It’s easing its way toward showtime on a brisk December evening in Chicago, and J.I.D is seated in the first row of an otherwise empty theater. Eyes forward and an intense glare on his face, the East Atlanta rapper is deep in thought while studying the sound-check performance from that evening's fiery and brash co-headliner, Ski Mask the Slump God. It’s not that J.I.D necessarily needs improvement for his live show. “That’s my whole swag. Being up there, performing for people—that’s my whole shit. It’s fun. It just feels like breathing,” he’ll tell Playboy later that evening. Rather, the 28-year-old simply fashions himself a student of the game. His dense, intricate and oft-dissected lyrics read like a historical document as penned by a philosophy major. J.I.D observes, absorbs and then creates.
“It was a clear-cut, black-and-white moment,” he says of returning home from school, promptly being kicked out of the house by his parents and sleeping in his car for nearly two weeks. “That’s when I decided, Fuck it. I’m finna use this ability.” An avid reader and natural writer, “I was thinking about being a lawyer when I was in school. But I was like, Fuck all of that! I don’t even like the justice system,” he says with a laugh. If anything, he adds, being a rapper carries unexpected benefits: “I was thinking, I can work from the inside. Artists these days are like the Martin Luther King or Malcolm X—we have the same power.”
“That three or four years was needed,” he says. “The time that I got to mature, the time that I got to learn how to really do it.” He now feels that early in his career, when addressing heavier and more mature matters in his songs, he was more playing a part than responding to what he’d actually lived. But now, “I feel like I’m at that position and age in my life where I can put that type of material out there, and it’s gonna be respected. Everybody got something to say, but I want to make people’s life with it. I want them to live with it over time, and sit with it, and settle with it. I want it to be potent.”
Artists these days are like the Martin Luther King or Malcolm X—we have the same power.
And while J.I.D has made his name by letting his inner monologue linger and subsequently explode onto his songs, the rapper realizes in today’s ever-fluctuating music industry, capitalizing when eyes are on you is of the utmost importance. “I just feel like I gotta keep working. I don’t want to let nobody down,” he says. "I feel like I gotta keep thinking of better ideas, I gotta be more creative, I gotta tap into my stream of consciousness that allows me to create."
Indeed, he knows that despite his steady success, his work is far from done. “There’s always another level if you’re not Beyoncé, or if you’re not Michael [Jackson] or Prince,” he explains of continuing to improve his craft and increase his visibility in the coming months. “Those were the highest levels of musical expression and art. I’m not just doing this to stay with a cult following. I wanna get all the fans I can get. If that’s not in the stars for me, if that’s not aligned for me, that’s fine. But I’m definitely gonna give my best swing at it. “