I. Be Thankful for the Hard Times, for They Have Made You
“Pushing the same piece of shit until I get me a Bentley,” J.I.D raps on “LAUDER,” the impressive epilogue that concludes his breakout Dreamville debut, 2017’s The Never Story. He’s referring to his beloved 2006 Pontiac G6, the vehicle J. Cole is seen driving in the Never Story mini-documentary that preceded the album's release.
In September, the rapper born Destin Route uploaded a video to his Instagram literally pushing the relic. On the cusp of DiCaprio 2, his sophomore album scheduled for release on November 26, the automotive memento that has carried him—through college in Virginia on a football scholarship, back to his homestead of East Atlanta after being kicked out of school, and throughout his grueling years of pursuing a career in music—could take no more. It’s like a metaphor for moving forward and what will inevitably be a loss in the process.
When I arrived at J.I.D's Southwest Atlanta home, the gold Pontiac sat before the two-story house like a stock-still guardian. Years of wear and tear and adventure were apparent from first glance. To see the car, and to return to his home, reminded me of arriving to hear The Never Story back in 2016. J.I.D wasn’t a burgeoning rap sensation then; he was far from the world's radar. There were no Dreamville or J. Cole cosigns; no interviews in Complex and Rolling Stone; no sold-out headlining tours in the U.S. and Europe.
With barely 3,000 followers on Twitter, J.I.D was still a new artist despite rap being his primary focus since 2012. Back in ‘16, we joked about a concert he headlined in East Atlanta Village, and how he arrived with 6LACK and members of the Spillage Village collective—which, beyond J.I.D, includes EARTHGANG duo Doctor Dot and Johnny Venus—to an empty venue. No one bought a ticket; the aches of an artist on the rise.
As a kid—around the age of seven or eight—J.I.D watched and was impressed by the Lasse Hallström-directed classic film What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Leonardo DiCaprio played Arnie Grape, the mentally impaired baby brother of Gilbert, played by Johnny Depp. The level of talent required to play the role convincingly is what made a young J.I.D gravitate toward DiCaprio. He would later find in his favorite actor a kindred spirit. He was highly respected in his field, yet lacking recognition in the highest form.
“Leo was getting the short end,” J.I.D responded when I asked why he named his overlooked 2015 mixtape after the famed celebrity. “I was dropping shit that was fye at the time and was getting no love. Well, he had no Oscars. I felt like DiCaprio.”
Even then, before The Never Story was released, J.I.D had bigger plans for the series. As he promised in July 2016: “I’m going to keep it up until he hears it. I’m going to drop a DiCaprio 2. Some type of way."
On February 29, 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio won Best Actor at the 88th Academy Awards for his role as Hugh Glass in The Revenant. Three hundred fifty-six days later—nine days shy of DiCaprio’s Oscar victory—Dreamville Records announced J.I.D as their latest signee.
On a call just before his flight home to vote this past Tuesday, Zekiel “Zeke” Nicholson, who manages J.I.D alongside Barry “Hefner” Johnson, explained why the forthcoming DiCaprio 2 is an interesting contrast between the artist and actor:
"I think for J.I.D, the Oscar, so to speak, was him getting his deal. It was the moment of recognition. Now, we can fully showcase why he got it. I need to show you why people are placing me in a particular space even though it’s early. The DiCaprio theme is really an ode in the biggest way. It’s really… You don’t know what movie DiCaprio is going to be in. What you expect is a performance at the end of the day. That’s kind of the mantra we went with for this project: let's give them a bunch of different movies. But in these movies the performances are high-level. These are movies that deserve to be rewarded." —Zekiel “Zeke” Nicholson
II. The Point of Exclamation
The Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots are facing off on the television. There are five, maybe six of us watching from couches in the living room. J.I.D is to my left; on his lap is an old MacBook. Before play is pressed, he asks for the T.V. to be turned down; not muted, just a slightly lower volume. He’s surprisingly still for someone who received his nickname for being jittery as a child. He’s also surprisingly soft-spoken, a quality found in his SoundCloud bio but one that isn’t displayed when the rapper takes the stage.
I’ve seen J.I.D perform live enough times to know an unseen button is pressed and vitality becomes activated. I wouldn’t call it a persona, but more of a uniform. He knows what to wear when it’s time to work.
The phrase "controlled combustion" is a recurring thought as songs spill from the MacBook speakers and Backwoods rotate around the couches. The first listen is like hearing a project of intricate songs that carry moments of surprise. Whether it’s the bombastic production, lyrical prowess, rhyme patterns, heightened musicality, or unexpected guest features, there’s something about the records that make them pop as if cherry bombs were planted in the Pro Tools.
“The Never Story was a sentence. DiCaprio 2 is the exclamation point leading to the next story,” Nicholson told me the day after my listening session, perfectly encapsulating my initial reaction.
There’s a noticeable difference in the overall tempo and liveliness of how the album flows. Location has an effect on how art is made. The environment influences the direction in which creativity flows. One perk of The Never Story being well-received was a chance to constantly be on the road, an outcome that had a substantial impact on the molding of its follow-up.
Over the phone, DiCaprio 2 executive producer Christo Welch explained how touring specifically changed the outlook on records and impacted the transition between the two albums:
“[DiCaprio 2] is more of a live project, songs that are highly performable. J.I.D was touring heavily into DiCaprio 2. A lot of the core songs of the album were made while on tour. That’s the main difference.
"The Never Story had songs made back at the crib, in Atlanta. It was pretty much completed in the home base. The second one was made on the road while being around the world. It allowed us to gather different elements just from other places outside the city and bring about different energy.
"For me, being on the road with him, I saw what worked, what can enhance performances. I took into account how things would sound in small rooms and how they would sound in a big arena and how to bring the best of those two mediums into one.” —Christo Welch
There are elements in albums like J. Cole’s KOD, Vince Staples’ FM!, Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD, and Rico Nasty’s Nasty that exemplify the live-show experience. It takes consideration to curate a project that translates in settings beyond headphones and trunk speakers. Just don’t think for a second because the stage inspired elements of the music that DiCaprio 2 is built upon brevity. “He’s got a lot of words on this tape,” Johnson admitted when discussing the upcoming tour.
During our call, Johnson praised both J.I.D and Welch for taking control of the album's direction, unlike the process for The Never Story:
“The coolest thing about DiCaprio 2 is I became comfortable with [J.I.D's] musical direction. The Never Story was an entire group of people: Me, Zeke, Cole, J.I.D, Christo, Ib, Dreamville. We already had the project done before we signed, but it was more so how we could tighten it up with everyone’s expertise. This project was really J.I.D and Christo being in the studio and creating what they wanted it to be.” —Barry “Hefner” Johnson
III. Never Say Never
The Packers and Patriots are still playing as the album ends. “[Josh] Gordon so damn good,” J.I.D remarks, giving props to New England’s star wide receiver. Seeing his reaction, I ask J.I.D which current NFL player best represents who he is right now in his career.
“Offense or defense?” he asks, the gears in his head beginning to turn.
"Offense," I said. His rap technique doesn’t feel defensive.
"Second year… Second year… Second project… Alvin Kamara," he finally responds, excitedly naming the New Orleans Saints star running back. Mick Jenkins' “Barcelona” is playing in the background. "He got rookie of the year, came back and niggas knew he was going to kill it. Niggas were waiting for him to kill it. And he’s killing it."
During my conversations with Johnson and Nicholson, both men framed DiCaprio 2 as a statement album and a separation piece. It’s a consensus—intentional or not—of the shared expectations. Growth is a recurring word that can be found in all my transcripts. The music has elevated, and now they want everything surrounding their artist to follow suit. Kamara is having a statement season for the Saints; it’s fitting that J.I.D sees in his performance this year what he wants this upcoming release to exemplify. The spirit that drove him to compete on the football field in college is still a driving force to prove why he’s a standout artist.
Ten years ago, during his senior year at Stephenson High School, J.I.D suffered a dislocated hip. He still received and accepted a scholarship from Hampton University to play football, but the injury affected a full scholarship offer from the University of Georgia.
“Y'all wouldn’t know me if I went there. My life would’ve been totally different,” he confessed two years ago.
Then, but especially now, it’s hard to imagine Destin Route being a defensive back, or lawyer, or business executive, or any job that doesn’t require bending language over beats. Ironically, the first show he was ever booked to perform was opening for Curren$y at UGA.
Rap was never the goal, but circumstances lead J.I.D to this point. His life changed, drastically. It took years to reach this point, but even when things were slow, he was never in a rush to see success in music. As he told me two years ago:
“Me being where I’m at, in a middle place, it helps me write. When I get on and have more flashy things to say, it’s going to change the story a bit. It’s just going to add on the foundation that’s being built. I want to start, literally, start where I am right now. I want y'all to see me as an artist at this stage in my career so you can appreciate where I go. We going to do it right. I’m going to play my role. It’s going to be a time when I’ll release music and you’ll feel that it’s coming. That you feel it's going to be big.” —J.I.D (2016)
J.I.D is far from that middle place now but he knows there are billions of people in the world and only a small fraction knows his name. He is confident—and rightfully so—DiCaprio 2 will attract more eyes and ears. Yet, the album that began as a mixtape is only a bridge between The Never Story and what will come next. They weren't major label album releases, but Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, J. Cole’s Friday Night Lights, Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & Orange Juice, and Wale’s The Mixtape About Nothing all served as a launching pad for each artist. DiCaprio 2 has the potential to be that release for J.I.D, a project that sets the bar for his entire career.
As I walk out of J.I.D’s home, I tell him the next time he plays me an album it will be inside a mansion. He laughs, a modest man who believes in his music but not his own hype.
If not the mansion, DiCaprio 2 will at least turn the Pontiac into a Bentley. I call shotgun.
By Yoh, DiCapriyoh, aka @Yoh31
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