Like probably many people, for better or worse, my first exposure to J.I.D. was through his XXL 2018 Freshman Cypher video. For his segment, he was paired with Ski Mask the Slump God, who I’ll admit I was rooting for, mostly because of that moniker. However, before his slumpy lordship even had a chance to live up to his name, he was absolutely bulldozed by this little soprano velociraptor who I’d never heard of and who, to this day, reminds me inexplicably of Randall from Monster’s Inc.
J.I.D.’s performance on this cypher is almost a sensory overload—he slips in and out of several different cadences, oscillates unpredictably in pitch, and spits zany punchlines all at a breathless clip, finally wrapping it all up somewhat confusingly by rolling his eyes back and nervously itching his temple. After the dust settles, a wounded Slump God verbalizes what anyone watching the video is at this point thinking: “Ouch.”
Though J.I.D. undoubtedly set himself apart from the majority of this freshman class, he didn’t appear to look down his nose at them. “SoundCloud Rap” has been a fascinating phenomenon, certainly one with mixed results, but one that shares much in common with the DIY ethos of punk rock. It has allowed artists, largely teenage ones with little financial or managerial support, to essentially backdoor the music industry using elements of whatever they feel like incorporating into their music, much to the chagrin of middle aged rock critics who think guitars and emoting are the exclusive domain of Jimmy Eat World. In contrast to most of the other freshman, though, J.I.D. is situated pretty squarely in the realm of what most old heads would probably refer to as “real” hip-hop: he’s technically skilled, can stick to a subject, most of his songs clock in at over three minutes, and he probably not only knows who Biggie is, but could faithfully recite all of “Machine Gun Funk” if he had to. Despite his apparent respect for his forebears, he is not above hyping up his SoundCloud contemporaries, as evidenced by an almost touching display of affection for Ski Mask, albeit one offered only after dispatching an act practically impossible to follow.
Since watching his cypher performance and digging into his fantastic and wide-ranging 2017 debut The Never Story, I grew increasingly anxious to hear what J.I.D. had in store for his sophomore effort, despite my distaste for its namesake. Listening to DiCaprio 2 for the first time, though the two artists aren’t terribly similar, I was transported back to a summer day long ago when I burned a friend’s copy of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter II and took it to work with me. It was the first rap record I had really latched onto, and Wayne’s ability to spit verses that seemed to unfurl to twice their original size after they’d come out of his mouth was as confounding as it was entertaining. The experience of not being quite able to catch everything the first time through, finally understanding a line 30 seconds later, and then wondering how the fuck he could possibly still be going, hadn’t quite been replicated for me the same way before I threw Dicaprio 2 on.
J.I.D.’s verses are deftly coiled snakes stuffed into jack-in-the-box packaging, full of expanding assertions, puns, observations, and wisecracks. There’s also a similar sense that he has a thorough, almost encyclopedic knowledge of everything, which is perhaps an illusion crafted by how disparate the references in his songs are. In the first song alone, J.I.D. rhymes Travis Porter (Atlanta luminaries) with “Hare and the Tortoise” in a bar that somehow manages to be not only coherent, but impactful. He’s also able to use this ability to take the sting out of something as devastating as an extended prison sentence by comparing a 17 year stint to the length of a cicada’s stay underground.
Musically, his instincts are remarkably adaptable, tailored perfectly to fit the diverse styles represented on the album. As many times as I’ve listened to the record, I haven’t been able to find a spot where he doesn’t seem to slip naturally into whatever the song calls for, whether that involves hitting just the right pitch for a few bars in “Off the Zoinkys” when the choir comes in, or hawking up a maniacal tongue twister nursery rhyme over the haywire “Off Deez” beat. In a post-Drake landscape, it’s not enough to just be an MC, and though J.I.D. certainly has that market cornered, he also possesses a subtle ear for melody that the Scorpion King could only dream of.
If all that weren’t enough, another thing that makes this album so relentlessly entertaining is the fact that J.I.D. is funny as shit. Humor is arguably a luxury afforded to few genres outside of hip-hop; there aren’t many rock bands who can successfully navigate it without being branded “joke” bands. The incredible “Hot Box,” marred only by the boring Joey Bada$$, who once hit on my sister at a concert, is a highlight in this regard. J.I.D. offers up laugh out loud lines like “I got that from my Cali plug and she’s a dentist,” as well as a bar where he describes a spliff that has been irreparably dampened by a person’s lipstick, resignedly concluding that “you can just have it.”
Most importantly, the fact that he is able to elicit a chuckle doesn’t preclude J.I.D. from contributing serious insights, as even moments later in the same verse he is admitting “I made a joke so I can hide what I really feel inside.” In that same vein but in the opposite order, on “Working Out” one minute he’s bemoaning the fact that “on everything I gave everything and got nothing back,” and then he’s suddenly “blowing gas like the honey badger.” On Dicaprio 2, as in the world, funny is inextricable from horror and disappointment. The only instance in which his wit falls truly flat is the ghastly line, “had a couple abortions now that pussy’s a haunted house” from “Skrawberrys” which is a clunker worthy of a top ten spot on Wayne’s extensive list of duds.
J.I.D.’s career is relatively young, and despite high powered cosigns and doubtless potential, there seems to be a lot of critical speculation as to whether or not he has the depth to make a true classic. When Tha Carter II came out, the critics sang the same tune, hypothesizing that Wayne was too scatterbrained to be able to channel his capabilities into a definitive masterpiece. Looking back, of course, it seems as if he already had one. That might be true here for J.I.D., too.