New York’s hotbed for talent continues to thrive. First appearing on 2016’s season two of The Rap Game, and formally debuting in 2019 with two mixtapes in Hood Life Krisis Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Brooklyn’s J.I. is yet another reminder the five boroughs cannot be defeated in sound ingenuity. His melodic, punch-line laden single “Need Me” has 31 million views on YouTube. During Genius’ co-sign series, the venerable Jadakiss caught J.I.’s infectious, royal purple timbre vibe. He’s sold out three nights at the N.Y. institution, SOBs, and he’s trended on Audiomack with millions upon millions of plays. What I’m telling you is, the stars are aligning for the 18-year-old artist born Justin Rivera.
As much as music writers love the phrase “earworm,” there are few other words to describe J.I.’s “Need Me.” His raps are pristine, and his melodies are fluid. The keys twinkle, and the kicks are crispy. “Need Me” is a perfectly made hip-hop single for 2020, sure, but it’s not the end of J.I.’s ability. Between mixtape deep cuts and today’s newly released “PROUD OF ME,” J.I. makes it a constant point to showcase his ability to craft meaningful pain music and put on for his city.
“I wrote ‘PROUD OF ME’ on tour,” J.I. explains. “I always listen to the beat first, and I go off the type of vibe I wanna get. Me hearing [the beat], it felt more like an uplifting record. Earlier in my career, I was making records to prove myself. Looking back, I’ve made it mad far. I’ve done a lot of things that I wasn’t able to do throughout my whole life, in a couple of months.”
Between the 13 songs making up J.I.’s mixtape catalog and his steadfast approach to fame, the story here is not one of a rising star. It’s a story of maintaining and thriving.
“When I made ‘Need Me,’ I didn’t even like it,” J.I. reveals. “I thought that record was wack. The fact that it took off is... Wow! Now, I’m trying to make more mature music. The commercial stuff is usually what takes off. But, as long as I’m showing growth and I’m maturing—I’m gonna work at my own pace. I’m not gonna chase the next big single.”
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Let’s start with your tenure on The Rap Game. What did you learn from your appearance on the show?
J.I.: I never had experience [making music]. During that time, that’s when I started going to the studio to record. Being on that show taught me a lot about disappointment and what life is. You can’t expect things to go the way you expect. Not all things go according to plan. [The Rap Game] gave me patience. It took me a minute from going on that show to really finding myself and putting it all together to get where I’m at right now. It’s a process.
Where did your love of music come from?
[Music] was always played around me. My father, my mother, they would always play old school hip-hop, reggae, Spanish music. I always heard it at a young age. My cousin sang. My other cousin was in a band. I saw how my family was connected to music. I had a little keyboard in my house; I used to make beats on there when I was younger. I put one and two together, you know?
How did coming of age in Brooklyn shape your approach to music? There’s a lot of legends who call Brooklyn home.
A majority of people coming from New York, they know about the old school hip-hop. I’m from Brooklyn. As I said, my mom and my father were always playing JAY-Z. I grew up listening to DMX, Jadakiss, New York rap in general. I try to embrace [the old school], but at the same time, the culture’s shifted. Everything is more universal and diverse.
In an interview from January of this year, you talk about taking a break from music, then giving it another, real try. Why take a break? Why come back?
I got involved in other things. At the time, I wasn’t going to the studio; I wasn’t shooting videos. I was just smoking and drinking, letting time go by. I lost the motivation and everything positive... I kinda lost it. Music wasn’t the priority. But… I got to a point where everything went left, and I had a decision to make: Am I gonna just give up and do nothing for myself? I had already started my career; at the time, I developed a name for myself. Let me try to go hard. I can’t lose anything if I try one more time. So, I tried again.
How did the success of your single “Need Me” change your life?
“Need Me” took off, and I wasn’t expecting it to. That’s my biggest record. It came at the right time. But to be honest, I want more records. If I have two, three more records just like that… I’m good. I’m not in a stable position where people know who I am and are comfortable with me, yet. I got more to prove.
Today, you’re dropping “PROUD OF ME.” What inspired the track?
I wrote “PROUD OF ME” on tour. I always listen to the beat first, and I go off the type of vibe I wanna get. Me hearing [the beat], it felt more like an uplifting record. Earlier in my career, I was making records to prove myself. Looking back, I’ve made it mad far. I’ve done a lot of things that I wasn’t able to do throughout my whole life, in a couple of months. This was the type of record where I could talk my shit how I usually do and flip it into the “PROUD OF ME” concept. I’m excited because I haven’t dropped music in a couple months.
Who do you need to make proud with your career?
My parents, my brothers, and myself, of course. Those are the people that was around every day, who gave [me] motivation, coming from nothing, not having anything, not being able to get myself everything I wanted… At a young age, I wanted so much, but I never had it. I feel like, right now, what I got, I owe it to my family. The people that been there every day, that’s the people I do it for.
Dealing with fame at such a young age, how do you make sure to stay grounded and not let social media get to you?
Sometimes social media can get to me because people talk nonsense. But that’s what it is: nonsense. I have to separate the nonsense and the facts. Social media is weird; people live off social media. It’s sad, the way people do things for attention. And staying grounded? A lot of people do change in the situation I’m in. I changed for the better. I’m still the same person; I was always mature for my age. I’ve always been a genuine person, so I don’t think anything could change me.
How are you going to make sure you’re more than a one-hit single?
I have another record that I haven’t released that I already know is gonna take off. I usually go off the fans and what they want. When I made “Need Me,” I didn’t even like it. I thought that record was wack. The fact that it took off is... Wow! Now, I’m trying to make more mature music. The commercial stuff is usually what takes off. But, as long as I’m showing growth and I’m maturing—I’m gonna work at my own pace. I’m not gonna chase the next big single.