Imagine how it must feel to be really, truly great at something, at anything. Imagine operating at such a high level that what you’re doing becomes its own sort of momentum, where your talent almost operates independent of you. Imagine feeling like you’re just sort of watching yourself from the outside while something else takes over. Imagine feeling like you just can’t stop. I’ve been making my living as a writer for 13 years now, and I’ve only felt that feeling a small handful of times. It’s magical, and it’s frustrating, too, since that feeling is such a rare and elusive thing. But there are people who just seem to be able to summon that feeling at will. And on his new album, DiCaprio 2, the Atlanta rapper J.I.D is one of those people.
J.I.D is not one of these teenage phenoms who achieve weird child-prodigy excellence around the same time they get their drivers’ licenses. He’s 28 years old, a grown man, and he’s been cranking out mixtapes since 2012, spending most of that time barely getting noticed. He’s lived a life: going to Hampton University on a football scholarship, getting kicked out, spending time delivering pizza and living in his car. Nobody handed him a buzzy rap career. He built it, bit by bit, guest appearance by guest appearance, show by show. He’s still building it. But DiCaprio 2 is full of moments that make the actual act of rapping — not career maintenance, not persona construction, just rapping — sound as easy as breathing.
J.I.D raps fast. It’s not Twista-style fast-rap, where the perfectly controlled speed is almost a magic trick. (Happy birthday to Twista, the only rapper whose birthday I ever remember because he’s the only one who ever friended me on Facebook.) It’s not a Tech N9ne-style muscular display, and it’s not a bored wheel-spinning like recent-vintage Eminem. Instead, with J.I.D, it’s more like a car without brakes, threatening to spin wildly out of control. J.I.D always sounds desperate and passionate, like he’s about to jump off of the track and forget where he is. But that never happens. The precision is almost disguised, like he doesn’t want us to hear how complete his command of his craft is. And he sounds excited, like he can’t believe he gets to do this.
J.I.D doesn’t always rap fast, and when he does, he makes it sound like a natural form of expression. But whenever anyone else raps next to him, the other rapper sounds leaden and clumsy. The only rapper on DiCaprio 2 who can keep up is J.I.D’s label boss J. Cole, and even that guy has to be on his absolute A-game. On paper, J.I.D’s lyrics can be a bit obvious or goofy. But a J.I.D. line that falls flat — “to the bullshit, I’m a matador,” that kind of thing — never registers as a clunker because it comes out as such a breathless blur and because he’s already onto something else by the time you even start to process it. The beats — elegant, minimal, heavy on big bass tones — stay out of his way and give him room to operate. He’s not allergic to the jittery hi-hats so prevalent in Atlanta rap, but he’s not making music out of those dominant sounds, either. Instead, he’s more interested in giving an Atlanta twist on the organic whump of his mentors Cole and Mac Miller — introspective rap music that can still rattle a car window.
J.I.D is a devotee of anachronistic rap craftsmanship; there’s a reason why Method Man shows up on DiCaprio 2. J.I.D has talked about how he wants to bring back the three-verse structure, and he doesn’t really traffic in the two-minute mostly-hook anthems that are so popular among his SoundCloud-rap peers. DiCaprio 2, the sequel to a SoundCloud EP that he released in 2015, is explicitly structured as a mixtape, not an album. (DJ Drama even shows up to bellow motivational speeches in between songs, linking DiCaprio 2 back to the classic Atlanta mixtapes of the ’00s.) It’s a sheer skill-display, one that’s not supposed to hold up as an LP-length statement. And yet the record shows that J.I.D’s songwriting skill has grown since last year’s The Never Story, and it ends up working as an album almost despite itself.
As a writer, J.I.D is still finding himself, but he’s capable of a few extremely slick lines: “My nigga gone for 17 years like a cicada / More than a motivator for me to get off of my anus,” “I’m the wrong letter that made it up out your spellcheck.” Mostly he’s concerned with tossing around vowel-sounds until he’s hit them from every possible angle: “What’s shit to an enema, enemy? / Anyone, get at me, I’m the epitome.” But he’s also good for little slice-of-life moments: one story about arguing that a friend should quit smoking cigarettes, another about getting into an embarrassing fight with a date at a movie. These are small, minute, specific stories, and J.I.D never widens his focus or makes a grander statement about the world at large. Maybe he never will. But I think he can, and I think he will.
When you’re talking about J.I.D, it’s almost impossible to escape the shadow of Kendrick Lamar. J.I.D is another smaller guy with a high-pitched voice, a breathless delivery, and a sense of frantic determination. They’ve got similar voices, and, if you’re not paying close enough attention, similar approaches. That’s got to be hard for J.I.D, since he’s at a different point in his development and since there’s not really anyone who can be expected to compete with Kendrick Lamar. But J.I.D isn’t trying to be Kendrick. He’s more of a stylist, a slick-talker more concerned with rapping rings around his peers than making grand statements. If J.I.D is anything like Kendrick, then he’s like Kendrick circa-Section.80, in that half-awkward stage when Kendrick was still figuring out what to do with all that talent. Kendrick did figure it out, and he became an all-time great. And there’s no reason to think J.I.D can’t do the same thing.
DiCaprio 2 is out now on Dreamville/Interscope. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The 1975’s exuberantly pretentious, possibly transcendent A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships.
• Earl Sweatshirt’s murky, insular Some Rap Songs.
• Jeff Tweedy’s worn-in, thoughtful solo album WARM.
• Meek Mill’s post-prison return Championships.
• Lisa/Liza’s sprawlsing, serene Momentary Glance.
• Bryan Ferry’s symphonic, jazz-addled Bitter-Sweet.
• Acid Mothers Temple’s zoned-out psych-rocker Reverse Of Rebirth In Universe.
• Cantique Lépreux’s atmospheric black metal rumination Paysages Polaires.