Known as the “County of Kings,” Brooklyn, New York, has a reputation for breeding royalty, as many of its natives and residents have shown a propensity to rule over their territory of choice. This is especially true in regards to Hip-Hop, as many iconic figures in the culture’s history proudly lay claim to the borough and embody its regal aura. While yet to become a king in his own right, rapper J.I. has shown no qualms about letting it be known that he’s got his eyes fixated not only on the throne but on the world at large.
The voice behind the inescapable feel-good smash “Need Me,” which has become one of the more infectious anthems to come out of New York City in recent memory, J.I. is a fresh face with all of the tools to become an international star. A native of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and of Puerto Rican descent, J.I. first got a shot of fame with an appearance on the second season of the Lifetime competitive reality show The Rap Game. Coming up short on the show, the rapper used the exposure as momentum for the release of his debut EP, Barely Famous, in 2017. Soon after, though, he found himself on the brink of obscurity after spoiling his reality TV earnings and being kicked out of his mother’s home.
Yet, J.I.’s fortunes would turn around after linking with manager Gaby Acevedo, who helped facilitate a record deal between the young upstart and Geffen Records following the release of his Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 1 mixtape in 2019. The project’s lead single, “Need Me,” would gradually creep into the national consciousness over the next two years, with fans gravitating to J.I.’s melodic delivery and cocksure aura. After following up Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 1 with two additional volumes in the series, releasing a string of singles that have amassed millions of views and streams across various platforms, and scoring collaborations with the likes of fellow New Yorker Lil Tjay (“Hood Scars”) and Queen Naija (“Love Is”), J.I. has positioned himself as next up and the talk of the town. And with his forthcoming project, Young & Restless Vol. 1 Baby Don, slated for release this year, it’s clear the hit-making Brooklynite is in full takeover mode.
VIBE spoke with J.I. about taking his brand worldwide with Young & Restless Vol. 1 Baby Don, overcoming the pressures of success, his new single, “Toxic,” and more.
VIBE: You’ve been working towards expanding your fan base for a few years now, but reached your biggest success thus far with your hit single “Need Me.” How would you describe the impact that song has had on your career and what its success has taught you as an artist?
J.I.: For one, the crazy thing is I didn’t think that would be the record for me. I didn’t think that was gonna be the record that blew because originally I didn’t really like it. It’s so crazy how life works ’cause I didn’t have enough time to go in the studio to take out what I wanted. I was gonna take out the hook ’cause I hated the hook. The only problem was I made the record in August and I start off the record saying, “I swear this gon’ f**k the summer up.” So, I’m like, “Yo, I can’t wait no longer because I gotta wait til next summer to drop this joint.” So, I just said, “Let’s just put it out, it don’t even matter what happens,” and then it took off.
It got to the point where everyone, at some point in their life or day, heard that record. Whether you were outside and you heard it playing, whether one of your friends came to you and said, “Yo, you like this song? I just heard about it.” It was just so organic and natural and that’s what really mattered to me the most. I know it was over with when I got in the car and I heard myself being played on the radio. I’m thankful for that record. Til this day, the fans love it.
“Need Me” was recently certified platinum. Have you received your plaque yet? If so, what was your reaction?
The crazy thing is I just received it yesterday, as we speak. The best comparison is like an NBA basketball player getting a chip or getting an MVP award… That’s how I look at it ’cause I make music to try to get people to listen. And when I get a plaque in return, it’s almost like, “Damn, we did something more than that. We have the world listening, not just people.”
Being that “Need Me” was such a big record, have you felt any pressure to make another song that matches or exceeds its success?
You know what, it’s always on the back of my mind. Like, “Yo, I need a record bigger than ‘Need Me.’ Not another ‘Need Me,’ but a record bigger.” And to be honest, I don’t even think about that anymore because ‘Need Me’ didn’t even solidify me as an artist. My two projects that I dropped after that solidified me. It got to a point where—God forbid, ’cause… My team works too hard—I can stop making music right now for the rest of my life and nobody will sit here and tell you J.I. is a one-hit-wonder.
You’re not gonna sit here and just say “Need Me” is my only good record. When you talk, you’re like, “Oh, he’s got ‘Blame On Me,’ he’s got other records.” I think that’s really what kind of separated me and let people know, like, “Oh, this kid’s an artist.”
You recently got back into the swing of things with the release of your new song, “I Aint Gon Lie.” What was the inspiration behind that song and how did it come together?
Well, I’ve been dibbling and dabbling through drill music for a long, long time. Before I blew up, I was rapping on drill beats and it’s just always been a part of New York culture. Not just New York, but Hip-Hop culture. London does it, Chicago does it. Chicago’s been doing it before these new rappers came out of New York, so it was just something I was always around.
I felt like [since drill] was going on in my city, [“I Ain’t Gon Lie”] is mandatory. Like, this is for the city and that’s why I did that record. I wanted to really come on it different because everybody’s screaming on these drill tracks and that’s not me here. I’m about to do something completely different, and that’s what I did. The fans went crazy with it. And yeah, “I ain’t gon lie.” If you’re from New York, you say that. Once somebody starts off their sentence with “I ain’t gon lie,” you know they’re about to say some stuff. So, it was just perfect.
How would you describe your new single, “Toxic,” to someone who hasn’t heard it yet?
I can say it’s an anticipated record [for] the fans. It’s a toxic record, literally the title is exactly what it is. I get this all the time from my fans, and they be like, “Yo, J.I, you’re a toxic a** rapper.” They be telling me that I’m toxic, I’m this that and the third. So, I said, “You know what? Bet, I’ma run with that. Let’s make a toxic record. Let me show you why I’m toxic.” And when you hear the record, you’re gonna understand (laughs).
You recently co-directed the music video for “Taken For Granted.” What was that experience like?
I just come up with ideas to records while I’m making and creating them. I feel like as an artist, with directors, the artist needs to trust the director to do his job. But at the same time, directors, you need to bring the artist’s decision to life. I feel blocked out with directors that are just knuckleheads, they do the opposite. They wanna do it their way and then when everything goes left and it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, they wonder why and they’re scratching their head. Working with these last directors I’ve been working with, they listen to me, you know?
I just feel like I got a vision and I want the people to see what I want them to see, you understand me? ‘Cause it comes from J.I. I’m just so involved with my music and my vision, I need to come up with these concepts. And I was a writer before a rapper, I used to write short stories, short novels. I would go crazy. So, I come up with these concepts and I know they’re gonna go crazy, I know they’re gonna work. And they work… I’m not just trying to be rapping on a track, I’m trying to bring everything else to life.
It’s been over a year since the release of your last project, Hood Life Krisis Vol. 3. When can fans expect another project from you?
This year, for sure. Coming this year. At first, I was gonna “no-feature” it. But I got a lot of stuff coming, man. I’m excited… This project is gonna be dope. In my opinion, when we finish it completely, it’s gonna one of my best if not the best project I’ve released. I’m just prepping for the album, you know. I’m just trying to drop something so I can go into album mode. After that, it’s over with. But this project is dope. It’s called Young & Restless Vol. 1 Baby Don and it’s coming out soon.
How would you describe the approach you took creating Young & Restless Vol. 1 Baby Don and how it differs from your previous ones?
The difference is that with this project, I have so much music to choose from and decide from. The last one, I didn’t. It was what I created and that was it. But with this project, I’ve had so much music that once I drop [it], I could drop another after if I wanted to on the same day. It’s just about dropping the right records and what works.
What do you hope to prove with this next project?
Man, I’m trying to prove that I’m the top of the top, man. I’m top-notch and I feel that I’ve proved it already, but to an extent because people forget. I wanna prove that I’m here to stay, I’m not going nowhere and I take my craft seriously. And I feel like the music that we put together is dope. Even getting my platinum plaque yesterday just brought back a lot of memories and it humbled me because it’s like, “Wow, I’ve got so much more to accomplish.”
I just felt so hungry looking at that plaque ’cause I need more. I need a diamond plaque, and that’s coming. I got more plaques coming. But for me, at this point, it’s just about dominating and taking over the world for me. I want to go to China and people recognize me and go crazy. That’s the goal, that’s the plan. I used to be so stuck on my city, like just New York. Like, “I want to be big here.” I’m already big in New York, let’s go somewhere else, let’s take over the world. That’s where my head is. And I just hope the fans enjoy the music, man. That’s it. Because sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they get mad when you take too long to drop. I just hope they enjoy it, and I know they will.