IDK attends the Balenciaga FW 22 show at Le Bourget Halle d ‘Expositions on March 06, 2022 in Le Bourget, France. (Photo by Anthony Ghnassia/Getty Images For Balenciaga)
MUSIC

IDK: The Message is Simple

IDK stands for Ignorant Delivering Knowledge, literally and metaphorically. The daring rapper’s new project, Simple, is the latest artistic representation of his giving heart.

Sei Less looks like any other nondescript building front lining the streets of Midtown Manhattan in New York City — until you say the code word: “I’m here for IDK.” You’re whisked inside and transported to a different sort of reality than the one to which you’re accustomed.

There is any number of reasons why the Asian Fusion-style speakeasy was selected to host IDK’s late-April listening event for Simple, his new eight-track EP on ClueNoClue/Warner Records, but Sei Less also unintentionally provides a metaphor for what IDK accomplishes on the record alongside executive producer Kaytranada.

“The DMV [DC-Maryland-Virginia] area where I’m from, there’s a neighborhood called Simple City, where you can get killed for a simple reason,” the 29-year-old rapper and multi-disciplined artist explains to the bustling crowd inside. “I’d gotten a bunch of beats from Kaytranada. I’d just left the studio with him in LA and got to DC, and at that time, I’d literally gotten my dream car. My dream car was a Mercedes-Benz Maybach. When I got it, I decided to drive to Simple City to see some of my friends, because, you know, the feeling of being able to be in an area like that where that just seems impossible after you already accomplished certain things — it was something I was chasing, I guess.”

IDK’s Listening Party at Sei Less on April 28, 2022 in New York City. (Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

“It inspired me to start writing these words over this music that made people want to dance,” he continued. “Simple is an album about this neighborhood and what people in these types of neighborhoods go through, and me telling people who aren’t from these neighborhoods that the fix to the problems that occur aren’t simple. What this album is about versus what it makes you feel like is a juxtaposition, two totally different things, but I want people to dance to real shit.”

IDK is as real as they come.

***

USEE4YOURSELF, as IDK told Flaunt at the time, “helped me tap into parts of my life I didn’t realize existed, and problems I had never really faced.” The sophomore effort followed in the footsteps of his 2019 debut studio album Is He Real?, which itself was a culmination of the likes of IDK & FRIENDS 🙂 (2018) and IWASVERYBAD (2017).

Where USEE4YOURSELF is rooted in self-awareness,Simple is meant to stoke empathy. IDK composed the soundtrack for Kevin Durant’s 2020 documentary Basketball County: In the Water, a love letter to the hoopers of Prince George’s County, Maryland; Simple is his own love letter to their shared place of origin.

Kaytranada’s production palette and sound pockets are shimmery as they ever were, but the two-time Grammy winner is temporarily outshined by a London-born, Maryland-bred lyricist who wants people who have never had to face traumatic realities firsthand to step outside of themselves.

They probably won’t realize that’s what is happening as it happens, and that’s fine. Every track is named after a code word often overheard in Simple City.

“I know white people are gonna look at that shit and be like, Why the fuck is the name of this song ‘Taco’? ‘Taco’ is a cute name. It’s like, Aw, the name of this song is ‘Taco,’ that’s so cute. The meaning behind it is not cute, though,” IDK tells Boardroom. “It’s the same reason why my name is IDK. It tricks you. It makes you feel like you already know what it is and you understand it, but then when you really start to take the time to really understand, the element of surprise sweeps you and you realize the depth of it. ‘Taco’ is so simple, but ‘Taco’ meaning bullet shells is a whole other thing.”

Jason Mills became IDK as an incarcerated teenager. As he served time for robbery and weapons charges, he began rapping.

Growing up in PG County, he had always been fiercely curious. He was often left alone as an only child, and he learned from a young age that if he wanted to know something, he had to be the one searching for the answer. Some days, he challenged his mind by watching Animal Planet for hours on end; other days, he indulged his imagination and escaped into his Game Boy.

Naturally, his stage name needed to be inquisitive.

“I wanted to create something that made people ask questions,” he says. “I felt like IDK would always make people ask, ‘Why is it IDK?’ The reason for it was Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge because that was the best way to describe the type of music that I made. The role of ignorance is part of me. That’s just who I am and how I grew up. The knowledge is the things that I’ve learned over time.”

Similarly, Simple is an encyclopedia for those who’d care to expand their worldview.

“Dog Food” featuring frequent collaborator Denzel Curry interlopes Lil Wayne’s 1999 debut single “Tha Block is Hot” in the chorus, but the song is poignant in its own right.

IDK has mastered the clever hook, and even more so, the weighted bar — “I sell it to my family / I hope they don’t sing like they’re tryna win a GRAMMY / I hope it ain’t a act like they’re tryna win a Emmy” — but how do you condense the harsh history of drug-plagued communities into a few turns of phrase?

You don’t. Simple‘s 18 minutes are meant to be an entry point, not the full story.

“There’s a lot of people from neighborhoods that aren’t Simple City or like Simple City that say, ‘Oh, why don’t you just say no to drugs? Drugs are horrible. Why do you guys commit crime? It’s illegal. Don’t commit crime, you’re gonna go to jail. You deserve to go to jail,'” IDK says. “These are people that live in privileged areas and have a privileged mindset and have no clue or understanding to what this actually means. They think the solve for all of this is simple, and it’s not.”

“If you haven’t grown up there and don’t understand that world, you have no clue how hard it is to just say no to drugs,” he continues. “You have no clue how it feels to wake up in the morning and hear gunshots, and then wonder if your friend died that day. You don’t know what it feels like to want to live until your daughter turns 18 — that’s your goal. For people in [privileged] neighborhoods, that’s a given. You’re gonna live. ‘What do you mean? I’m not gonna get shot.’ That’s not even a thought in their mind. There’s a lot of emphasis on the environment and changing it — sea turtles, nature, all these things — and that is true. These things are causing issues that we’re gonna have to deal with at some point. But how do you tell that to somebody who’s trying to get food today, who’s trying not to get killed?”

It’s those people that he works to empower the most.

***

On June 12, 2019, IDK was struck by a thought.

IDK (Photo by Levi Berlin)

“I think I could teach a class at an Ivy League school about the music business.”

He knew it would sound crazy to whomever he told out loud, but he was used to his mind being ahead of the curve.

“As a kid, I had it deep down in my mind that I was gonna be something special, but it’s just a feeling that I felt. I didn’t know for sure,” he says. “The vision was always there. The reality was never there.”

IDK spent the majority of his adolescence feeling lost, and it wasn’t until after he was released from prison and entering his 20s that he made significant progress along the arduous road to finding himself. He developed No Label Academy with the hope of expediting that same process for BIPOC youth with musical aspirations — a formalized, inclusive evolution of the environment he was already fostering on his monthly Apple Music 1 Radio Clue series that premiered in March 2021.

Last August, the tuition-free, 10-day No Label seminar launched at Harvard.

Sponsored by the likes of Converse, Jordan Brand, Nike, Logitech, and Guess, the course was visited by the likes of Amber Grimes, Tremaine Emory, Pharrell Williams, and the late Virgil Abloh.

“There’s not anyone young enough that understands the internet and also [lived] in between the internet phase and the phase prior to that in the music industry that studied and understands it,” IDK says of the inspiration behind No Label and why he considers himself an entrepreneur. “There’s nobody. I’m the only one that can really do this the way that I do this. This is one of those visions that I have that people don’t really see or understand right away ’cause they don’t understand me.

“I really do the things that I say I’m gonna do. And before I say it to you, I probably already thought about how I could make it work. It took two years of convincing, but it worked out.”

Graduates fittingly received IDK’s first-ever sneaker since he signed with Nike last summer. Looking ahead, the rapper is plotting away at how to take year two to the next level for a new group of promising kids, but even now, his signature Nike shoe represented to the inaugural No Label class what’s possible — just like that Mercedes Maybach once did for him.

“A career in the arts is actually very realistic, and it’s very lucrative if you understand some of the steps,” he says. “I want parents to say, ‘I want my kid to be a doctor, a lawyer — or a music manager, a musician or a painter.’ I want those conversations to be a part of the [larger] conversation about successful careers. This is something that I want to happen even when I’m gone, one hundred years from now.”


***

Back at Sei Less, IDK is introduced by Chris Atlas. “He makes incredible works of art,” says the executive VP of Urban Music and Marketing at Warner Records. “I don’t even just call it music.”

More specifically, IDK values tangibility; his music always takes a physical shape. USEE4YOURSELF was teased through a custom Game Boy, while Simple is paired with a pack of holographic trading cards for fans to cherish as collectibles beyond the album itself.

IDK tapped the abstract visual artist Li Bolin first to sketch and then paint the album cover. On Friday night, Dries Van Noten L.A. on La Cienega Boulevard was transformed into a gallery. Bolin’s artwork hung on the walls, and Simple merchandise hung on racks.

“The Simple album + the merchandise and experiences involved are all about amplifying collectibility in the world of art as it pertains to music,” IDK wrote on Instagram. “Every experience will be memorable and every item will be collectible. With Li Bolin and some key partners, we’ve created items that aren’t the most accessible, but if you do obtain any of them or gain access to any of the experiences, you’ve now purchased and experienced an everlasting memory that one would consider priceless.”

It’s this authentic sense of style across all mediums that drew Virgil Abloh to IDK years ago.

“I asked him how he was able to balance everything he had going on,” he recalls when asked how the late Off-White founder and generational designer impacted him. “He was, for me, the influence that told me that it’s possible to do many different things. He’s the reason why I understand the idea of creating an ecosystem of things that correlate with each other.”

One of the recurring signature elements within Abloh’s work was the placement of simple words surrounded by quotation marks, but artists like himself or IDK could never be counted on to be contained within a single paradigm. Just as Abloh famously broke open a pair of Jordan 1s with an X-ACTO knife, IDK has always fought to break through the bounds of his surroundings. On cue, he crafted Simple as an ode to his peers still trapped through no fault of their own — cleverly chronicling addictive and toxic cycles that aren’t funny at all.

The scenes upstairs at Sei Less were lively, but IDK didn’t write this EP for the revelers dancing in that dimly lit room. “I don’t make music for people,” he tweeted in the week leading up to the project’s release. “I make music when I feel something.”

Ironically, these eight songs possess the power to move anyone from anywhere to feel something new.

“Lately I’ve been workin’ tryna be OK,” he sings to start the dynamic uptempo track “Zaza Tree.” “I can never ever have another yesterday.”

He draws this night to a close by slipping out of the intimate venue in silence. His music plays on behind him and inspires hope for a freer tomorrow.

Just as IDK intended, the message outlasts the messenger.

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

Get on our list for sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

Subscribe

Enter your email below