There is no reward without sizable risk.
Just ask Chicago-born-and-based artist Ajani Jones, who knows this postulate well. Having just turned 24 and recently signed to Closed Sessions—the indie label home to Jamila Woods, Kweku Collins, WebsterX, and more—it would be easy to tag Jones’ journey as yet another paint-by-numbers success.
But Jones’ road to releasing his Closed Sessions debut EP, Cocoons, required one major leap of faith: leaving a full-ride scholarship at the University of Iowa.
Long before his college days, Jones was a lover of neo-soul and Slick Rick, of any music his mother would play for him. But once he heard “Many Men,” a standout off 50 Cent's dynamic debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, his entire perspective on music shifted.
“When I heard 50, I was like, ‘Wow, this is something I can relate to,’ because growing up where I grew up, it was similar stuff,” Jones recalls over the phone. “I had friends dying at 10 and 12, so it opened my eyes up to the world of music.”
From there, Jones purchased his first hip-hop CD, The Red Light District by Ludacris. Posted up on his stoop, wearing the CD out in his player, Luda helped Jones understand and appreciate the unique energy of hip-hop. Combining 50’s melodies with Ludacris’ “spunk,” as he calls it, inspired him to write his first rap at age 10.
“It was, you know, ‘Cat, hat, dog, smog’ type shit,” he says with a laugh. “It sounded very boom bap-y. I went through a lot of rap names when I was younger, just trying to be deep. I was into a lot of conscious stuff. I think what swayed me in that direction was Lupe [Fiasco] and Common. I was set on some spiritual-lyrical-miracle type shit. I would just rap words just to rap them together, it didn’t really have a meaning. Until one day, someone was like, ‘Yo! What are you saying?’ I’m like, shit, I don’t know.”
Realizing that rhyming words for the thrill of the tongue-twister wouldn’t make for a compelling career forced Jones to retool. He went back to studying Slick Rick's storytelling excellence, 50 Cent’s melodies, and Luda’s energy. Once he understood those essential elements, Jones pressed play once again on Lupe Fiasco, using him as a model for how to inject his music with substance.
Even with a solid musical foundation, Jones was well on his way down the traditional life path. A great psychology teacher in high school inspired Jones to major in the subject at the University of Iowa. His passion for rapping did not fade, though, and he continued to record while attending classes.
While this sounds like a fine balance between work and play, it begs the question, how did Jones know it was time to forfeit his scholarship and return to Chicago? Well, his mom told him to.
“When I was in Iowa and I was working on music by myself, my mom was really supportive of me,” Jones assures. “I would send her my raps and she would give me feedback and always tell me to push the envelope and talk about my city, and give my city life. She wanted me to pursue music, to pursue my purpose. I didn’t wanna do psychology, there was nothing for me in that. So I decided to leave my scholarship, and she was honestly the biggest proponent of that.”
Though he dropped out, his grip on psych classes facilitated his growth as a musician. “I got to learn a lot more about myself, not just other people,” he explains. “So I wanted to break down the psychology of me, and that’s how I came up with this idea of metamorphosis and growth.”
This mantra is the driving force behind the newly-released Cocoons, an EP that showcases Jones' artistic growth following his 2017 album, Eternal Bliss. That LP was meant to capture an unfiltered picture of the Chicago summer: girls, shitty 9-to-5s, and soothing drives down Lake Shore Drive. While the record was packed with potential, Jones was immediately hit with comparisons to recent GRAMMY nominee GoldLink and fellow Midwest native IshDARR.
“I didn’t want to be put in a box,” Jones stresses. “You can try to, but at the end of the day, I sound like me… People started comparing me to GoldLink and IshDARR, and those are dope artists, but I had a belief in my heart that I could be more versatile. I wanted to go into the winter making something more fit to the winter, something that was close to me. I wanted to go back in and redefine who I am as an artist and show everyone what I’m capable of.”
For its six-track, 20-minute runtime, Cocoons is an impressively varied project. The record provides bounce and lightness (“Bloom”), a dedication to sinuous melody and self-discovery (“Pyramids”), and an equal dedication to bars and technical skill (“Wolves”). All of these elements combine to make an incredibly focused body of work. Jones puts his psych classes to the test, not only dissecting his character but also urging himself to be a better man and worry less.
“‘Don’t Trip’ is a song to reassure myself that everything is good, and that manifestation is a real thing,” Jones explains. “I have this saying, ‘Manifest everything.’ That’s the theme of the project because whatever is in your life is because of you. I want people to know they have the ability to control a lot of situations around you, and yeah there are some you can’t control, but things are based on you. I wanted to give myself that message, too.”
While Cocoons plays as Jones’ bid for control, much of the work is obsessed with the passing of time, and time being out of everyone’s hands. Jones admits he would succumb to that toxic energy, comparing himself to larger artists of the same age. Thankfully, he was able to work through his anxieties by turning his attention to artists who use time to their advantage.
“I had to learn that my time is my time,” Jones muses. “And time waits for no man, but also, there’s so much time in the world. I’m so young, and I had to learn to look at other examples of people who have used time to their advantage. Danny Brown didn’t become anything until he was in his late 20s, there were so many examples that I had to look and realize I can’t worry.”
That said, Jones derives his hunger from time being a finite resource. He contends he would lose his mind if time was infinite, and wouldn’t be as focused on achieving his dreams as he is now. “A lot of people have regrets at the end of their careers, and even their lives and they look back and say, ‘I wish I would’ve…’ I don’t wanna be a coulda-shoulda-woulda human,” he swears. “That’s why, I feel like if time was infinite, I wouldn’t be able to deal with that. I think that’s why, in a lot of stories, Dracula is very depressed.”
More worry-free and less depressed than Dracula, Jones now makes music with the goal of standing the test of time, not trying to cross a self-imposed finish line as quickly as possible. “When I first started making music, I wanted to be the greatest,” he remembers. “It’s more so developed into me wanting to inspire the youth. The fact that I was able to manifest my goals and do it in my terms, that’s something I wanna see everybody be able to do. I wanna be able to give something to my city, to this culture called hip-hop.”
Cocoons concludes with “Bloom,” a promise from Ajani Jones to the listener, and to himself, that he is going to blossom into a source of inspiration, not just for musicians but for anyone looking to better themselves. “You don’t have to aspire to be an artist, just to be the best you,” Jones surmises.
“Have a passion, that’s what I really wanna tell people. Have something that you believe in, and if you really want that, it’s gon’ come to you, but you have to go get it.”