Two of the hardest things to change in both life and hip-hop are conventions and first impressions. Hip-hop was founded by the youth. Yet, regardless of talent level, young artists are assumed to be less knowledgeable, less prepared, and less mature than their older counterparts. By that same token, it takes a lot to change how we view an artist based on how they were introduced to us. Artists like Cardi B are a perfect example of this. She had to literally become a leading voice in the industry to shed her image of being a social media personality first, and the same can be said about many other artists with “unconventional” origins. J.I. doesn’t care about any of that.
For the 19-year-old artist—who got his first major look from Lifetime’s rap-battle television series The Rap Game—his five-year tenure in the music industry has broadened not only his pen but his vision. Now, he’s able to see the bigger picture even at his young age. J.I. is fully prepared to shatter all preconceived assumptions about him or his music.
While it is still challenging to re-define yourself as an artist, J.I. told me that he never felt pigeon-holed by his television origins. He never identified as a “television rapper” until others would point it out to him, and even then he knew that he could grow past that label.
“The funny thing is, I was so stuck in what I was doing, I never really saw it like that,” J.I. said. “Until maybe, two years after me being on that television show I realized, like, ‘Oh, ok I’m a television rapper.’ I don’t know, I came off that television show with a lot of confidence just because of the platform I was given. Then, I looked at the response I was getting from my fans when they’d see me in public like, ‘Yo, that’s the kid from The Rap Game the T.V show,’ it was never, ‘Oh shit, that’s J.I.’ It was always the T.V show, that’s where I got my recognition. Even up until when I was dropping my first two or three singles before “Need Me.”
That never discouraged him though. Even the latter half of his stage name, “The Prince of N.Y,” isn’t something he likes. It was just his name on the show. But, since most of his initial fans knew him from that, it stuck. “‘The Prince of New York,’ I hate that shit. I feel like it limits me. I made that name in middle school, so it was never my rap name, but on that T.V show, it was. They[fans] thought it was my name. Like I said, I never saw it as me being a reality television artist until I really sat back was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m in this category that people put me in, and I gotta break out of it.’ I didn’t realize that until I already broke out of it.”
While giving props to Mulatto—another Rap Game alum who is forging her own path—J.I. also found inspiration in learning what artists like D Smoke have accomplished. Smoke started on a popular rap game show, Netflix’s Rhythm N’ Flow, and is now nominated for two Grammys. “When he first started dropping shit, I was in tune already, and I saw how the attraction was there for him. I thought it was dope because he was doing shit different… goes to show you skies the limit, and it really doesn’t matter how you start,” were the sentiments he shared when he learned during our conversation that D Smoke was now Grammy-nominated.
J.I. is more than just a rapper. He’s an artist. Before he started writing rhymes, he had a passion for writing science-fiction comics while he was in school. Now, with the newfound free time he’s had due to the pandemic stopping his European tour route, he’s decided to dive deeper into his love for script-writing and has been thinking about pitching a show to Netflix.
“You know the movie Kids? That’s exactly what I want to do,” he said about his show idea. “I want to make it a series, but re-doing that shit in modern-day…I feel like, we have new drugs, we have new diseases, we have kids killing each other. It’s fucked up, but it’s true. Our generation is different, it was the same back then but it’s shifting and I feel like I need to show that to the older generation and the new generation. I think it would be a dope ass series.”
In the heir of his love for comics, I think that if J.I. was a superhero, he’d be Mile Morales. They both share Puerto Rican heritage, both are from Brooklyn, and are both next-up in a city ruled by giants. “Na, that’s hard (Laughs),” he said in agreement with my comparison. Therefore, if J.I. is Miles, then the release of his upcoming EP would be akin to the young Spider-Man putting on the unique black-and-red suit that he made for the first time.
Not rushing his musical process, J.I. revealed that his upcoming EP is only the first half of a larger series of releases he has planned. He also plans to conclude his Hood Life Krisis series with a volume 3 that will be dropping soon as well.
“I missed my deadline, like, twice just trying to perfect this shit,” he said candidly. “But, I’m very excited, especially on this one feature. The feature is dope for the fans because if you listen to New York music and you know what type of artist I am, you’ve been dying for this feature… And then we’re going to drop again. To be honest, the tape I’m dropping is just the first half. I want to drop in two parts, like HLK Vol. 3, because I really want to close it off. This is the first half, so when everything is said and done you can listen to it as a whole with over 10-tracks.”
Through it all, the real catalyst in J.I.’s meteoric rise over the last two years has been his attention to detail, tenacity to follow his vision, and patience to stay the course he’s plotted for himself.
“Patience is key because, from me being 14 coming out up until now, I would wake up anxious every day like, ‘Why am I not where I want to be?’ I would be impatient. Then, I met with my manager and he taught me about patience. He told me ‘Yo, it don’t matter how you start. It matters how you finish,’ and that shit always stuck with me. I dropped so many songs and, based off how they started, I’d be upset they weren’t taken off the way I wanted them to. Then a year later, 20 million views later, it did what it needed to do. I still struggle with it because there are so many artists coming out, but I’m different. So, there’s a way to tune that impatience out, and that’s by working and not focusing on what the next man is doing.”
He paused for a moment, then doubled down on that sentiment. “It’s not about the pace that you want, it’s about the pace that’s meant for you.”
As 2020 comes to a close and he prepares to release some of his favorite music to date entering the new year, J.I. doesn’t need to be recognized as the “prince” of anything anymore. He is one of the young leaders of the new school, and he confidently knows that he chooses whatever he wants to be as he continues to blaze the road before him. J.I. is the writer of his own story.