In Their Own Words: A Listening Guide To Joell Ortiz & !llMind’s ‘Human’

After a challenging period of weight loss and sobriety, Joell Ortiz decided it was time to kick off his shoes and return to the booth, hungry and unbridled. One quarter of the Slaughterhouse tapped longtime comrade and genius beatmaker !llmind to come along for the ride. The result is a joint album that gives prominence to both !llmind’s stellar production and Joell’s nimble poetics, laden with boom-bap and Brooklyn chronicles. Yet human. makes room for new influences.

While leading singles “Latinos Pt.2″ and “Lil’ Piggies” are true to Joell’s form, deeper cuts like “Bad Santa” and “Who Woulda’ Knew” pay tribute to his older son and significant other, respectively, moving even the hardest of men.

“[When] we finished recording [“Bad Santa”], me and Joell are walking out to get some air,” said !llmind. “We’re walking out and [my intern engineer] gets up, he turns around and starts balling, crying. Super crying. He was like ‘Yo, I’m just super proud not only to be here recording with you guys, but that song really hit me.’”

READ: Joell Ortiz And !llMind’s Pictorial Countdown To ‘Human’ Evokes An Important Message

Each track, despite lyrical content or theme, is tinged with a certain emotion and thusly runs in the same human vein. VIBE Viva recently caught up with the match made in Hip-Hop heaven, who walked us through the entire 11-track LP.

“Human (Intro)”

!llmind: I had this vision of starting the album with a short musical piece. I tried to create a piece that represented what a human is. So when you think human being, you think emotion. Love, hate, imperfection, desire. All those emotions and qualities that make up a human being. So, I tried to create this musical piece that expresses all of that. That’s the reason why I tried to blend my record progressions with major string progressions and bring those emotions out. And Joell speaking at the end really just sets the tone for what’s about to happen. Shouts to my man Cubeatz who co-produced it.

Joell: For me not knowing any of that and him just being like ‘I have an idea’ and then finally hearing the finished product—it’s like air. Pure air. You could feel any way listening to that music. What he tried to do, he did it. Because on certain days when it’s sunny and I’m driving my truck, I put the album on and I’m like ‘Ah, yea, just got out the shower, I’m on my way, we in the city!’ On rainy days, it feels somber. It seems calm. It enhances my emotions.

“New Era”

Joell: New Era is just tough New York rap. It’s rough, dirty New York. Roll a blunt, put this one on and vibe out. If any record says Joell Ortiz is from Brooklyn, it’s that one.

!llmind: That was the first song recorded. The way it was flipped, with that piano piece that starts the song off, I just tried to envision curtains about to open. It’s this super intense lush, street tale that’s just full of emotion.

“I Just Might”

Joell: This is fun, man. Everybody gets those days when they’re feeling themselves. “I Just Might” is my feeling myself moment on the album. I’m in the studio with !ll, it’s that time again where it’s warming up outside, you know what I mean? And the way it knocked, it just put me in a certain mood, made me feel invincible. The words started to take shape. I would laugh in the booth and have to re-record certain parts. It was just that cool, fun vibe for me. Rock out with your [pauses] blank out, haha.

!llmind: Same with me. I was just flexing with the beat. Like how can I create something at the top of the album that just makes people go, ‘Wait, what the f**k?! What is this? Why are the drums kinda weird?’ Just straight flexing.

“My N*ggas”

Joell: You know, it’s not always good, what comes from [the music industry]. You know what I’m saying? Surrounding yourself with your core friends is very, very important when you’re on a journey like I’m on. Because you come across all types of energy. Some good, some bad. But you know your homies you grew up with, they’ll always be there for you. So, that was like a tribute record to them and also a jab to all of those who weren’t there. Those who, the minute I step away, they talk about me. Those who wished this never happened for me and my friends. I was trying to capture that and at the same time tell a story of what it looked like to come up. It’s a reflective record, a tough record and celebratory record.

“Six Fo’”

!llmind: That’s Joell straight flexing. Showing people he’s at the top of the totem pole when it comes to rapping. And he is. He’s one of the best, point blank.

We tapped into a certain energy and just went for it. The beat is perfect, it’s crazy. It’s almost like a lunchroom table type beat. No crazy chord progression, no hook, just going in there to f**king rap your ass off.

Joell: That beat doesn’t take a break. It’s like ‘Hey, what do you want to do?’ It’s like the beat squaring up. Like, ‘Can you fight? Because I can.’ So, what was I going to do, other than come with it? [Laughs]

“Light A L”

Joell: Yo, were we smoking? How did Light A L come about […] Light A L is for the projects. It’s for the hood. If you’re not from there, no offense, it’s not the record for you. It’s for the block. All I did was zone out and talk about some things. That was easy to write. All I had to do was think back to my childhood, on the people I lost, the fun things, the sad things. All the things that happened growing up in the projects in Brooklyn.

!llmind: I think that was the third song we did that day. When I started to make that beat, I knew it had to be some sort of street tale, mid-tempo. Something very vivid. And to me, that’s what that track is, super vivid. With the story and images. The types of synthesizes had to also be vivid. It was an awesome backdrop for Joell to tell his story.

READ: Joell Ortiz And !llmind Deliver The Hip-Hop Gospel On “Hallelujah”

“Lil’ Piggies”

!llmind: Sh*t… one of my favorites. That was a lot of fun to record. That intro you hear was the first thing he said when he stepped into that booth and started recording. We kept that first take. I stopped in the beginning at one point and was like ‘Yo, this is the tempo for this song.’ He knew what he had to do and that’s why the intensity was so high. That intro is everything.


Joell: [Laughs] That day was crazy! A lot of the times for me when I’m recording, it’s not until I listen back that I recognize the moment. But not with “Lil’ Piggies”. As it was flowing and I had my pen, I was like ‘Oh man, this is the joint. This is going to touch people.’ When I went in and did the recording I knew right away Lil Piggies was tough. It’s one of those records where I drive home the point of what I’m trying to say, but take you through all types of feelings in the process. ‘Oh sh*t, he’s nice. Yo, who’s he talking about? Did you hear that drum pop and how he let it breathe?!’ All the things that make dope songs happen, Lil Piggies is that. All while you’re like ‘But who’s he talking about?’ I’m addressing real things. I’m talking about the smoking mirrors, the fabricated lifestyles. I’m talking about the most dishonest people who change when the cameras turn on.

I’m a father. I have a son, and I don’t want him thinking that in order to be successful you have to be this or do that. Individuality is important to me. So, anybody I see is a carbon copy or tracing someone else, or not being themselves, I disassociate myself. I call them piggies.

“Latino Pt. 2″ ft. Emilio Rojas, Bodega Bamz & Chris Rivers

Joell: I had to put the brothers on. I reached out to Chris right away, I reached out to Bodega, shouts to him. He’s been grinding for his numbers for the longest. And Emilio Rojas as well. That was just a phone call to the homies, like yo, I have a platform for them to just rap their asses off. This beat is ill, it’s up-tempo, sounds like a collaborative joint anyway, I don’t want a hook on this either – let’s go. That was just a fun time, a fun time at the video shoot as well. Just fun, fun, fun. Shouts to my Latino brothers.

!llmind: That is another b-boy, up-tempo, lunchtable beat where you just go in and see who can rap.

“Who Woulda’ Knew” ft. Father Dude

Joell: [I’m] talking to my lady. Not all good, just human. There’s a sacrifice that comes with being with an artist. It takes a different kind of woman to deal with tours, females in your face. [There’s] just not enough quality time all the time, and [I’m] always on call. The canceling of the movies, and sacrifice on top of sacrifice on top of sacrifice ‘til she’s put in a position to think ‘Am I built for this?’ That stirs up the whole ‘What are we doing?’ They’re just moments. They’re just moments to me, because the common denominator is always love. There are fun moments, joyous moments and then there’s argument moments and reflection moments and ‘What are we doing?’ moments. It’s tough. So, I wrote that record to and for her. I understand I understand. But this is what [she] signed up for. [Is she] in or not?

!llmind: Shouts to my man G Coop on the co-production on that. And my man Father Dude who sang vocals. He’s such a soulful singer. I just wanted to bring him in and further enhance the emotion of the song and treat his voice as part of the sample of the song. Shouts to him.

“Bad Santa” ft. Jared Evan

Joell: Bad Santa… is another sacrifice record. I’m talking to my older son, who I don’t get to enjoy as much as I’d like to, because of life situations. He lives in Atlanta with his mom. We had a fallout when he was young, so they moved. Things are cool now with everyone, but because he’s over there and I’m over here. I only get him for Christmas, hence “Bad Santa.” And some summers, when he’s not playing sports. It’s just a record saying ‘Daddy’s a rapper and you’re six states away, but I’m always here.’ Don’t think of me as just the bearer of gifts. I’m more than just Santa. I’m still your dad. Your mom still sends me your grades. I still get it in from here. And when I see you, it’s all about you. But… I’m a rapper. And you live far away. This is about me wishing I could be there more, but also me trying to make him understand through a record, in one verse, how I feel.

Shouts to my dude Jared Evan for doing the chorus and a verse of his own and just overall enhancing the way I felt. Listening to what I said and living with it and adding what Jared does to a record — it’s super pure, soulful and heartfelt. Yea… “Bad Santa” is to my older son.

!llmind: There was something really amazing that happened while we were recording that song. So, we were recording Jared’s part and one of my intern engineers at the studio was tracking the vocals, his name is Devin. So Dev was tracking, doing a good job. We finished recording the song and me and Joell are walking out to get some air, probably get a drink or something. My man Atlas was there with us. We’re walking out and Dev gets up, he turns around and he’s balling, crying. Super crying. He was like ‘Yo, I’m just super proud not only to be here recording with you guys, but that song really hit me.’ It really hit home for him and he tried to hide it a bit, but we felt the energy. That was a super special moment. Shouts to Dev.

“Human (Outro)”

Joell: The music and lyrics in outro, in my opinion, are the most cohesive parts of the album. They both make you feel immediately. Right away, you feel what this is. It’s not a sum up of anything. It’s just an ill beat and Joell telling his story. It’s struggle mixed with triumph mixed with, uh, everything. I can’t even really put it all into the right words. To me, it’s the song on the album with the most replay value. Once again, I wrote a record to me. And [I] don’t realize it until later when I’m like, ‘Yea, I’m talking to myself again.’ It’s therapy. Music has been the thing that’s listened to me all these years. It’s been the constant ear. Like I’m on the couch, there’s a beat playing and it’s the therapist. I get to just go and that’s one of the songs where I just gave you me. All the imperfections, the whole picture of who I am. If you don’t know Joell by now and this is the first time you’re listening to him, you could learn about him through that human. record.

!llmind: We wanted to end the song off with the word human. When you listen to the album, the last cut, you hear Joell end it with the word human. I just think it’s bittersweet, because it signals the end of the album, but also what the whole album is about. What defines the album. Hopefully, that’s what sparks the listener to go back and listen to it all over again. That’s a special record. Also, one of my favorites.