St. Louis, Missouri is a complex city. Rapper Nelly, with his radio friendly raps, and a host of comedians such as Cedric the Entertainer, Lavell Crawford and the late Redd Foxx sometimes make it seem as if St. Louis is a jocular place to live.
But the city is not all peaches and cream, STL is actually one of the most dangerous cities in America.
Rookie rapper J.R. wants to unearth the city’s dark-side, where gang violence, drugs, murder and poverty run rampant. His latest effort, Gang Season, does just that: captures the filthy grime of the Lou’ without abandoning the city’s naturally high spirits.
“That’s why I reference [T.I.]. He can make a struggle record and make it a single. And that’s what I like, and what I try to do,” J.R. says during his visit to VIBE. “I do a lot of songwriting, too. And that’s kind of the lane that I want to fill.”
It’s just after 6:30 P.M. on a quiet Tuesday evening when the caramel complexioned J.R. strolls through VIBE’s office with his Publicist in tow. The New York leg of his press run has the rapper extremely tired, but he must push on. Because later in the evening, he has hosting duties at CityScapes strip club in Queens.
He’s tucked comfortably in a navy blue sweat suit, white on white Nike Air Force Ones, and a navy blue New York Yankee fitted, which is tightly pulled below his eyes. After being offered some snacks, J.R. digs into our snack basket and emerges with a bag of chips, and a cup of water.
Despite the fatigue, J.R., who recently came off tour with his mentor Trey Songz, is enveloped in a cool sheet of good spirits. But his welcoming persona didn’t come without hardships.
“My father was killed right before I was born, some street shit. I mean, niggas get killed from where I from. You got to really figure out a way to get away from all that shit. My mom was 14 or 15 when she had me. She had her issues, and ran off.”
“I was in the foster system, and I didn’t get adopted until I was six-years-old. So, it started off rough, but I was blessed. I got adopted. A white family adopted me, and they got me playing sports, stayed on me in school. They showed me what that side was like. What it’s supposed to be like.”
The trauma of being detached from one’s biological family is enough to send anyone spiraling down tubes of hopelessness. Adoption can swipe a huge chunk of a kid’s confidence. And if that isn’t enough, being a black male in the foster system in a city that’s currently the murder capital of the world, decreases one’s chances of getting adopted.
“When I was a kid I didn’t get it. It was like: ‘why my people ain’t want me?’ I’m a young black child with two old white parents. It’s obvious that people are going to ask me ‘Who are those people?’ When I was younger, I’m saying it. But I wasn’t saying it with confidence. It’s just a thing that people wouldn’t understand if they’re not in that situation. It’s just a mental thing. When you’re a kid, you’re not supposed to have to think that much. So when you start thinking about it, you start feeling like you got to grow up quickly.”
Despite being taken in by a loving family, J.R. couldn’t resist the allure of the streets. With that being the case, the future rapper submerged himself into the sweltering and aggressive street life with robberies, shootouts and other mischievousness.
“As I got older, I went back to the hood and starting doing dumb shit with my partners. Having full-blown shootouts, and then walking down the street laughing, and carry on about our day. But we were kids. I would never put that, anything that I’ve done in my life on my adopted parents because they provided everything that I needed. But at the end of the day, you’re going to make your own decisions. Everything that I did after that point I can say that it was a decision of mine. So we did a bunch of the street shit for years, jail all of that shit. Tried to figure it out.”
But throughout all of the trials and tribulations, J.R. has always had music. And back in 2014, he finally garnered national attention when his up-tempo, yet gritty, “I’m Just Saying” hit radio. The song picked up more steam when Nelly and Tiffany Fox hopped on the original remix. Then, crooner Trey Songz took notice of the budding talent by reaching out to J.R. and inviting him on tour.
“It just the experience, that was my first time being out of the city on some business on a consistent tip. But the most important thing is Trey’s guidance. Seeing how hard he has to work during the tour, how late he stays up, how many days he stays up. He takes a big role in mentoring me as far as how to handle certain situations. It’s just a blessing to have them there.”
Recently, J.R. released his Gang Season EP, which showcases his knack for penning catchy hooks. Standout tracks like “You See It,” “Today,” and “Gang Season,” shows J.R. talent for scribing memorable songs, yet keeping that street edge to it. While the Trey Songz-assisted “Best Friend” shows J.R.’s talent for waxing radio-friendly songs alongside industry heavyweights.
And as far as his personal life, J.R. has since patched things up with his biological mother, who was addicted to drugs, but is now sober.
“That’s what I want to get across too. People will have a perception of you. They didn’t see a picture of you. They’ll probably think you different. And after all that shit you did and everything you’ve been through you still found a way to preserve. So, that’s what I want to put in my music. All that is just shit that you going through. That’s just life, man. Once you figure out that it’s just shit that happens to you and it’s how you deal with it, you’ll start figuring it out more.”