Through The Looking Glass with JID

“It’s all about the community at the end of the day. Community is everything.”

Lewis Carroll’s ‘’Through The Looking-Glass’’ is the follow-up to Alice in Wonderland. Six months after the events of the first book, Alice enters another fantastical land by walking through a mirror. When she gets there, she finds that everything is reversed. Nothing is what it seems. People run to stay still. Walking away from things brings them closer to you. It’s a place that exists in suspended gravity where the normal rules don’t apply. The kind of place where Destin Route aka JID would fit perfectly. A lightning-shaped puzzle piece finding his home in an imaginative storm of creative energy. This enigmatic, rebellious musician – blessed with an ability to visualise cinema in his raps and deliver towering verses that make you scrunch up your face and look around in disbelief at what you’re hearing.

A JID verse reminds me of the great film montages. Condensed and focused segments of pure expression. Listen to Westbrook from DiCaprio 2 to understand. I hear a JID verse and I remember Travis Bickle’s self-aggrandized descent into doom in Taxi Driver’s most explosive, expository moments. It’s JID’s sharp, subtle changes in lyrical intensity, without ever losing control of the story he’s telling… that brings to mind one of the most memorable characters in film history. 

Rappers like JID who fizz with intellect, ideas and opinions, can struggle for balance. Imagine watching a montage as a whole film? Think about the likes of Lupe Fiasco, Immortal Technique and local to us, Akala. High calibre artists, who seem caught between a desire to please listeners and please themselves as the creators. 

It’s not easy to manage frantic wordplay and toppling entendres without coming across as too heady. Lil Wayne stands as one of the foremost examples of somebody who’s managed to achieve this balance. It only made sense for JID to cite Lil Wayne as one of his biggest influences when we sat down to talk. Arriving at his London hotel suite, I found the ATLien to be surprisingly serene. His monkish, occasionally cloistered energy was in firm opposition to what I hear in his music. I guess JID shuffled the deck of playing cards and landed on the Zen card, instead of the Mad Hatter’s on November 17th. Inspired by Narduwar, I brought JID some clothes from a rising black-owned brand, the founder is a good friend. JID received them gratefully, remarking he ‘’loved learning about dope new brands’’. Ice broke. It’s been three years since JID released his sophomore album, DiCaprio 2 – an album that holds a special resonance for me. For starters though, I needed to know where the heck his next LP is. “Three whole years now. When we getting a DiCaprio 3?’’ I asked. 

JID smirked. He’s got a couple of aces up his sleeve. ‘’I’m not a fan of trilogies. So we got something, but there won’t be a chapter three’’ He responded, flatly. Interesting, I thought. I quizzed again; ‘’But you’re a major film buff though. You telling me the Bourne Trilogy wasn’t fire?’’ JID laughs wryly and nods his head. A sort of touchè motion. ‘’It’s not gonna be a DiCaprio 3. But, Never Story 2. That’s what’s happening’’.

Not a fan of trilogies, but a fan of sequels then. He has a point when we look at the last few years of Hollywood squeezing everything it can from old franchises. But JID’s follow-up project to 2017’s The Never Story will never sound like a rehash because he’s not a conventional rapper. Who names their albums after Leonardo DiCaprio, to make a point of his (then) lack of an Oscar win while using the name to position themself as rap’s equivalent? It’s a brilliantly lithe statement of intent. One that actually earned JID an invite to Leo DiCaprio’s birthday party through a mutual friend (the legendary Q-Tip, no less). By declaring himself rap’s DiCaprio, he’s calling himself the best in the game. Tapping into the bravado that comes with being a rapper. But in the same breath, he’s admitting that he’s pissed off for not getting his dues.

For the last decade, there’s been this constant question of ‘’what happened to real rap?’’ – and you have a guy here who would have a seat at any table in any era of hip-hop. Likely why J Cole, who pays a weighty homage to the Golden Age, decided to sign JID to Dreamville. JID and Cole’s sparring on the breakneck ‘’Off Deez’’ opened my ears to a side of J Cole’s pen that I’d never seen before. I wondered if this was by design; ‘’So Off Deez. I saw Cole become a different animal on that track. Your verse that pushed him there. Did you come into that collab hungry to force Cole’s hand to deliver something crazy?’’. JID looks up briefly and fires back ‘’nah man, that was the start of the song. It’s really simple… You know that’s how I rap. (laughs)’’. JID didn’t strike me as an individual who’d be comfortable being an apprentice. Equally, Cole comes across as more shamanic than headmasterly (in his approach to mentoring his label roster) but this song played out like teacher vs star pupil. To this day, I still can’t decide on a winner. 

JID has released music sporadically in the last year. A few singles including the fantastic Skegee, outside of that he’s mostly lent his talents to other artists. Working with long-time collaborator Mereba and linking up with Griselda’s Conway The Machine, as well as featuring on the Madden 22 Soundtrack (he once had a football scholarship). Collaborations for artists tend to come at periods when they’re in-between projects of their own. Where they can let off some steam, a lucrative form of procrastination. Call it low pressure problem-solving. 

I wanted to know what JID had been listening to while cooking up his next LP. It’s always a sign of what sonic direction the next project will take. ‘’So what’s on the playlist right now?’’ I asked. JID replies instantly ‘’Um, Kenny Mason. Summer Walker’s new album, Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid album, that record has some amazing skits. Those are the three. I’ve been working on my shit really man. It takes me a lot to make these projects internally. So I just try to stay in my world till I’ve got my work right’’. Here, JID opens a brief doorway into the pressure and mental strain that comes with creating new work. In this time, with such hyper-accessibility to artists, the pressure for them to deliver is at an all-time high. Fans feel entitled to get as much as they can from their favourites. It’s a dangerous paradigm – it results in (artists churning out masses of work due to fan pressure, which can lead to label pressure (unless you’re indy). But when the quality isn’t the same, it may backfire on artists leading to the wrath of social media’s judiciary. This is a challenge that all modern musicians face. The balancing act of pleasing fans while also managing their own mental wellbeing.

As I mentioned at the start, DiCaprio 2 was very important to me. When the album was released in 2018, I was down bad. Struggling for balance. Finding life difficult. To quote JID ‘’Cause I been working hella hard, shit ain’t really working out, I been praying to the Lord, shit ain’t really working out’’. Trust me. These words were speaking directly to me and my situation. At the time, I knew JID from a couple spins of The Never Story (Lauder deserves infinite applause), but DiCaprio 2 got me through a tough life moment and that’s how true appreciation for an artist’s music is established. The energy of the project energized my hustle. It inspired me to keep pushing. Off Deez was added immediately to my gym & running playlist. Westbrook too. Off Da Zoinkys, a sharp, lucid, time-travelling vignette into JID’s personal past which excellently taps into deeper narratives that permeate the African-American community, past and present. Listening to this album; its sheer lyrical willpower, the oxygen-defying cadence, and hilarious punchlines helped me sort my shit out. JID delivering quotes like this on Slick Talk: ‘’On a money pile doing doggystyle / I’m a father now, and you are my child / Or you aren’t my child, I’m on Maury now / And I’m talking loud, the results are found / You are not the, wow, I /should kill this b***h like a doggy pound / We divorcing now’’. 

The sense of wit and irreverence in this verse reminded me of how transient circumstances in life are. It was that defibrillator moment. Life is about purpose and achievement, but it’s equally about finding humour every day. I’d forgotten one of my core life maxims. Then DiCaprio 2 reminded me of this and helped me bounce back. Three years later I sat next to the person who enabled this breakthrough, I had to let him know. “DiCaprio 2 saved my shit, you know”. Everybody in the room lifted their heads. JID looked over “Right, right. That’s what it’s all about. What did it do for you though?” He responded. This felt like the most engaged JID had been throughout the interview. Not because my questions weren’t engaging, but more because my admission touched on the purpose that drives him as an artist. I took my time with my response ‘’Man… That time was crazy for me. Hated my job, was broke as hell, caught in a toxic situationship… And some friends started moving different. Just that mid 20’s shit. It just felt like the ground on the floor had disappeared. No balance. Nothing was working for me. What DiCaprio 2 showed me was that if this guy could get out of his head, focus his anxiety and channel it into a cohesive body of work like this, I could take control and get my shit together, too’’. JID smiled. ‘’It’s all about the community at the end of the day. Community is everything. We got to help people make it through the day – then enjoy it’’. It’s rare for a rapper who garners 25 million Spotify plays a month to think in such simple terms about his purpose. In between all of JID’s manic metaphors and outlandish alliteration, there is a very clear thread of purpose that weaves it all together.

His 2021 release, Skegee, is a revelatory piece about the Tuskegee Experiments in 1930’s Alabama. It was something I had no idea of before hearing his raps and the song’s narration from a man who lived through this especially dark moment in African-American history. It left a strong imprint on my thoughts. The lived experience of black people is sadly filled with inequity. But JID smartly subverted the tone of the song from one of black pain to black progression. The beat has a rousing, tribal feel to it. The booming drums, that woozy, grungy guitar sample, straight off of Pearl Jam’s cutting room floor.

Then of course JID’s storytelling. It isn’t a song that wallows in itself, it’s a song to inspire a rise from darkness. I quizzed JID on his exact motivations for making the song. ‘’What got you to Skegee? Was it inspired by the times? Or was it simply something you wanted to say?’’ He fired back immediately. ‘’It was all of that, yeah. It’s my responsibility… My pops taught me about the whole Tuskegee Experiments when I was a kid. One Christmas day, my brother was reciting that poem, and it inspired me to make something about Tuskegee in the future’’. Glad the day came. The poem he speaks of is ‘’Equipment’’ by Edgar A. Guest, an inspirational piece written for children, which JID adapts into the opening gambit of Skegee and uses throughout the song. I told JID how important I thought the song was ‘’We always have moments where people are ‘’like we need more of this’’. But when you get these songs that are the ‘’more’’ they speak of, they don’t get the spins they should be getting’’. He was silent for a moment. 

’Well, that’s because lies travel faster than the truth. But to be honest, I’m just being responsible and speaking my truth and that’s what matters’’. 

Entering the final stages of our conversation, I had to centre it again on what’s coming next for JID. ‘’Yeah, it’s going to be more internal. More family focussed. A bit like The Neverstory but more cohesive. I’m a better writer and singer now’’. When I heard family focussed, I instantly thought of J Cole’s ‘’4 Your Eyez Only’’. I asked if he took inspiration from there. ‘’So, to make some quick parallels is it going to be a 4YEO vibe or FHD vibe?’’ ‘’Nah’’ JID said, sharply. ‘’It’s gonna be some real Atlanta hood shit!’’. This made me laugh out loud. 

I had the idea that leading with family could mean him mellowing out and toning down his style, but actually, family in this context for JID means comfort and being your full self. So JID is tripling down on his trademark approach. Leggo. ‘’It’s soulful in parts, it’s angry in parts, it’s a lot of different elements to it but it’ll all feel good when put together, trust me’’. 

It’s clear JID is cooking something special. He was precise and thoughtful with his responses, a lot different to the firebrand I was expecting to speak to. Focused on his mission. Driven to do more for his community. He’s no longer rap’s DiCaprio. Grown past that. Just ask his jeweller. With The Neverstory 2 approaching, Destin Route is taking a major step towards his destined route.