In a lot of the advance press about the new album, people constantly refer to you as an "intellectual." Do you think that kind of discounts the intellectual faculties of many of your peers in hip-hop?
I have so much to keep track of myself that I can't think about that. I think all art has some sort of insight to offer, or good art does. There are people that talk about a wide variety of subjects, and there's always something to offer. I have a unique perspective on a lot of things, and that's what I bring to the table.
Do you feel that sets you up with a lot of pressure to be some kind of sage, or always give weighty sound bites?
I've always just been genuine and sincere, and tried to express things as clearly and honestly as I can. That's what got me where I am, and that's what I continue to do. I don't feel pressure; I don't know what other people's expectations of me are. I try to really hone in on what I know to be true, and just find the best way to express it.
How are you finding your old fans to react to the more pointedly political content of the new album, as you described it, as opposed to the personal material on your last record?
So far it's been good, especially on tour, because I'm able to come out and explain. I think when you see me performing it all together it makes more sense. There's always been this kind of search for love in my music, and a search for value and dignity and all that stuff.
I think on my first album I was really put in a bad situation and was struggling to insist that the world respect me, and that I deserved to have a decent life. Then music fans supported me so well I was able to get to a different place in life. Then I was looking to be more fulfilled as a person rather than just survive.
Once that became true, the work didn't stop just because I got satisfied or because my life got better. Now the work is to make that a possibility for everybody. I think that's still rooted in the same quest for love and respect, but it's not just about only love and respect for myself, it's about actually caring for human beings.
Where does that sense of deep personal responsibility come from?
I've always been an underdog, and I've always cared about underdogs, because I'll always know what that is. I think anybody who's been in that situation, you either have to go for self and not give a damn about anybody else, or you are going to have to constantly be in this work.
Your new video for "Mourning in America" is pretty striking, visually, and pretty much intentionally provocative. Given the tenor of world events over the past week or so, are you concerned with how it will now be received?
No. I can't be concerned with that. I'm talking about my society. I'm an American Muslim, a Muslim American, and I'm a human being. That song is more than just about foreign policy. That's about us and our society's obsession with murder and death. I think we're sleepwalking about that.
I think we think it's normal, the amount of murder and death that both happens in our society and that we perpetrate around the world. We have war zones in our cities, where people kill each other at war zone rates, like in Chicago and other places. We still put people to death when we determine they're at a certain level as a criminal -- Troy Davis is a great example of that. The police are slaughtering men and women in the streets at enormous rates. At a society, I don't think we acknowledge that or wrestle with it in the right way.
We're the most powerful empire on earth, and we send remote control planes to go blow up homes in nations that we're not at war with, like Pakistan. We need to be more honest about that and stop thinking that American lives are the only lives that matter. A life is a life. There's that line between terrorism and righteous soldiering, and it gets very, very thin. That's where I'm coming from with the song, and I don't think there should be anything controversial about that.