'I can make the music that people can party to, but I can still stay true to my roots, and I can still talk my shit.'
J.I. x Evan Dale // Dec 15, 2020
Sometimes an artist – especially a rapper in the ever-evolving hip-hop sphere – is able to populate two stylistic spaces at once. Young limelight in accompaniment of continued growth can allow an artist to see so many aesthetic changes across the spectrum of what is and is not hot, that their own sound becomes a unique mosaic crafted from the things they know and have known; the things that are timeless and trendy. J.I. is one of those artists – one of those rappers. With a music career founded in his 2016 appearance on Jermaine Dupri’s, The Rap Game, and nearly a half-decade of steady growth and personal evolution since, there are really no rappers his age that can parallel his wide-ranging understanding of where hip-hop has been and where it is going.
RNGLDR: As a young hip-hop artist who is simultaneously a veteran in the circuit thanks to your early roots, how do you balance your inspirations and influences between the scene you began making music in a half-decade ago, and a current hip-hop scene that has seen so much stylistic evolution at the hands of a lot of new artists your age?
J.I.: 'The crazy thing is, that I’ve had this conversation with my friends. It’s shocking to me how maybe three or four years ago, the hottest artists out in that time period - I would watch BET, I would watch these award shows - and the best hip-hop artist nominees would be like Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Drake, and it went from that to Lil Baby, DaBaby, Roddie Rich - these new artists. And I’m even seeing how the younger cats are tuning out the older legends.'
With ten toes in New York, spread evenly between his roots in the past and his influence on the future, a listener hears in J.I.s music the brash coalescence of so many things that New York hip-hop culture – New York culture in general – brings so the table. His Puerto Rican roots meeting his Brooklyn upbringing; his timeless adherence to the lyrical meeting his experimental understanding of the melodic. J.I. is a glimpse in two directions into New York hip-hop by being authentic and honest to himself.
J.I.: 'I feel like it’s 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 to. Commercial music. Dumbed down music. And I feel like my role is fuckin’ dope because I can make that music, but in an intelligent way. I can make the music that people can party to, but I can still stay true to my roots, and I can still talk my shit.'
With his recent release of Welcome to GStarr Vol. 1 and his imminent release of Hood Life Krisis Vol. 3, J.I. is building out a world of collections where he is able to lend certain nuances to certain projects, and other nuances elsewhere. While continuing to evolve, it leaves him in a tricky, albeit powerful position of creation, sometimes making music for the old rap heads in Brooklyn looking for someone who can really, really rap; at other time making music for his Latin roots like recent single, Spanglish; at other times still, making music that he refers to as commercial.
J.I.: 'You know how you had certain artists that rap too much? But it’s just different in the industry nowadays. It’s sad, but it’s true - you have to be able to make commercial music to get the appeal you want. You have to be able to appeal to every category - the women, the children, the grown men - you’ve just gotta be able to make all those types pf music. So, with me, I just try to stay true to where I’m from, you know? New York is known for having a lyrical background. New York is known for being aggressive. New York is known for having the energy. So, I feel like my city helps me out in a way because now I have a reason for being aggressive; I have a reason to rap the way I want; I have a reason to kind of carry the torch, and that’s what I feel like I’m doing.'
It's a torch no artist could carry alone. Coming from the mecca and the birthplace of hip-hop while trying to stay hip to the evolution of the craft has left J.I. at a crossroads between the music he knows he can make, the music he commercially should be making, and the music that a new generation of hip-hop fandom wants to hear him craft. But, his range has thus far stood the test, more than succeeding as a hip-hop artist at a volatile time of wide range and commercialism, but also emerging a leader in the balancing act by doing it all with a work ethic not many in music could match.
RNGLDR: 2020 saw the release of 'GStarr, Vol. 1.' As you move towards the release of 'Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 3,' how will the two project series differentiate themselves from one another? And what stylistic space will each series grant you to explore moving forward, that speaks to the need for multiple mixtape series?
J.I.: Definitely as far as authenticity and as far as verses are concerned. I feel like I cheated the fans with the last project. I gave them short ass verses. I feel like the verses didn’t really have flavor in them. I’m a hard critique, so, a lot of people listening to this who probably enjoyed that project might get confused like, ‘what are you talking about? I enjoyed it.’ But, I know the type of music I can make and I know where I can go when it comes to me using my full potential. And I just honestly feel like my full potential wasn’t put into that project, based on everything else I had going on mentally.
You won’t see a lot in the music journalism circuit that speaks towards what it is that J.I. is speaking on. Though the project didn’t receive the glowing acclaim that his HLK series has seen, it’s a bold step to start a new directive while still working towards the finale of an existing mixtape collection, and with more commercial appeal – more pop nuances – Gstarr has by no means been a flop. But, when you’re as harsh a critique as J.I. is about his own work, you’ve got to understand that there is always more work to be done, and more growth to bask in.
J.I.: 'So, with this project (Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 3), I really took my time, and we have a feature on this project that a lot of people have been waiting for. I don’t want to give it away. He’s from my city and a lot of people have been waiting for this collab, so that’s just another example why I’m excited because this Hood Life Krisis. The first two volumes sparked a lot in terms of my fanbase and who I am as an artist. So, I feel like with this third project, I’m making it a trilogy and kind of tie everything together. It’s really dope because it’s that old J.I. that people like. I feel like I gave my all with this project, but I’m still not done. That’s why I’m gonna give the people a part 2 to HLK, Vol. 3., because I feel like there’s so much I could do for the fans and I feel like I cheated them out of good music. It’s time to overwhelm the people with good music.'
Hood Life Krisis, Volume 3 is expected on Friday, December 18.