I've Got a Story to Tell
Words: Peter A. Berry
With a legion of fans hungry for lyrical depth and fresh flows, JID possesses both as one of rap's great storytellers, satisfying generation old and new.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
JID isn’t in the mood for grandiosity. Phoning in from Los Angeles’ Jon & Vinny’s restaurant on a humid August afternoon, the East Atlanta native refuses to take himself too seriously, opting instead for a practical career bucket list. “I’m not trying to be the most famous person,” he says. “I’m just trying to get my stories off and see where that ends me at.” A half-a-decade after dropping his major label debut, JID’s still got personal goals and a tale to tell.
Back when SoundCloud rap was still a pejorative, JID, 31, emerged as an antithesis. A flurry of elaborate flows, dense rhyme schemes and inventive wordplay. In 2017, he joined J. Cole’s Dreamville Records in a joint venture with Interscope Records before unloading The Never Story, his major label debut album that promptly inspired Kendrick Lamar comparisons. The following year, JID dropped his critically acclaimed sophomore album, DiCaprio 2. Over the next two years he served up stellar verses on Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers III and received a Grammy nomination for his contributions to ROTDIII.
These days, JID’s balancing an increased global profile with victorious bouts of Madden, intense studio sessions and some fishing. “[I’m] just trying to find a little sense of serenity,” he explains. “But for the most part, it’s just me trying to figure out the next step.”
JID’s latest footprint is his newest album, The Forever Story. He started recording the project just before the COVID-19 pandemic began almost three years ago. The LP was originally titled God Does Like Ugly, and it was supposed to drop in late 2020, but JID just couldn’t stop tinkering with it. Finally released this past August, The Forever Story is laced with recollections of familial strife, teenage mischief and reflections on romance. For “Sistanem,” he dissects a frayed connection with his sister. On “Crack Sandwich,” he details a street brawl that landed him and some of his family members in a New Orleans jail cell.
“Kody Blu 31” finds JID rapping about being taught the virtue of violence and the weight of familial strife. Coasting alongside a gospel choir, he renders a tale of dormant pain with naked human sensitivity: “I watched my mama lose her mama, go through drama and trauma/But had to keep her head high so we don’t fucking know.” The album spills out like an autobiography, a belated origin story for the rapper, born Destin Route.
“It’s just me being angry about certain things,” he tells. “It was definitely a lot of emotion and being like, ‘I don’t wanna talk to you,’ ‘Fuck you,’ or ‘I love you.’” As he lyrically let loose, he had one agenda: “Just trying to tell stories and give people maybe what they went through, maybe what they’ve not been through, but at the same time, [they’re] just like, ‘Oh, I understand his perspective.’”
JID’s new LP is both his most personal and he feels his best. Pittsburgh, Pa. beatsmith Christo, who executive produced The Forever Story, noticed JID’s increased artistic fire while making the project. “His focus and everything, his work rate just intensified,” Christo says of the rapper.
Barry “Hefner” Johnson, JID’s co-manager and President of label, management and publishing company SinceThe80s, where JID is signed along with Dreamville and Interscope, notes the lyricist’s songwriting refinement. “The most important thing I think people will get from this album is that, yes, [JID]’s still rapping, but he dialed it back a lot to not make it so tone deaf and to make it more relatable to his story,” Johnson conveys.
He likens the rapper’s metamorphosis to a running back learning the value of patience. “[JID] used to just be a rapper that just wanted to rap,” Johnson says. “He used to just sprint. Now, he’s more calm, and he’s waiting on his block and then he’s running behind his block and he’s moving through the pockets a little bit different.”
Before JID navigated instrumentals with Barry Sanders-like agility, he made his name on the real gridiron, starring as a cornerback for Atlanta’s Stephenson High School. Then he attended Hampton University on a football scholarship. It was a dream come true, but it was also short-lived. He was expelled after he and his friends were accused of stealing on campus, which he raps about on his 2017 song, “General,” and his track, “2007,” which arrived this summer. “I was in school trying to figure it out, trying to figure out money, just understanding my family situations and stuff like that,” JID recalls of his Hampton years. “Just trying to figure out your spot in manhood where you can make a place and where you can make a point of what you’re trying to be as a man.”
While his stint in college didn’t end well, it led to him meeting WowGr8 and Olu of the duo EarthGang. Together, they formed the Spillage Village collective and welcomed other artists later. Forged in smoking sessions and block parties that unfolded at and around Hampton between 2009 and 2013, the clique eventually moved to Atlanta. Upon his return home, JID’s father kicked him out of the house, leaving him to live in the gold Pontiac the rhymer’s grandmother had bought him. He eventually moved into a spot with WowGr8 and Olu. It was during the latter part of this period Johnson was looking into the possibility of managing EarthGang. Johnson’s friend 808 Blake had put him onto the sounds of the crew, and soon, he’d meet the burgeoning duo. In the process, he also connected with JID.
“JID has this type of way of trying to let people know that, ‘I’m here, too,’” Johnson expresses. “So, the whole time I was talking to EarthGang, JID was like, ‘Hey, man, you should check me out, too.’” It would take a while, but Johnson eventually did. Before JID’s own rise, EarthGang would let him open for their concert sets, with one of those shows being a December of 2013 concert at Moo Moo’s Playhouse.
Titled Spoiled Milk, the showcase also featured sets from Young Thug and OG Maco. Rocking a white bucket hat and palpable confidence, JID bounced across the stage with WowGr8 and Olu behind him, flaunting the jittery flows that would one day make him famous. As Johnson studied the performance, he noticed the type of charisma that was more compelling than JID’s usual calls for attention. “I called my partner, Zeke, and was like, ‘Yo, we gotta get JID, too,’” Johnson remembers. “I was like, man, we can’t just leave JID over here.”
As of 2022, it’s rare that JID has to worry about being left out of anything. Months after the Dreamville compilation Revenge of the Dreamers III hit streaming services in 2019, he earned a 2020 Grammy nomination for the album’s single “Down Bad,” a song for which he says he picked the beat and melody. “It made me feel like a big part of what was going on,” he admits. Last year, JID teamed up with Imagine Dragons for “Enemy,” a pulsing single that was used as the opening theme song for the Netflix series Arcane: League of Legends. In 2022, it peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The track has been streamed over 840 million times on Spotify. He has five gold records, too.
While he’s earned respectable accolades, there’s an entire group of fans more focused on what JID’s actually saying. Sifting through his lyrics can be more rigorous than solving a Wordle. Laced with intricate rhythms and spurts of wordplay, it’s a lot to digest, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. Reddit posts include fans trying to dissect JID’s bars. How often do they get it right? “Not that much,” JID says with a laugh. As showy as his triple-time flows and metaphors can seem, being complicated isn’t the point. “I’m just really getting it off my chest,” he shares. “I’m not trying to be the biggest lyricist. I just like real stories. I just want something to feel like the feelings that was given to me when I first started listening to music.”
JID points to OutKast and Jay-Z as artists who rendered the sensations he hopes to create with his own music, and after getting cosigns from the likes of Q-Tip and J. Cole, it feels like he’s making progress toward his goals. He’s rising up the ranks of rap’s premier wordsmiths, but he’s not interested in debates about lyrical hierarchies. To him, the literary technique behind a lyric isn’t as important as its effect. “It’s more about the feeling,” he says. “The words don’t matter.”
The MC’s aversion to the notion of “lyrical supremacy” and similarly outdated tropes could just be a sign that he’s got good taste and doesn’t take himself too seriously. It might also have to do with the fact that he’s still acquainting himself with JID the rapper. By his own admission, he’s not sure of what hip-hop generation he belongs to, and his stylistic quirks make a neat classification difficult. “I knew that people didn’t think he was from Atlanta when he was rapping, ’cause he didn’t sound like somebody that was just typically from Atlanta at that point, at that time,” says Johnson.
JID’s own reckoning with his artistic identity, namely, the fact that he’s a rapper at all, sometimes surfaces in a song. “I’m an anomaly, I turned into a rapper ironically,” he raps on “Surround Sound,” a 21 Savage and Baby Tate-assisted single from The Forever Story. “I’m just trying to figure out where I stand and who I am,” he explains. “I never had the idealization of being an artist.” As is the case with his writing approach, his designation as an MC feels like a matter of pragmatism, and the accompanying success is incidental. “My expectations was just like, Oh, if you’re great at music, then you’re going to be the biggest artist,” he says matter-of-factly.
As JID prepares to bring his new lyrics to life on stages around the country beginning January of next year for his Luv Is 4Ever Tour with Smino, he’s focused as the spotlight shines brightly over him. “I don’t think about other artists,” he maintains. “I just try to put my best foot forward, tell the best stories I can tell. Everything else, it’s gonna come in stride. Nobody can do what I can do.”
After over a decade of rapping, JID continues ditching self-mythology. Using his knotty rhymes, he tells tales from a world where there aren’t a lot of happily ever afters. His own theoretical happy ending involves having a big family like the one he came from. It also includes a tour with his musical family, Spillage Village. He says things have been slower, but they’re trying to develop a Spilligion follow-up album. Even as that project incubates, JID’s got the streaming numbers and all-around appeal to ensure a sizable cash flow, but an aspiring Jeff Bezos he isn’t. “It’s not about having the most money,” he says. “It’s just being an inspiration to somebody who’s coming after me.”
Read JID's interview in the 25th anniversary issue of XXL magazine, on newsstands now. Check out additional interviews in the magazine, including our cover story with Eminem, plus conversations with Bobby Shmurda, Yung Miami, Yvngxchris, Sleazyworld Go, Styles P, Jim Jones, Symba, Reason, GloRilla, singer Jessie Reyez, actor Trevante Rhodes and music executive Katina Bynum. The issue also includes a deep dive into a narrative piece on the U.S. court systems' battle against rap lyrics, rappers’ longstanding connection to anime, the renewed interest music supervisors have in placing 1990’s hip-hop in today’s lauded TV series and the 254 past covers in XXL history.