How J.I.D. Turned Family Drama into One of the Year’s Best Rap Albums

The J. Cole protege cements himself as one of hip-hop’s most exciting new talents on his new album The Forever Story.

J.I.D

J.I.DCourtesy of David KA

“Cinematic” is an overused descriptor for hip-hop albums that tell coming-of-age stories, intersperse autobiographical interludes, and employ dramatic beat switches. But J.I.D.’s The Forever Story is the rare project that genuinely deserves the label. Hell, it even comes with trailers: That’s how the Atlanta rapper describes the album’s first six songs, which run the gamut from soulful overture (“Galaxy”) to bassy trap-qualifying heat (“Raydar”). These precursor tracks only hint at the layers of depth present in the other nine songs, which explore sibling tension and the rapper’s role as the youngest, most frenetic member of his family with candor and wit.

“As soon as you hear the ‘And now, our feature presentation,’ that’s when the album starts. The first part is just leading you up to it, showing you, this is the essence, this is the world,” J.I.D.says. “Then you hear that, and it’s like, those were just the previews? That’s not even one fourth of the story.”

Born Destin Route, the 31-year-old musician began to turn heads in 2014 as part of the group Spillage Village, later catching the eye of J. Cole, who signed J.I.D. to his label Dreamville in 2017. He won critical acclaim and a devoted fan base with that year’s The Never Story and 2018’s DiCaprio 2 before showcasing his gymnastic rap skills on the label’s much-hyped Revenge of the Dreamers III compilation, which saw J.I.D. go toe-to-toe with many other hungry up-and-comers, and even hold his own against longstanding veterans like T.I. and his label boss.

He began earning Kendrick Lamar comparisons early in his career, though those felt both premature and devoid of proper context, ignoring his identity as a distinctly Atlanta rapper. Capable of rapid fire flows packed with internal rhymes and syntactic sleight-of-hand, J.I.D. more recalls Big Boi or an art school Ludacris. With a voice that’s a little higher than his peers; J.I.D. balances his Gatling gun flows with chess pie-sweet melodies that prove he belongs in the ranks of southern rap’s great dual threat vocalists.

J.I.D. has been working on The Forever Story for over three years, a timeline more common for indie directors than major label rappers nowadays. We meet for breakfast in Lower Manhattan the day before its release–he performed at the MTV Video Music Awards the same evening–and there’s already positive buzz brewing based on the reception to early singles like the devilishly clever campfire story “Dance Now” and the Atlanta Zone 6 reunion “Surround Sound,” which features 21 Savage and Baby Tate.

Those tracks show J.I.D. can write songs for Rap Caviar without sacrificing his personal style, but the rest of the album is where we really see who he is. J.I.D. has peeled back the curtain before on songs like the ennui-driven “Workin Out” and “Lauder,” but there’s a new sense of probing contemplativeness here. The Forever Story is animated by vivid details, from a bar brawl his entire family participated in after a man punched his sister in the face (“Now we fighting in the street, it’s like ten against twenty-three/I was seventeen, swinging on any and everything”) to witnessing his mother cope with his grandma’s death on “Kody Blu 31” (“I watch my momma lose her momma/Go through drama and trauma, but had to keep her head high”).

“For as long as I’ve been working with him, all we ever try to do is go deeper and deeper to outdo ourselves every time,” says Christo, his longtime friend and producer. “On the topic of family, he had to take it there.”

To continue the movie analogy, The Forever Story is primarily a coming-of-age drama, albeit one with some levity. Its emotional epicenter comes on the twin tracks “Bruddanem” and “Sistanem.” On the former, J.I.D. muses on loyalty for family both biological and chosen, accompanied by a choice feature from Lil Durk in a fish-out-of-water role atop plucky bass and guitar, instead of his usual moody trap beat. “Sistanem” explores the fiery, emotional dynamic between J.I.D. and his sister. He opens up about both their conflicts (“The lesson in this shit is we should talk face to face, fuck the messagin’/Meet me in the flesh and you can see that I’m still lil’ Destin”) and fierce loyalty (“You hate to see me hurt, you wanna hurt someone for me/Way too down to Earth, don’t do no dirt for me, please”).

J.I.DCourtesy of Matt Swinsky and David KA

As a listener, it’s unnerving to hear J.I.D. air out household drama like this, so surely he must’ve agonized over whether to give the rest of the Routes a heads up, right? “I ain’t even take it into consideration for one second,” he says. He ends the sprawling second verse of “Sistanem” by telling his sister that if their relationship really is that frayed, she might as well send him back all the money he’s loaned her via Cash App. “It came out with the little bit of rudeness I wanted to give it,” he says. “I just wanted to be a little rude, but everything else I said out of love.”

Hearing about J.I.D.’s role within the family helps to explain his rapping style and his penchant for eagle-eyed observation. Six years younger than the next kid, he has the perceptiveness and creativity of an only child, as well as the diversity of experiences that come from growing up as part of a blended family.

“I was the tagalong little brother for a time period who was kind of ignored, so when I do anything artistically, I don’t bring it to anybody’s front door like, ‘Hey, this might hurt your feelings a little bit,’” he says. “Nah, you’re just gonna have your feelings hurt. Ask forgiveness instead of permission type vibe.”

The Forever Story follows J.I.D.’s biggest chart success yet, “Enemy,” a thumping, arena-ready single with Imagine Dragons that peaked in the top five of the Hot 100 and has been streamed more than 850 million times on Spotify. “The whole time I wasn’t dropping and time was passing, I knew we had the Imagine Dragons record in our back pocket,” he says with a sheepish grin.

He chuckles when I point out that he’s released songs with Sheck Wes and Mos Def in the span of six months, which would seem like total tonal whiplash for most MCs. It’s reductive to say that he’s trying to bridge trap rap and more traditional lyrical hip-hop–it’s more that he’s trying to get the latter style to operate with the collaborative spirit that’s been a hallmark of Atlanta for the last decade. That’s why he pairs rising Georgia acts like Baby Tate and Kenny Mason with 21 Savage and Lil Wayne, respectively.

“Kendrick and Cole, we’ve been waiting for them to do a project for years. Why do you think that is? If it was Lil Baby and Gunna, they’d have done it three or four times already, but because it’s always a little competitive atmosphere with lyricism,” he says. “I was like, I don’t really care about that. I feel like I’m better than everybody anyways.”

This ability to move seamlessly between styles gives the lie to a common criticism of J.I.D., which is that he approaches rapping like a running back with only one speed (he played defensive back at Hampton University, and says he’s “always correlating things back to sports”). There are moments on The Forever Story where he’s still rapping like a draft prospect shattering records on the agility ladder, but now he’s added a refined, quietly revelatory singing voice too. “Kody Blu 31” in particular is a track Christo says they never could’ve made before J.I.D. took this vocal leap.

J.I.D. has always been capable of carrying a tune (he sought out a professional voice coach when his vocal cords became swollen during a 2019 tour), but here he sings with confidence and heft, trading blows with labelmate Ari Lennox on the wounded love song “Can’t Make U Change.” The first notes of The Forever Story include an interpolation of a melody from The Never Story’s “Doo Wop, but now, instead of Sean McVerry singing lead, it’s J.I.D. at the front of the mix.

“I just wanted to be able to have that on my Swiss Army knife. I’m still working on it, it’s an ongoing thing,” he says. “It’s like being an athlete and having speed. You’ve gotta keep on curating that speed and chipping away at certain things that make you able to keep running at that high level.”

After our breakfast, J.I.D. stopped by his hotel suite to pick up accessories for his MTV awards set, including a pendant depicting himself as a character from beloved ‘00s cartoon Ed, Edd n Eddy. Rappers getting their own face in diamonds is nothing new—Rick Ross literally has a chain of himself wearing a chain of himself—but J.I.D. says this is the only blockbuster jewelry purchase he intends on making. Despite proving he can go bar for bar with the best of them on The Forever Story, he’s not interested in the traditional benchmarks of rap stardom.

“People want me to diss rappers and be that type of artist, but I diss, like, corporations, family members. Stuff that really bothers me, not other artists,” he says. “I’m just getting over dissing my sister. That’s the realest beef I’ve got in the world.”

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