When hailing from New York City, there is a pre-programmed level of legacy to live up to. As hip hop’s epicentre, the city has dictated the sound of the genre for decades. Its latest offspring is Bronx rapper and singer J.I., who’s Jay Z-sampled single “Need Me” took the internet by storm throughout the year. Despite having just a few projects out, J.I.’s career dates back to 2016 with his appearance on The Rap Game, proving to the world his emcee capabilities at just 15 years of age.
Motivation for a rap career has fluctuated for J.I. over the years. Now at a tender 19, his breakout year saw the release of Welcome to G-Starr, Vol. 1 EP and racking millions of streams while still repping for his city.
J.I. joins us for a conversation in another edition of The Spot Cheque.
What is the significance of the title Hood Life Krisis?
This hood shit ain’t for me. I see where it gets people; it’s either in jail or dead. I hit a hood life crisis when I realised I want to take a different route and see where I can go with this rap shit. Let’s see if I can really uplift myself and be one of those people that make it out my neighbourhood. We gotta talk about the stress that’s going on and tell people you don’t have to be in the hood and can push yourself to do greatness.
What life experiences inspired the Hood Life Krisis series?
Just being from New York. When you listen to my music you can tell I’m from New York. I grew up in Brooklyn, Crown Heights to be specific. I grew up with people I was close with that aren’t here today, they either locked up or dead. I speak for those people and myself too. I used to sell CDs and books to my block, and it got to the point where I’m literally selling shit in my house just so I can have lunch and dinner.
With the last two projects you hear commercial music, you hear the pain records. But with this project it’s a mixing of both. You hear the commercial records but you really hear the mental process of who I am as a person. I feel like I never got to get inside of my personal life with my music and speak about shit that’s really painful to me. I’m constantly pushing myself to do different things because I have people watching and listening to me. I want to be interesting but at the same time I want to be truthful to myself.
Describe a day in the life of J.I.
It can be whatever I make of it. If I’m in a good mood I’m gonna have a good time in the studio. And I like to give time to my fans. I could have the worst days where I don’t want no one coming up to me cause I’m just not in that mood. I’ll have fans coming up to me asking for a photo. But as angry as I am, I can’t sit here and deny a fan. I love what I do and I’m always able to put my pride aside and snap out of shit for the people that look up to me.
You introduced yourself as a freestyling expert, and have gone on to show your versatility with your melodic side. Is there ever a feeling to show new listeners that you can really rap?
I’ve been talking to my engineers about how we can mix the singing and the rapping together and correlate it so it goes perfectly. For those who have listened to new J.I., I guess you could say I drifted more towards the melodic sound. But I feel like with this intro [on Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 3] you’re gonna hear certain breaks in the record where I go from singing to rapping. I’ve drained the consumer with so much melodic music that eventually I’m gonna have to come back and talk that shit lyrically. I’m gonna go on Funk Flex, Tim Westwood, and do these freestyles just so people know this kid can rap.
You have a massive following in London. How does it feel to receive the love and support from the UK?
Honestly, it hurts because I can’t even go down there to show my face and go crazy with y’all. We were supposed to go on tour last year but the whole corona lockdown came and everything got cancelled so that was a bummer. But at the time it was a blessing because I dropped more music. So now I got more fans showing out in London and going crazy to see me. So hopefully when I do go down there I can give y’all a good-ass show.
Being from New York, who do you think are the greatest New York rappers of all-time?
Biggie, Jay-Z, and 50 Cent. That’s my three.
I would go Biggie, Jay, and Nas for me.
I was holding my tongue with Nas! I was like ‘Shit, I left out Nas!’ If you look at different interviews there’s probably been times where I’ve taken out different names and put in new names. With music I feel like you can’t determine who the greatest is, you have so many different opinions and so many different bodies of work. But we can put Nas in there and make it a top four!
Have you ever been worried about being vulnerable and showing emotion in your music?
I gotta thank people like Drake because he was probably one of the first people to come out and get on that lane. I feel like he took all the backlash for artists like me and the artists that came after him. When he first came out everyone was like “Who the fuck is this singing dude? Why is he singing?” And then I came out and I kind of got comparisons to A Boogie, Drake, Lil Tjay. and it’s cool, we from the same city so I expect that. But my main thing was just to show that I’m different. Yeah, you can compare me to people but when you listen to my music you’re gonna know this is J.I.
I made sure it was my business to leave an impact on people as an artist for being who I am. I can’t stand people who come out and try do what the other man is doing. You can easily tell when someone is trying to mimic somebody. When I got these comparisons it sucked because I’m not trying to be like these people.
How has it been working with artists like Lil Durk and Nav?
I was a big fan of Durk growing up cause he’s been around for a minute. And Nav is dope too. I’m a genuine person and I try go with the flow, but there’s a lot of artists with weird ass energy. I’m a real energy person and I test people’s energy. I don’t care if you’re the hottest artist out or the quietest artist out, if I don’t like your energy you’re basura [trash] to me.
How do you feel about the current landscape and direction of hip hop?
I’m seeing how the younger cats are tuning out the older legends. It’s kind of harder for people to make truthful music now, because people don’t want to hear that. They want to hear dumbed down shit. They want to hear music that they can feel loose to, get drunk to and shake their body too – just commercial music. I feel like my role is dope because I can make that music but in an intelligent way. I can make the music people could party to but I can still stay true to my roots and talk my shit.
It’s different in the industry nowadays. You have to make commercial music to get the appeal you want. You have to appeal to every category – the women, the children, the grown men. It’s sad but it’s true. So for me, I try to stay true to where I’m from. New York is known for having a lyrical background, being aggressive, for having an energy. My city helps me out cause now I have a reason to rap the way I want to and carry the torch.
You mentioned you keep New York in your music. How do you manage to do that?
With my last project, I forgot that I have a core and a fanbase that listen to me for a reason. When I listen to Fabolous or Jadakiss I expect them to rap on a track and say some crazy shit. Just like when I listen to Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole. And when they don’t say those certain things you hear the backlash from the fans. I got a Big Pun remix recorded, that’s for my core. I gotta give fans that core J.I.
What are some of your goals for 2021?
I want to put out way more music. Looking at my Spotify recap, we did over 200 million just off me dropping one project this year. My biggest problem is consistency. My main goals is being consistent, more success, more fans, and bigger touring. I want to see these places first hand and give audiences a show.
What can people expect from Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 3?
The first two volumes sparked a lot in terms of my fanbase and who I am as an artist. So with this third project I want to make it a trilogy and tie everything together. It’s just that old J.I. that people like. I gave my all with this project but I’m still not done.
J.I.’s mixtape “Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 3” is out 18/12 via Geffen and Interscope Records.