Jeleel! Interview – ‘Best Album Ever’ Coming, Ripping His Shirt
Show & Prove
Interview: Robby Seabrook III
Editor’s Note: This story will appear in the Winter 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
There’s a brawny, backflipping visual expressionist in music making his mark while ripping his shirt to shreds. Twenty-seven-year-old Jeleel! is putting rap, hyper-pop and R&B together like a Lego set as one of hiphop’s latest talents. Singing and producing as well, Jeleel! has found a way to make it all work, with his 2021 single “Dive In!” taking him from indie artist to viral sensation.
The track, which is an evolution of the SoundCloud sound, features a blaring, adrenaline-inducing beat coupled with Jeleel!’s high-pitched voice. “When I feel like rollin’ up, I’ma slide in/When I’m in my zonin’, uh, start the violence,” the rapper delivers on the hook. The accompanying video serves as a surprise since a 6-foot, 3-inch, muscle-bound dude with no shirt that kicks and flips like an action hero is the last person anyone would expect to hear emit that voice. At 19 million views and over 70 million Spotify streams, fans are certainly diving into his sound.
Hailing from Pawtucket, R.I., Jeleel!, born Abdul Jeleel Yussuf, always knew he was destined for something special. Born to Muslim-Nigerian parents, Jeleel! was raised in a strict African household along with a sister and brother. He listened to a varied mix of acts in his teen years, including two rappers who would later influence him. “I loved listening to DMX,” he says with glee. “I loved listening to 50 Cent. I love that old-school hip-hop culture. I feel like that’s when everybody was together and had their own style; they made hip-hop fun.” Jeleel! was also a big fan of Kanye West, Limp Bizkit, Nicki Minaj, Chief Keef and Blink-182 growing up.
Outside of trying to sing around the house as a kid, music wasn’t his initial priority. “I was trying to play basketball,” he explains. “In high school, freshman, sophomore year, I got cut. Junior year, I hit my growth spurt.” A knee injury from a dunk attempt that year left the aspiring athlete wheelchair-bound for nearly six months. Jeleel! gave the sport another shot, trying out in his senior year of high school in 2014, and then during his first two years at Loyola University Maryland. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it onto the teams.
In 2016, music became Jeleel!’s focus instead of ball. “I felt like God was telling me, ‘Yo, I got something better for you,’” Jeleel! shares. He made his first song, “Playing Me,” at the end of the year, and released his music on SoundCloud during college. Two years later, the framework of Jeleel!’s rap persona was built. “I found who Jeleel! was,” he tells. “I was gonna rip my shirt and scream my name. I was already in the gym working out, ripping my shirt, doing buff nigga shit.”
The then-aspiring artist and biopsychology major received his first big opportunity to showcase his rhyming skills in front of his fellow college classmates. He won a chance to perform at Loyola University’s LoyolaPalooza in 2018, and opened for dancehall legend Sean Paul. This moment was key in Jeleel!’s self-actualization. “Finally, I’m appreciated for something,” he states, looking back with a bit of melancholy. “I was always the kid that no one really cared about, but I was a happy kid. I feel like I had a bigger purpose, and I wanted people to see that.” Jeleel! graduated from college with a degree in psychology two days after the show and headed directly to Los Angeles to chase a music career.
While on the West Coast in 2018, Jeleel! stayed at a friend’s house, but that was short-lived, which rendered him houseless. Refusing to be stopped by his circumstances, he began posting videos of himself on social media platforms. The clips included him singing his catchphrase, “Jeleel!, yeah!,” and ripping his shirt off in public, adding a backflip to top it all off. As can be expected, he eventually got noticed. The songs Jeleel! also posted in his TikTok videos began earning him recognition locally as an artist, leading to producers inviting him to studio sessions. “I felt like it was time to put out a project. I don’t want people to think I’m just a meme,” he says on when he became aware of his popularity.
Jeleel! dropped his debut project, Angel From Heaven, in 2019, highlighting both his high-pitched voice and a deeper tone laid over rap, pop and more R&B-influenced tracks. Whether it’s fury or desire, the emotion in his music was convincing. The 11-track project received attention from multiple record labels, although they weren’t ready to sign him just yet. He let loose the EP Generation Z featuring more dance-centered numbers like “Hotshot!” the next year and a deluxe version in 2021.
By May of 2021, the artist released his breakthrough single, “Dive In!,” but its telling success wasn’t based on luck. “I was promoting the shit out of it on TikTok, for like a whole year, even before I dropped it,” Jeleel! reveals. His commitment to working his own songs is different from how many rappers treat their music. “No song is ever dead,” he explains. “Artists think, ‘Oh, I dropped it. It’s dead.’ Just keep promoting. You never know.”
“Dive In!” took Jeleel! to new heights in 2022. This past April, he signed a record deal with 10K Projects, the same label that helped launch the careers of Trippie Redd and Iann Dior. Tony Talamo and Zach Friedman, co-presidents of 10K Projects, praise Jeleel!’s artistry and the man behind the music. “He just really is generally a good person,” Friedman says. “He reminds us of a modern-day DMX. Someone that’s polarizing and he really has something to say.” Talamo sees Jeleel! becoming a global entertainer. “He could be Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in that sense, where he started in pro wrestling,” Talamo adds. “[Jeleel!] started in music, and he blossomed this career based on who he is as a guy and what he is able to do.”
With performances at Rolling Loud Miami and New York, plus Made in America behind him, Jeleel! continues to drop new singles, including “Shots!” featuring Denzel Curry this past November. The track features Jeleel!’s high-energy sound. Now, the workout enthusiast is inching closer to the release of his debut album in early 2023. “It’s gonna be an experience,” he offers. “The whole world’s gonna feel it, and it’s gonna be the best album ever.” Jeleel!’s ready to win over fans’ hearts one backflip at a time.
The time is now.
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