The Brooklyn-bred spitter spoke with Boardroom during his tour stint with A Boogie about the New York sound and his evolution as an artist.
When I was first introduced to J.I., it was on a Lifetime show called The Rap Game executive produced by Jermaine Dupri and Queen Latifah. Throughout a 10-week intensive artist training boot camp for a select group of young teens across the country to become the next big thing from Dupri’s So So Def label since Bow Wow, Da Brat, and Kris Kross, five kids worked closely with the prolific rapper and producer out of an Atlanta-based mansion to mold themselves into the best artists they could possibly be.
On J.I.’s particular season, he and fellow up-and-coming rappers Nia Kay, Jayla Marie, Lil Key, and Mani fought to maintain the top spot on the weekly “Hit List” as they proved to Dupri, their managers, and themselves that they were the most deserving of the chain and the contract. Though he wasn’t the one to walk away with the diamond-studded Johnny Dang bling, those of us watching along all knew in our hearts that there was something special about J.I. — and not just because he was hailing from my own hometown of Brooklyn, New York.
Rather, it was because, as a 14-year-old with two years of rapping experience, he was given the chance of a lifetime and effortlessly proved his ability to stand next to kids with much more experience, hold his own against battle rappers, and create a cadence that even icons like Busta Rhymes and Ludacris could appreciate.
Raised in Crown Heights, the rapper first known as Jason Irvin Rivera created his stage name based on his uncle’s penchant for referring to him by his first and middle initials.
In time, J.I. the Brooklyn kid evolved into J.I. the musician.
“J.I.’s basically an artist who sometimes wears his heart on his sleeve and sometimes doesn’t; sometimes he fights it,” he told Boardroom of his audience-facing persona. “I’m just in love with making music. That’s my passion. It’s everything I do, to be honest.”
Looking back at the birth of that passion when he first started rapping at age 12, the now-21-year-old J.I. said he wished desperately that he could go back to encourage his younger self and assure him that there’s no reason to be one’s own harshest critic — you’re going to make it where you need to go — but work to develop the wisdom to know the difference between unhelpful self-talk and the pressure necessary make diamonds.
“Don’t get comfortable. Put your foot on the gas. I know you want to give up; I know you do,” he said, channeling that inner child. “I know that you will give up for a couple of months, but to get back on that because trust me, this shit gets bright and it gets better. Just put the foot on the gas and don’t stop. Don’t hold back.”
Despite pining for that hypothetical time machine, however, today’s J.I. is very much the impressive product of young Jason Irvin’s diligence and sacrifice.
The Art of a Stage Name
I was first put onto J.I. when he was still performing under the stage name “The Prince of New York,” but he admitted to me that it was never the name he was supposed to bring with him to cable television. The moniker actually arose from his old Instagram handle, but once the Lifetime network opted to dub the then-14-year-old as The Prince of New York in front of millions of people, he simply decided to go along with it.
“I just feel like it limits me from being who I am gonna be, you know?” he said.
“As long as you know me, that’s what matters. I don’t really have a problem with it now because everybody argues over the title. ‘Who’s the king,’ this, that, and the third, but I mean, everybody knows who the prince is. It’s just a royalty thing with New York and stuff like that, but I just feel like it limits me. I like J.I. more; it’s more general and it just stands solid by itself.”
To get a sense of his origin story, we had to take a dive into his life among the bodegas, subways, and bacon, egg, and cheeses (if you read the latter like a New Yorker, then you did it as all one word). He notes Brooklyn’s own Fabolous as one of his major New York rap influences and reminisced back to when he met Jadakiss for the first time, a moment he’ll never forget. He told Boardroom about how that starstruck moment, as he called it, was also nothing less than full-circle — as he credited the “Money, Power & Respect” rapper for his flow and appreciation for bold, technically tight bars that still weren’t averse to punchlines.
While he now has the opportunity to travel around the world as his star continues to rise, moments like that one remind him that New York will always have his heart. Over and over, he attributes his artistry today to the spirit of the city that made and molded him.
“I wouldn’t want to be from any other place but New York because I feel like I’d be a completely different artist,” J.I. said. “I wouldn’t be able to get my point across the way I get it across, you know? I love what’s happening with the Bronx. I’m not gonna lie, Staten Island been quiet since Wu-Tang, but it’s all good. They gonna get their stuff together, but I’m here for all the New York, honestly. It doesn’t matter what borough going crazy as long as we are going crazy.”
Much like Fat Joe, Big Pun, Bad Bunny, Rauw Alejandro, and BIA, J.I. proudly wears his Puerto Rican culture on his back and will always represent his community with pride. In addition to getting his love from the New York City rap scene, he acknowledged that there’s nothing better than feeling seen and getting embraced by your own authentic, intersectional community.
“I wear it on my sleeve because I don’t know what it is, but I never wanted to be ashamed or hide where I was from,” J.I. told Boardroom.
In contrast to his personal detestation for artists who attempt to downplay their upbringings and cultural backgrounds, the young rapper always made it a mission to make it clear to his fans from the jump about where he’s from, how he identifies, and who he is. J.I. is loud and proud about his heritage — he’s intentional about showcasing the Puerto Rican flag to the point that he even got it tattooed onto his body.
From that moment, J.I. felt unapologetically accepted with open arms by his people due to his passion for his Puerto Rican culture and for amplifying the visibility of the community that gives him strength.
“Let’s be honest, how many Puerto Ricans are all really in the game right now killing it? We outnumbered, and I’m talking for the English hip-hop lane, ’cause we got a whole different genre, but when it comes to this English hip-hop, there’s not too many of us,” he said. “I gotta try to make it known [and] stand my ground as much as possible ’cause we really outnumbered.”
Thankfully, J.I. expressed to me his gratitude on that note for being able to take his talents outside of the Five Boroughs and expand his passion for music and performance with A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie while on his Me VS Myself Tour across the country, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
“Besides the worst part of traveling for like 20 hours in a car ride in one seat, honestly, it’s a beautiful experience. I like traveling ’cause I’m from Brooklyn [and] I barely got to leave my block. The only time I left my block was to go to school or to go to my dad’s crib in Queens. I’m still taking all this in, I’m still experiencing it, and don’t get me wrong, I’ve toured several times, but it feels new,” he said.
Now, the “Black Roses” rapper gets the opportunity to rep his city and his culture wherever he goes in front of hundreds or thousands of people. The whole way through, don’t expect him to obfuscate or apologize regarding who he is or where he’s from.
Age is Just a Number
Furthermore, as a Gen Z-er himself, J.I. gave his flowers to the younger generation of talent in hip-hop and rap rising out of New York, including Lola Brooke, Sleepy Hollow, Kay Flock, Melvoni, and Maiya The Don.
“I love the young kids that are coming out. We run hip-hop and it’s always been like that, to be honest, but we really run it now,” he said. “When you name rappers outta New York, they’re younger than 20. They’re 18, 17, some of them are 14, 15. When I was 14, I was on TV. These kids [are] 14, 15 getting signed. I love it, I’m happy, and it puts me on the edge almost. Like, damn, I gotta go harder now.“
Though he himself has just become old enough to buy a legal drink at the local bar, J.I. has seen and experienced enough in his life to draw inspiration and motivation from his own personal story. From mistakes in past relationships and traveling the world to trauma that he has witnessed by the hands of others, he is able to pour into his music and translate through his form of storytelling — and that means leaving it all on the track.
“I’m not perfect. I wasn’t born to be perfect. If I was, I wouldn’t want to be that person,” the “Letter 2 U” rapper said. “I’m still learning as I go. I’m trying my best to be the best version of myself, but I’m only 21. I got so much more to learn and so much more to accomplish and do. I don’t know, I feel like I’m hard on myself sometimes, but that’s where the music stimulates from.”
J.I. knows that much of his music touches on relationships, love, lust, and sex — all topics that might find an older millennial, Gen X-er, or Baby Boomer respond with, ‘What does a 21-year-old know about any of this?‘ According to the rapper himself, age ain’t nothing but a number and it doesn’t equate to the truth that he’s lived.
“I’m 21 and I’ve done things people in their lifetimes have never done, so I wouldn’t even judge a book by its cover,” J.I. told Boardroom. “The heart wants what it wants and there’s no age limit to when you find love. Believe me or not, for a 21-year-old, I’ve been through a lot of shit, so I would have to disagree with that strongly.”
And while he’s still got a full life ahead of him, I didn’t hesitate to ask the young rapper what he wants his legacy to be when his time has come and gone, both in the music industry and in the metaphysical sense alike.
He told me that he wants to be remembered as and survived by his “beautiful art,” which he will leave up to his listeners and fans to interpret at their own discretion. In a world filled with chaos and confusion, J.I. wants to bring peace to the masses with his positive impact through the music that he creates.
“I honestly don’t even care about that king shit being at the top. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be at the top of the world and one day I am going to be, but right now, I’m just focused on making the best art that I could possibly make.”
Hit Me When You Need Me
If you were just introduced to J.I. within the past couple of years (or today, for that matter), the chances are that it was by way of his song “Need Me,” his 2019 breakout single which has amassed over 100 million Spotify streams.
The track off his Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 1 EP, which tastefully samples Mya and Jay-Z’s “Best of Me” with a bridge cadence of Kevin Lyttle’s “Turn Me On,” instantly became a summer hit once it hit the airwaves, but J.I. even had a feeling that this song would be the one to set it off before he even brought the track together.
“It’s funny, I told the producer, because I love his work ethic so much, I’m gonna give you your first hit. I promise you whatever it is, I’m gonna give you a plaque,” J.I. recalled of his initial encounter with hitmaker DocOnDaBeat. Rather than staying in his comfort zone of hip-hop and trap-inspired beats, he wanted to lean more towards a Caribbean vibe for a summertime rollout that he knew would get his audience moving and grooving.
After his producer played the keys and crafted the beat, as they say, the rest was history.
There has significant debate about music sampling culture dating back all the way to Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love” appearing in Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and Latto’s “Big Energy” to Metro Boomin’ and The Weeknd’s “Creepin’,” but J.I. doesn’t see anything wrong with paying homage to the hits that came before him and adding his own flavor.
“There’s nothing wrong with sampling. Have fun with it,” he said of his big-time track’s sonic nod to Hov and Mya with allusions to Kevin Lyttle’s “Turn Me On” in the hook.
J.I. knows that there has been a lot of controversy in the New York rap community specifically as it relates to sample culture, but thinks that it’s a matter of interpretation and how you approach the sample that you’re flipping.
“Just make it your only version. Honestly, if you’re gonna do it, there’s nothing wrong with it. Whenever I sample something, I completely try to make it my own version because I’m always sampling stuff, even if I’m not sampling a song exactly. If I’m, like, using a lyric, I’m always trying to make it and flip it like a memorable line,” he said.
As Jay-Z himself demonstrated, the right artist can turn someone else’s hot line into a hot song.
Already accomplished beyond his years, expect it to be sooner rather than later that the man once known to TV viewers at home as the teenage Prince of New York is the one whose lyrics and beats find themselves flipped by other artists in laudatory fashion.
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