When we meet, Atlanta-based rapper J.I.D is only a few weeks away from releasing his long-anticipated third studio album The Forever Story. He tells me at least three times over the course of our conversation about his frustrations around releasing the project. “A lot of noise got in this time,” he says, sitting at a coffee shop in south Atlanta. It’s been a daunting change for someone who enjoys making music in near solitude. “I tried to bring a community vibe and just see what came out of it but I’m never doing that again,” he adds. “I promise I’ll never do that again.”
It’s ironic given how much of the rapper’s success thus far has been fueled by collaboration. In the nearly four years since the Dreamville signee released Dicaprio 2 – a protracted timeline that fans have been quick to remind him about on social media – J.I.D hasn’t exactly been laying low. In the past year, he’s been nominated for a Grammy for his feature on Doja Cat’s Planet Her single “Options” (“You can tell she’s been waiting for her moment. Some artists just need that platform then you’ll understand that they’ve been the whole time. I feel like that’s a thing that’s going to happen with me, God-willing.”) and secured his first top-10 and highest-charting single to date thanks to his verse on Imagine Dragon’s song “Enemy” (“I feel like I’m a big part of why that Imagine Dragon record moved so far. The dynamics in that song is crazy. I take pride in that.”). In 2019, he appeared on the chart-topping, Grammy-nominated Dreamville compilation Revenge of the Dreamers III, before releasing the socially conscious album Spilligion the following year with the collective Spillage Village, which also boasts Earthgang and 6lack among its members.
To J.I.D, the recent accolades have been nice, but they’ve also been shared. “I accept the blessings and all of that, but I be like ‘what are we doing next?’ I’m kind of selfish about it. I want my own name to be in front of these [accomplishments],” he says.
The 31-year-old East Atlanta native, born Destin Route, says he’s always someone who kept to himself despite growing up in a “big, crazy family.” The youngest of seven, J.I.D moved around a lot, although always within East Atlanta. During his childhood, there were countless bologna sandwiches, but rarely quiet moments. He tried his hand at playing the drums as a kid and was a self-proclaimed natural at the instrument, performing at church within two weeks of picking up his first pair of drumsticks. Both of his parents can sing, he says, and his cousin is the songwriter Johnta Austin who penned songs such as Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget About Us.”
But, J.I.D says his “first love” was sports, not music. He played football throughout his childhood, including during his time at Stephenson High School and into college at Hampton University before an injury ultimately prevented him from continuing to play for the school’s football team and he was eventually expelled from the university, though he’s always been mum on the details. On the album, he alludes to the situation, among the many vignettes from his life that he reveals.
It was during his time at the Virginia-based HBCU that he began to take rapping seriously. He met his future collaborators and roommates Olu and WowGr8 of Earthgang, and attended some of his first concerts, seeing Tyler the Creator and other artists as their tours stopped through Virginia Beach. These days, he says being able to tour himself is “kinda magical. I find peace up there sometimes. Not even having to talk to people, just being able to express whatever words and see what comes with that shit.”
J.I.D doesn’t do many interviews and he’s noticeably antsy about this one, regularly twirling his brown shoulder-length locs in his hands, and staring intently at the table between us as he speaks. Most of what fans know about him, they’ve pieced together throughout the years from his music. Although he’s sprinkled autobiographical details into most of his work, The Forever Story is perhaps the most comprehensive look into who the 31-year-old is today.
Despite the album being weeks away from release when we speak, J.I.D’s manager, Bary Hefner, says the rapper was still messaging his team trying to make tweaks. “It has been three years of artistic torture,” Hefner says, laughing. “I think the album’s going to do well, but it’s crazy because he’s still changing shit on the album. It needs to be turned in.”
A longtime manager for the rapper, Hefner says the recent mainstream success has certainly helped J.I.D recognize the type of musician he wants to be. “I think J.I.D just wants to deliver great art to the world. I don’t think he really understood what it took to be at the highest of levels. As he grows he’s starting to realize some of this shit [he] just doesn’t care for.”
J.I.D echoes this when we speak. “I don’t know if people really fuck with me or they see what’s going on, but I feel people have been trying to use me,” he tells me. He doesn’t name names but adds that he’s referring to both his personal and professional life. “I don’t like the snaky shit. I don’t like the dark underworking of that shit. I be uncomfortable.” Less than a week later, he releases the music video for “Dance Now,” the second single off the forthcoming album that centers on the allures and pitfalls of dancing with the devil.
As we wrap up our chat, I ask the rapper what his definition of success would be for himself. “If I get all my ideas off, everything off that I need to… It’s not a benchmark or money or anything,” he says.