Written by J.I.D: The Cinematic Beauty of 'DiCaprio 2'

This is a progress report from the hyperbolic time chamber put to hip-hop celluloid.
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Movies forever changed the way I listen to music. It’s as easy to create an image in your head when you hear a song as it is when you encounter a scene or character description in a book, but the road my brain takes in putting the images together is irrevocably cinematic. The building beat at the beginning is the establishing shot, the canvas on which the scene is painted with every word sung or spit. In the way that, say, Leonardo DiCaprio can elicit steely-eyed desperation as a frontiersman in The Revenant or cunning as a silver-tongued but ultimately pathetic con man in The Wolf of Wall Street with just a look, many of our favorite rappers know how to use their words to paint cinematic pictures.

J.I.D is one of those rappers.

The 28-year-old rapper’s rapper, who became a threat in 2017 with his immersive debut album The Never Story, has been climbing his way through the ranks of J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint, but on his newly-released sophomore project DiCaprio 2J.I.D’s growing skills have met his ambitions halfway. Here, he’s rapping with a hunger minimally existant on The Never Story, and with a clarity and focus that abandons the overly dense bars of 2015’s first DiCaprio installment, landing on the words that count the most in the ears and the heart. That first project was merely peppered with DiCaprio vocal samples, but now the ambitions are far grander.

J.I.D's flow on a song like “151 Rum”—coincidentally subtitled “A Film by J.I.D”—jitters and skips over the booming distortion of the Christo and Nice Rec-produced beat in a way that veils the impact of harsh stories of government cheese and third-generation hand-me-downs, condensed in the smoke of a banger. An early trailer for the album showed J.I.D reenacting various DiCaprio movie scenes, each intercut with a beat change establishing a different mise en scène. This reflects the overall approach taken on DiCaprio 2, slices of East Atlanta life turned into vignettes tethered by equally eclectic words and beats. No two shots are alike but the celluloid blurs together just right, a fitting result for a project that J.I.D has called his answer to Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, as he told Charles Holmes of Rolling Stone. Whether the smoke is from the spliff or the barrel, J.I.D is reflective and ready.

Beginning with “Off da Zoinkys” and ending on “Skrawberries,” a four-song, 15-minute sequence that perfectly encapsulates his gift for storytelling, J.I.D settles into a groove. “Zoinkys” starts with an eye of judgment (“Y’all niggas need to lay off the drugs / Some of y’all need to lay off the dope”) that feels less and less pretentious as he details his own struggle to kick a lean and Xanax habit over Christo’s equally anxious gospel sample and 808s. His shriek of “Oh God no, where are my friends?” is even more palpable next to stories of fights with friends for breaking up their cigarettes (“Maybe I did too much, but fuck it / I love my nigga, I'ma save him / And he probably thinkin' I'm a player hater / I don't hate a player, I just need all my niggas to wake up”).

On “Workin Out,” J.I.D serves up a reminder that kicking a nasty drug habit doesn't come with the promise that a whirlwind of anxiety will cease. The piano trill at the center of 2thirty5’s beat is the camera’s sharp descent into the slump of J.I.D’s dissatisfaction with success. Bringing back bundles doesn’t matter much when you’re too numb inside to revel in the squad’s accomplishments (“C'est la vie, shit I'm coming after everybody / Don't get the bloody splatter / I'm fly and I got my niggas fly too / Shit is like buddy passes”). 

Arguing with his partner at the movie theater on “Tiiied” isn’t exactly helping him to cope with life any better, either. This is the point where the color grading would turn from light purple to flaring shades of red as guests spy on a fight in plain sight. Guests 6LACK and Ella Mai bring nuance and perspective to the fight in their accompanying verses, but J.I.D's opening number zooms in for a close-up of his thoughts while the fight is raging outside; he still wants to share his popcorn with her, even if she's willing to leave him stranded at the theater without a ride. 

Those fights fade into the background as “Skrawberries,” the last song in the sequence, kicks into gear with a sputtering breakbeat foreshadowing the choppy dramatics of a relationship on the verge of collapse. Even amidst all the fighting and unpacking of baggage and abuse that plays out across the song’s two verses, the record begins with the kind of affirmation only someone like J.I.D can deliver with a straight face: “My girl booty soft and it's shaped like a skrawberry / Her pussy bald with a tat like Stephon Marbury.” All of his support (“I swear I got your back and got the tab on what you drinking / You ain't gotta move a finger or pinky when we linking”) and self-reflection (“Let's be realistic, I been trying to get in touch with my senses / And be better to my sisters / But niggas think that you feminine when you sensitive”) is reaffirmed on the chorus, sang by BJ The Chicago Kid: “Yeah for life, baby, I'm dressed for the war / Baby girl I'm your soldier.” End scene.

Through his vivid descriptions and a bevy of beats, J.I.D uses these four vignettes to wind us through a sea of anxiety, depression, frustration, and release that any short film director would kill to splay over a screen. Without proper sequencing, there is no rhyme or reason to whatever story is unfolding in front of our eyes—or in our ears. In much the same way Childish Gambino framed his sophomore album Because the Internet as part of a multimedia project that included a screenplay—a similar four-song stretch shows him wrestle with feelings for a woman and try to adjust for her (“Shadows” to “Telegraph Ave.”) before some overblown braggadocio (“Sweatpants”) leads to a sweet reaffirming coda (“3005”)—J.I.D and his team understand the value of creating a cohesive, complementary body of work.

Kendrick Lamar uses this same energy on good kid, m.A.A.d. city (subtitled “A short film by Kendrick Lamar”) between “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “good kid” to show how the karma of Kendrick being robbed shortly after pulling his own robbery quickly diluted the lovestruck high of “Poetic Justice.” On Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe tapped that same well, completely shedding her Cindi Mayweather persona to boldly revel in her queerness, audience and critics be damned, before Stevie Wonder’s words on “Stevie’s Dream” encourage her to pour her true anxieties about love and happiness onto “So Afraid,” all of which is reflected in that album’s colorful sci-fi “emotion picture” companion film. All the feelings, none of the filler.

The four-song stretch that makes up the middle of DiCaprio 2 serves a dual purpose. It both places him in the company of these ambitious artists and reaffirms J.I.D and DiCaprio himself as kindred spirits. Both worked for years at their craft before labels or award shows came calling; the talent was there, it just needed to gestate. The cinematic beauty found between “Off da Zoinkys” and “Skrawberries,” in particular, is the progress report from the hyperbolic time chamber put to hip-hop celluloid. J.I.D, Christo, J. Cole, 2thirty5, Mac Miller and DJ Drama created movie magic. 

“Written by J.I.D,” indeed.

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