J.I.'s Journey In 'The Rap Game' Is Coming Full Circle (Exclusive)

J.I.’s Journey In ‘The Rap Game’ Is Coming Full Circle (Exclusive)


J.I.'s Journey In 'The Rap Game' Is Coming Full Circle (Exclusive)

You couldn’t turn on the radio during the summer of 2019 without hearing rapper J.I.’s breakout single, “Need Me.” The song begins, “I swear this gon f**k the summer up” — and it did. The single racked up millions of streams, and in August of that same year, J.I. signed a deal with Interscope Records in partnership with G.Starr Entertainment.

However, this wasn’t the first time the public became familiar with the young star. Two years prior, the world watched the rapper as a 15-year-old contestant on season two of The Rap Game — a reality television series led by Jermaine Dupri that gave six competitors a shot at a recording contract with the music producer’s label, So So Def Recordings. Although J.I. did not win the series, he undoubtedly won fans over with his “lyrical sharpness” and “impressive freestyles.”

Today, at the age of 21, J.I. is a platinum-selling artist with multiple EPs and a catalog that has racked up over 1.1 billion streams. However, despite his burgeoning success, the Brooklyn native maintains his humility and continues to pay homage to his predecessors as he paves his unique path forward.

The rapper sat down exclusively with The Shade Room’s Senior Editor, Jadriena Solomon, and shared his take on his unprecedented rise to stardom, his fearlessness when sampling classic records, and how he maintains his unique sound amid growing music trends. J.I. also shared why it’s important for him to pay homage to his Puerto Rican roots, as well as what longevity looks like to him.


J.I. Talks His Rise To Stardom

Jadriena Solomon: Fans became familiar with you as a contestant on Jermaine Dupri’s Lifetime rap competition series, The Rap Game.’But the world came to know you after the release of your breakout 2019 single, “Need Me.” The official music video currently sits at 143 million views, and your career has been consistently rising since then. Today, you’re a platinum-selling artist at 21; how does it feel?

J.I.: Sometimes I’m still embracing it, you know — God has his funny way of still hitting me with little glimpses of reality. For example, it didn’t really hit me until I went on tour in Europe. I was in Ireland, and people were stopping me in the street. I’m like, ‘Yo, they know J.I. out here? Like, oh, we global now, it’s over!’

So the tour was a whole experience for me because when I go on tour, my reality becomes different — being on the road, seeing my fans, and going to different edges of the world that I never thought I would go to — it’s crazy.

Jadriena Solomon: Your breakout single arrived in 2019, just ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, which would have been extremely challenging for a newer artist to withstand — being unable to do live performances, appearances, etc. But you excelled through that time, building your fanbase to reach millions; why do you think that is?

J.I.: I feel like the world has its frequency and people choose what they want to tap in with. It’s funny because The Rap Game was filmed in Atlanta. So I had the chance to be in Buckhead to shoot that and I thought that was my glimpse of it — I thought that would be like, my peak. I didn’t know what was coming for J.I.

And I still don’t know what’s coming for me. You might see me in a movie next year — you never know what’s planned. But I’m thankful for it. And like you said, during COVID it was so challenging because the whole world had to brace themselves for that. We didn’t know what COVID was and we didn’t know what the outcome would be.

At the time, I didn’t know what the frequency would be — if people still wanted to listen to what I had to say. So you put the icing on that cake crazy. I didn’t even look at it like that. I had a bunch of odds stacked up against me — any artist that came out at that time did. They would admit that it was kind of hard. But once covid lifted it was a wrap, there was no holding us back.



The Brooklyn Native Discusses His Sound & Ability To Confidently Sample Classic Records

Jadriena Solomon: Your discography now features 6 EPs that each display your ability to blend and showcase R&B, hip-hop, and reggaeton in a style that’s all your own. You didn’t sound like any other artist when you dropped your breakout single, and still don’t — which can be a challenge for today’s artists. How are you able to consistently stay true to yourself and your sound?

J.I.: Wow. It’s not really too hard to stay true to my sound because I always remember who I look up to and my idols never changed. For me, it was Big Pun. It was Jadakiss. Those were the people I was listening to for bars on a daily basis. So for me, I just get a kick out of [staying true to] doing that.

I feel like the younger cats, they’re in a different age where they get their point across differently. In New York, the popular sound is drill, so it’s more about beef and what’s happening on their block, it’s more chaotic. I feel like the lanes are open to whoever wants to grab it and I love seeing new faces come out. But for me, I just have an old soul in me.

After this interview, I’m probably going to throw on some Jadakiss. I’m probably going to throw some Beanie Sigel. That’s just who I am. It’s in me. So I’m always going to bring that — especially with my roots too, being Puerto Rican. That definitely shaped me and [helped me navigate easier to the sounds I wanted to share in my music] so I’m always going to go back to my roots.

Jadriena Solomon: Throughout your discography, you’ve used some iconic samples. From Jay-Z and Mya’s “Best of Me, Pt. 2” to T.O.K’s “Footprints,” to Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls,” to 112’s “It’s Over Now.” You never over-sample. But I think your ability and willingness to reference those classics in your music — and do so successfully — speaks volumes about your creativity. Can you explain why you’ve always been open to using samples in your music?

J.I.: The samples that I pick and choose are kind of like records that I hold close to my heart, like the “Best of Me, Pt. 2” record. That’s like a New York anthem. And these are records that I grew up on and I have no shame in sampling them. If you notice, a lot of them are old-school New York samples so I try to dig deep in the roots because that’s where I’m from.

But I don’t know, I was never really scared to sample anything. I have fun doing it — being able to flip an old-school record and have people tell me I did it right — that means a lot to me.


J.I. Shares Why It's Important For Newer Artists To Pay Respect To The OGs

Jadriena Solomon: We’ve heard of artists not being familiar with the music of OGs like Tupac and Biggie. Can you explain why it might be important for younger artists to be knowledgeable of the artists that came before them?

J.I.: In anything you do, you have to have your own taste. But the respect to know who came before you should always be there. It’s up to you to study that, it’s up to you to do the research.

For me, I grew up in the heart of hip-hop. New York is where it originated. The TV show I was on was led by Jermaine Dupri and his mindset is in the nineties. He got us jumping on those types of tracks and I’m glad I went through that boot camp because it kind of made me uncomfortable at the time. But it was a good thing.

A lot of people, they blow up and they get comfortable. I always try to be uncomfortable so I never sit back and think, ‘Yeah, this is my spot.’ Even now, I’m three to four years into my career and I still got so much to prove to the world. I still got so much to say. But going through that is a large part of what shaped me.


The Rapper Talks Touring Alongside A Boogie

Jadriena Solomon: Most recently, you dropped your latest project, ‘One Way or Another,’ and embarked on a tour in the UK, as well as an international tour with A Boogie and Lola Brooke. If there’s one thing about it, you’re consistent and dedicated to your craft and artistry as a newer artist. What advice have you received from your peers or just observed from watching other artists’ creative and business moves around you?

J.I.: While I was on The Rap Game, A Boogie was blowing up — this was like in 2016. We’re in 2023 now, almost 10 years later and I get to see his growth for myself. Like, ‘Damn. So this is what almost 10 years later in your career looks like?’ We’re in Toronto selling out stadiums — like we’re in Drake’s city selling out stadiums.

So it’s crazy because now I get to be a peer but I was a fan before anything. I got to go on tour with him and I just embraced every moment of it because he didn’t bring everybody with him on his tour. He chose me and Lola Brooke. So I’m embracing everything. I’m watching how he moves. He’s so humble too. Even his family became a family to me. We have that mutual respect. So it was a great experience and I’m just happy to have been a part of it for real.

Jadriena Solomon: I attended one of the concert stops and it was definitely an eye-opening experience to see A Boogie perform hit after hit and watch the crowd be so taken by him. But for you to also come on stage and get that same reception as well, not even being in New York,  was also eye-opening — to see the love that the fans have for you. I think that that speaks volumes.

J.I.: Amen to that and power to the people. The fans put the battery in my back, so I owe it to them. The people that listen mean a lot to me. I don’t take it for granted.

Sometimes I’ll come on stage and I could be having the worst day — like I remember when I went to Scotland. That day, I ended up missing my set because I got arrested and they had to push it back. I was in the airport for like 12 hours but one thing about it, I can go straight on stage and it’s like, whatever feels like 10 minutes to me might feel like 20 minutes to a fan. They’ll never forget this moment.

I got fans in London getting my name tattooed on their arm. Like that’s crazy. So this really means a lot to me. I’m embracing every moment of it.


J.I. Shares When Fans Can Expect His Debut Album & What Longevity Looks Like To Him

Jadriena Solomon: You have so much more music and big announcements set for this year. Is there anything exclusive you’d like to share with the TSR audience?

J.I.: While I was on tour with A Boogie, I recorded over 30 songs. So we definitely have my next project in the works — hopefully at the top of the summer or at the beginning of the summer, we’ll release it.

I’m just all about being consistent. This year we’re independent, and there was nothing really ever holding me back but now there’s nothing really holding me back. So the whole goal is to be consistent and give the people what they want. Music.

Jadriena Solomon: Does that mean that we’re also going to get an official debut album soon? 

J.I.: I think it’s time to work toward that.  Honestly, I’m like six, seven projects in and I think I might come with one more project before the debut. I’m just waiting for when I feel like the timing is right.

I don’t want to overthink it either. But the music that I’m releasing, regardless if it’s an EP or a mixtape — I’m always going to put in that effort. But I think after this next project the debut album will come.

Jadriena Solomon: You have a quote, “So many artists come and go. I want to be here forever.” What does longevity look like to you?

J.I.: Time. My perfect vision of longevity is the Jackson Five — and it’s kind of funny because I kind of got a glimpse of it as a kid. But to put it into perspective, I look at them as a perfect example. Michael Jackson came out as a kid. He was able to tour as a child and continue as an adult, and ultimately impact the world and set his milestones. So that’s what I look at. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to be able to work towards.

I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to be a child and kind of get that experience. I was on TV at 14 and then at 18/19, I’m over here with a breakout record. I had to brace for that, you know, I didn’t really know what was coming.


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