Never Been Better: The Rise of J.I.D
One album in, J.I.D is already a dazzling blend of exuberance, empathy and eccentricity. It’s a mix that might just make him Dreamville’s first breakout star.
A few weeks ago, after details of a low-budget mixtape from 2013 called Para Tu had been unearthed on the r/hiphopheads subreddit, up-and-coming rapper J.I.D went on Twitter to announce to his 56,000 followers that, despite his artistic misgivings about it, he would be dropping the entire project on his Soundcloud page immediately for their listening pleasure. It displayed, in one swift move, many of the attributes that the 27-year-old Atlantan has come to be known for: social media savvy, a sense of “what’s the worst that could happen?” spontaneity, and a preternatural comfort level, even for a famous musician, with public vulnerability. And while the tape shows a lot of talent and promise from the then-23-year-old, it also shows how much has changed in the last four years.
Signed to Dreamville in February of 2017, J.I.D (a.k.a. Destin Route) arrived at North Carolina’s most prominent rap label during a span in which the Interscope imprint looked like a pro sports team living way under the salary cap and chomping at the bit to make moves in free agency. From December of 2015, when the signings of singer Ari Lennox and Charlotte rapper Lute were first announced, to September 2017’s addition of Atlanta duo EarthGang, the number of acts signed to J. Cole bubbled from four, to six, to eight, doubling the roster in the span of just 21 months.
It would have been an easy mix to get lost in, but J.I.D had an ace up his sleeve: The Never Story, an electrifying project that see-saws from childishly whimsical to deadly serious while packing more than an hour’s worth of recollections and memorable rhymes into its tight 39-minute frame. While not everyone took notice immediately (I admittedly became aware of J.I.D through the EarthGang song, “Meditate,” myself), by year’s end, The Never Story — according to Complex, Billboard, DJ Booth, Rolling Stone and more — was a consensus pick for one of the best hip-hop releases of 2017. There’s a case to be made that, were this not one of the most fiercely competitive years for the award in recent memory, Never Story would have been completely justified in receiving a nomination for Best Rap Album at the 2018 GRAMMYs.
The album, while undoubtedly marking a personal milestone for Route as a musician, also marked an exciting, albeit somewhat dubious, milestone for Dreamville as a label: for the first time in 10 years, an artist not named Jermaine Cole is showing hints of becoming a breakout, bonafide superstar.
To the uninitiated, J.I.D. could probably be mistaken for any number of other ascendant young rap acts that — in a way that feels very current — seem altogether uninterested in attaching themselves to any narratives larger than their own.
There’s a clear delineation between the bigger-picture, politically oriented perspectives of Logic, Joey Bada$$, Childish Gambino, and J.I.D’s own label head J. Cole, and the more nonchalant, even nihilistic, detachment of acts like Young Thug, Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert. (Young Thug, when asked in 2014 about Mike Brown and the treatment of black people by law enforcement: “Leave that up to the critics and the laws, and all that other shit. We havin’ fun, we iced out, we havin’ money.”)
Born and raised in Atlanta, he watched his older brothers and sisters juggle circumstances that ranged from jail time, to having children out of wedlock, to being drafted with the final pick in the NFL Draft. Despite what his Dreamville affiliation would have you think, J.I.D has a disposition more similar to Playboi Carti or Lil Yachty than Joey Bad. He’s quiet. His interviews don’t offer grand treatises on humanity. He talks and raps about high school football and Saturday morning cartoons (more on that later). Like many millennials-and-younger, he practically lives on social media, frequently replying to fans under his own tweets. While labelmate Bas is on Twitter chastising the public for our collective malaise toward foreign affairs (his harsh, hand-wringing tweet, “Yall not mad bout Libya no more? Off that already?,” racked up 17,000 retweets), J.I.D is using the platform to say he can’t sleep and that he wants someone to eat breakfast with. Like the aforementioned “new school” up-and-comers, J.I.D’s public missives often directly or at least peripherally concern his lifestyle and his career: the city he’s in, the bud he just found, the beats he just got, the song he just did a feature on. While a “Fuck Trump!” chant might be prompted from the stage at a J.I.D live show, the 45th president (and the misadventures of his hapless administration) isn’t a popular topic on the rapper’s timeline.
But dig a little deeper, and it’s evident that this relative silence isn’t a matter of lack of concern, or lack of awareness, but personality. True to Dreamville form, J.I.D has multitudes dwelling below the surface, he just tends to save them for his music. His very, very good music.
“Born to win, but born a sinner, and that’s word to Jermaine/ Cold flows, Cole world, but we living the same…”
It would be melodramatic (and flat-out wrong) to bemoan the period we’re living through as the golden era of dumbed-down, unimaginative raps, but in between Cole and Kendrick releases, it can be hard to find solace in the top of the rap charts (Here’s G-Eazy performing “No Limit” on Jimmy Fallon, in case you don’t believe me). It can also be hard to find tracks from below the Mason-Dixon line that aren’t drowned in a liter of codeine and/or forced into the one-size-fits-all trap music formula that produces all the familiar, mediocre sameness of an industrial meat-processing plant.
It’s within this context that J.I.D shines like a beacon of hope, not just for his lyrics — after all, there are plenty of aspiring rappers who know how to write rhymes — but for the earnest, excitable personality that delivers them, a character like we’ve never quite seen before.
It’s fitting that The Never Story’s lead single, “Never,” after an ominous sequence of distant, echoing synths, would blast out of gates with a cadence that not a single listener on this planet has ever heard in his or her life, the now ubiquitous “Never been shit, never had shit, never knew shit, never out, never do shit, damn,” delivered sharp and staccato enough to be the tappity-tap-tap of a drumline. By the time J.I.D is shouting “Never had a real dollar to my name, bruh!/ Shit been lame, bruh!” most of us are still trying to figure out what the hell just happened. Not to belabor the term (or the point), but never have I seen a building lose its collective shit the way Durham’s MotorCo Music Hall did when this track came on over the loudspeakers at his November 2017 show.
But J.I.D’s gifts don’t end with flow. He’s also a master of the kind of rhyme that so desperately relies on the emcee’s unique word-warping delivery that the words don’t even seem to add up on paper.
For example, on the song “General,” J.I.D. tacks “killers you might see on Nat Geo” alongside “n----s can get they cap peeled,” and I promise you it sounds like those two things actually rhyme (they don’t). On the same track, he raps that in high school he was “catchin’ and droppin’ punts” and that he could have been “J.I.D, or like Chris Johnson.” Not only do these word combinations not rhyme, but if you haven’t heard them rapped by J.I.D, you probably can’t even imagine how they are made to sound like a rhyme at all (for those who can’t listen at the moment: the pronunciation is “Chris Junt-sin,” with the “sin” almost swallowed to the point of being inaudible. The result: “punts/junts”).
And then, of course, there’s just a sense that J.I.D has fun with words. Whether it’s splitting a hip-hop pioneer’s name across two lines so it can be repurposed as a descriptor (“like he Afrika-bam…/Boutta-be-outta here…”), dragging out a word’s syllables to fit the rhyme scheme (“They ask me what’s my sound, I tell ‘em nothing particular/ I’m blowin’ this purple ‘til I’m feeling per-pen-dicular”), employing more straightforward, but still creative, phonetic devices (“tell the judge he don’t need my pee, like Pterodactyl”), or making an entire song on the premise of a Cartoon Network TV show (“EdEddnEddy”), he’s clearly not running out of things to say, or ways to say them, any time soon. Add to that his dejected, heartfelt account of a once-loving relationship as it falls apart on “Hereditary,” and it’s not unreasonable to say that J.I.D has the emotional and technical range every bit as wide as his most famous peers.
At Dreamville, where an emphasis on quality has always been paramount, J.I.D’s unique blend of youthful exuberance, empathy and creativity makes him a no-brainer of a fit. But it’s his mass appeal that stands out.
Music is an art form and a way of making a living, not necessarily a competition. And if there’s someone who lives that mantra in his life and his work, it’s Cole. But it’s also hard to believe that after years of artist development, after gigantic albums and TV specials from J. Cole, after massive, far-reaching tours, that Jermaine and label president Ibrahim Hamad wouldn’t mind seeing one of their fledgling acts finally step out from Cole’s long shadow as a star in their own right.
In the past, Dreamville has tried to facilitate this process with occasional, and sometimes liberal, sprinklings of its flagship brand — Cole on a Bas single here, Cole on a Cozz remix there, Cole on Dreamville songs everywhere — to middling results. With more recent signees, there seems to be a more cautious approach.
Ari, though she delivered a perfect hook on “Change” from 4 Your Eyez Only, has never had Cole on one of her songs. Lute just released his debut Dreamville album without a peep from Cole (OK, maybe a peep, if you listen closely to the background of “Still Slummin’”). EarthGang, the newest group on the label, still hasn’t leaned on the head honcho. Now J.I.D, also one project into his Dreamville career, seems to ready to burst into rap’s foreground, whether that includes a J. Cole feature verse or not.
That said, the pairing of Cole and his hottest protegé would be special, and so long as he remains on the label, J.I.D fans will wait with bated breath for the day he collaborates with Cole. But as one of the most invigorating acts in all of hip-hop right now, it would probably be just as satisfying, if not more so, if he never had to.
Ryan Cocca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @youaintryan on Twitter.