Feature: Trip Lee Is Rap’s Risen Son

After an out-of-nowhere semi-retirement, Reach Records star Trip Lee is back with a new album abounding with the good word. Here, the rapper speaks on his journey back into the spotlight.

It was a Friday night in Miami Beach and, after a sold-out show, attendees spilled from the venue into the boisterous garages and lots in droves. Cars with rattling trunks peeled out of The Fillmore, leaving fat clouds of grey in their wake. Heavy bass echoed for blocks, stretching well past Lincoln Road. It wasn’t hard to make out Trip Lee’s voice, his deep Southern twang blaring from all directions as vehicles sped out toward I-95. The memory has stayed with me, that night in 2012 when I first heard the sounds of rap collective 116 Clique shaking the streets. Soon after—at the height of his popularity—Trip would announce a semi-retirement of sorts. And some were left confused. Trip Lee, the Dallas-born and bred wunderkind, is one of the most integral pieces of the 116 arsenal. By 16, he was already being touted by Reach Records, the label co-owned by Lecrae. In 2006, they released Trip’s debut, If They Only Knew, and he was hailed as a promising newcomer with a flow beyond his age. That he was, and more. Fast-forward some years, and there were a handful of lauded LP’s, packed-out tours, marriage, children, and, most recently, a brief hiatus. “I just want to give people what I feel, not what I think they want,” Trip says over the phone from Atlanta. “Something that challenges and pokes at emotions we all deal with.” Of course he’s referring to Rise, his much-anticipated fifth album, which is out today (October 27). Having been relatively quiet since 2012, he’s all clear on the stakes: “People might wonder, ‘Oh, does he still have it?’ But I needed to take my time.” It’s no mystery what he means, either. In a sport that is as competitive and so much about the magic of now as rap, a respite of any kind can be detrimental to a career. Artists, particularly rappers, often walk a tight line between relevance and getting dismissed as yesterday’s goods. Still, Trip’s not worried. “There are aspects to Rise that make it flawless to me. And worth the wait.”

Certain traits have long separated Trip from his industry peers. While a level of dexterity and confidence are necessary components in hip-hop, likability never has been. So much is true for blowhards like Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean, who command airwaves regularly with plain old conceit and their trademark indifference. It may be fun, sure, or impressive now and again. But the bulk of it is drivel for clubs and weekend binges. For Trip, it’s more about shining through with something transcendent, perhaps even a reassuring word for when you’re walking in the fire. And although he can hang lyrically with the game’s top tier, he chooses the route of humble teacher unearthing lessons. No middle fingers and gun hand gestures, just an engaged handshake and a smile. Skill, there’s plenty of it to speak of. But people also genuinely like the guy. For the last few years, Trip has been plagued by health issues that have threatened his productivity. He suffers from “chronic fatigue syndrome,” a debilitating condition that has kept him from touring as heavily as he used to. “It’s a battle for me because I’m just naturally ambitious,” he says. “I have a love/hate relationship with the road, though. As much as I enjoy traveling and being out there, I can’t stand being away from my family. And sometimes I’m just physically out of commission for days at a time. I’m reminded to be careful about how I spend my energy.” Despite having been “slowed down” by the disorder, nothing can stop Trip from offering himself up to be poured out. He’s just wrapped up his second book, aptly titled Rise, joined Lecrae for a few dates on The Anomaly Tour, and has unleashed what is arguably his most evocative musical effort to date.

A photo posted by Trip Lee (@triplee116) on

“Me and Gawvi were shooting for a classic,” Trip says, alluding to the Atlanta producer who shaped the sound of Rise. “We wanted to give people a project that will resonate for years to come. Gawvi created a unique sound with these soulful elements. He’s so detailed in everything he does, we both are. His approach, the way he understands music, is something you can’t help but connect with.” The duo managed to lock in on something urgent-like. From Trip’s breathy delivery to Gawvi’s crashing drums and cleverly placed vocal samples, Rise is no-frills, no filler. The raps, good as they ever were, call for a new masculinity, one rooted not in gain but in service. Along with J. Cole and Big K.R.I.T., Trip is helping to usher in the lyrical South’s new assault. Not some visceral poet coasting solely on charisma, he’s of the more well-refined. He occupies a different island than other young bloods like Migos and Travis Porter, whose ethos is far better suited for carefree ears. Yet, to conceive of Trip as simply a rapper with a message would be to severely miss the point. Similar to Scarface and those philosophers of OutKast before him, Trip gives voice to the anxiety of the times. So, where consciousness comes in only short bursts from some, the man in question, who is also a pastor, is busy about a revolution. “This is the biggest audience for me,” Trip says of the present moment. “Things have been crazy but I’m here, and right now are the most joy-filled days.” Joy. Much isn’t made of that concept in today’s hip-hop climate. That Trip Lee has been making this joyful noise reverberate since a scraggly teen, and that his success up until now has afforded him the chance to leave and actually make you miss him, is a testament to the staying power he’s achieved. On “All Rise Up,” he divulges: “Rap don’t need me, Reach don’t need me, Christ don’t need me…” To that we nod our heads, because, in truth, recognizing one’s smallness can be empowering. Still, it’s good to have this risen son reemerge. Even the revolution needs a soundtrack. —Juan Vidal Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR, Esquire, and VIBE. He’s on Twitter: @itsjuanlove