IDK is not uncertain. Across his burgeoning career, the Maryland-born rapper has emerged as a thoughtful storyteller who avoids simple characterization.
This attentive quality can be found across five projects, starting with 2014’s Sex, Drugs & Homework and running through 2018’s IDK & FRIENDS :). With the release of each new project, the 27-year-old expands an ever-growing catalog highlighting technical acrobatics and conceptual ambitiousness.
Of IDK’s five full-length works, 2017’s IWASVERYBAD, released through Adult Swim, is his most impressive offering. Now, two years later, he returns with Is He Real?, the “major-label debut” through Warner Music Group. After listening to IDK go to work independently, I have high hopes that support from a big three label will only improve upon his strengths. Only time and the music will tell.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
1. “Cloud Blu”
A woman is humming. I hear IDK’s voice. He just asked what happens when you die. He’s speaking to a child. He sounds like a nice kid, trustful. There's certainty in his voice. The background production is jazzy with a touch of soul. This kid is still talking about the afterlife like he knows it. Oh shit, he switched up and said God isn’t real.
2. “42 Hundred Choices”
Man, kids are cruel. The production sounds demented. It’s a trap hellscape. IDK is rapping, a nice double-time flow. The bassline could frighten Freddie Kruger. His delivery matches the intensity. The lyrics sound personal, more scriptures from his real life. I like the energy. His live performances will benefit with this one on the setlist. A good start.
3. “The ‘E’ in Blue”
“42 Hundred Choices” ended abruptly. The theme of drowning carried over from the previous song. It sounds like a baptism. Whoa. DMX is giving a sermon. A nice surprise. Loving where this is taking me. Thematically, the texture is great. The themes of God and the afterlife seem to be major pieces to the album’s concept.
Starting with heavy synths. Interested in what this will build into. IDK is using a singy rap flow. He has a Pharrell approach to melodies. I can see him making songs with The Neptunes if it was the 2000s, but then again, that’s a characteristic that describes 85 percent of new artists who rap. This record isn’t bad. I’m not disinterested. He’s keeping my attention, but it doesn’t have the dynamic punch of the previous records. I like this bridge at the end. Not a bad way to close out. The strings! Yeah, the end might be my favorite part of “Alone.”
We're back in the mud. This sound is hell. This sound is trap. Vocally, his voice has a lighter texture. He came to brag; this is a beat that encourages braggadociousness. The flow switch is a nice change of pace. It’s a fine song, the parts all work well together. IDK has made similar records which accomplish a similar sentiment. “God Said Trap (King Trappy III)” comes to mind. “24” doesn’t break any new ground in his discography, but it is fun. Another live show winner, but I’m not blown away by its placement on the album.
A more melodic song style. This one starts easy on the ears. Oh, a nice switch. The keys are pretty aggressive. They’re hitting. We have to stop with Stevie Wonder punchlines. One of the greatest recording artists of all time is more than his inability to see. Jay has a great rap voice. It has the right amount of weight and has a way of expressing his emotions. Not a bad song, but I think I’ll skip this one.
7. “Porno” ft. Pusha-T & JID
Quite the lineup. Great expectations. He has mentioned The Devil in the last two songs. Okay, I love how his voice is panning. The build-up is great. The dynamic drop burned my eyebrows off. This beat screams rap cypher, a bit like Tyler’s “Yonkers.” Damn, why isn’t Kendrick on this record? IDK is coming with bars. He was exposed to porn at six? Okay, this hook is not it. It’s explosive but feels silly. Pusha! Man, the tone of his voice is so demanding. If he were a politician, he could convince the nation of anything. Sounds like a vintage Neptunes record. The flow is flawless. Pusha-T’s feature run is a 2019 highlight. I don’t love the IDK singing portion. I want the bars. JID has arrived. He’s closing the show. A swift flow, his words are a rock skipping across water. Man, I wish they would’ve taken the back vocal textures off his verse. They clashed. “I am 50 Cent,” WORD TO BABY KEEM.
8. “I Do Me… You Do You” ft. Tyler, The Creator
Ah man, that JID verse was too short. An abrupt change. IDK is singing with a woman vocalist. They sound good together. Duets are a cheat code when the right voices appear collectively. Jay is talking. Is this a conversation with Tyler? Tyler is talking about a higher power. I love the maturity in his latest work and interviews.
9. “December” ft. Burna Boy
Another switch. IDK is rapping in the melody of “Murder She Wrote.” I’m not mad. The production is pleasant. The drums are great. This song is emitting great energy. It makes you feel good. It doesn’t have the chill of December at all. Afropop and dancehall continue to find their spaces in modern American rap music. This song is the most pleasant Jay’s singing has sounded all album. Burna Boy is having one hell of a year. The way his voice works with words is so fluid. The switch to this melody was well executed. Probably my favorite thus far.
10. “European Skies”
A slow build-up. The keys have the elegance of falling cherry blossoms. There’s a nice warmth to the song. IDK started off singing, but I’m glad he switched to rapping. It’s more of a spoken word performance. He’s deeply in thought about religion. It’s compelling. “Earth is so dirty.” It’s nice to hear a rapper challenge something as knotty as religion. I wonder how people will receive a song like “European Skies”? The bluesy close was nice.
11. “No Cable” ft. GLC
GLC! I love GLC. He’s Chicago’s Big Rube. He sounds great. The ISMS are forever. IDK is back with some reflective, personal raps. Ha, I love the Urkel line. Oh yeah, this is a breakout record. The bars are some of his sharpest. Loving how he’s criticizing how information is presented and received when broadcasted through cable television. There are some great song ideas buried on this album. “No Cable” is the best-executed track so far. “When I put my white voice on…” The second verse is good. Thoughtful. Damn, why do rappers feel like they’re the only ones speaking out about social ills? So many thoughtful rap songs grapple with the times we live in. Still, “No Cable” is my favorite thus far.
A nice, bouncy atmosphere. This record, I believe, was released as a single. [Editor’s Note: That is correct, Yoh.] The flow is sleek; the beat has an infectious vibe. Following “No Cable,” it doesn’t have the same impact. There’s social commentary. The line about being killed by a cop and not being a crime is good, and the whole second verse touched on the prison system and systematic racism, but the atmosphere isn’t a match for the lyricism. IDK is trying to put some medicine in the candy, but he should have focused on making a record that musically fit the weight of his message.
13. “Michael What TF”
This album just got heavy. “Michael What TF” sounds like a meltdown; like something André 3000 would’ve done if Yeezus inspired Idlewild. IDK mentioned his mother dying and is talking about his stepfather being a foul human being. I like this a lot. Musically, this one is absorbing. The lyrics are great, too. Overall, a well-put-together song. He’s going on a festival run after Is He Real? is out. The music feels tailored for that environment.
Last song. Named after his late mom, I believe. Interesting build-up. “I could’ve been dead…” IDK dives right into the personal. He’s going through a list of things he could’ve been. I love his voice and how it sounds over this stripped-down production. He’s giving me mixtape Kendrick vibes. “I grew up my whole fucking life thinking I can’t.” Now, he’s talking about his mom. Oh man. Oh shit. Oh shit. What!? His stepfather gave his mother AIDS? That’s a twisted ending. This ending is worse than Top Dawg almost robbing Kendrick’s father. The song switched up. He’s having a conversation. I don’t recognize the voice—interesting conversation about colors.
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on IDK’s Is He Real?
On Is He Real?, IDK spreads his artistry wider than ever. But while a concept about God and their existence ties the songs together, the material shares little else in common.
Sonically, Is He Real? lacks musical continuity. IDK aims to do it all, but fails to hit on a working formula that allows for trap bangers, records for radio, and dissertations about society to live harmoniously under the same roof. Creating a conceptual rap album within the confines of a playlist-like structure is a near-impossible task.
The best moments on Is He Real?—where IDK digs into the personal—make the 14-track album feel like a companion piece to IWASVERYBAD. Structurally, though, IWASVERYBAD tells a more cohesive story.
Despite these shortcomings, Is He Real? isn’t without good ideas and execution. DMX pops up with a surprise prayer, Tyler, The Creator offers his thoughts on a higher power, and IDK’s revelation about his mother’s death are but a few of the many curveballs worth experiencing a second time. Unfortunately, there are too many distractions on Is He Real? for the album to represent IDK’s underlying artistic brilliance.
By Yoh, aka IsYohReal, aka @Yoh31