one. I had her do some drums and I added new synths. I translated the sample into some synths and added a change-up that comes in twice in the song. I really love those parts. 

“Til Eternity”

Lupe: “Til Eternity” was supposed to be somewhere in the middle of the story. This is Lupe Rabbit. This isn’t me playing the role of someone. And so that’s why it touches on me talking about my mom and talking about my dad in the third verse and some other things. And it was almost to take a break from the storyline and just give you some bars. Sometimes you tell a story, you got to water things down for the sake of the story.

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And then I still want to have moments where people come back to the record like a “Mural” moment in Tetsuo or something where you just got this over-the-top lyrical situation. And even though a lot of the records that are in the storyline do have those lyrical moments too, it’s a little bit more free when you don’t have to stick to a script. But Chilly’s genius putting it at the end..it’s like, oh, it feels right. It feels like that’s where it should be with the records that exist for it right now. As a closer, as that final nod. And it has a lot of closing themes in it. I think it summarizes and wraps up the record really nicely, and it ends on a bang as opposed to ending on a low or ending on a credit roll type feel.

Soundtrakk: I found a beautiful piano loop, chopped it up a little bit, but mostly kept it the same. It was very beautiful to me. I went for a “Kick, Push” tempo and groove with the drums. I added the same team that I used on “Samurai,” which was Greg Brookshire on the bass, Anthony Perkin on the synths, and used Crystal Torres on the trumpets and the bugle horn for a possible replay or layering. And then I just arranged it with the same approach as Samurai. I arranged it once again after I heard the complete song. 

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