Where J.I.D lives, inside a brick red two-story home in southwest Atlanta, there is no clear divide between work and home. To the right in this open floor plan is his home studio, replete with a portable vocal booth in what should be the dining room. To the left is the living room, where his management and friends debate over how André 3000 might be received if he was getting his start in music today. Everyone else can hear ESPN's Pardon The Interruption blaring from the widescreen TV. But not J.I.D, who sits not even ten feet away at the kitchen table, his notebook in front of him and headphones on. The longer he listens to the Velvet Underground for the first time, processing what Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker created during the '60s, the more his eyes begin to widen.
This time at home is J.I.D hitting reset after a breakout year. In February, J. Cole's label Dreamville announced J.I.D as its newest signee. While his Dreamville debut The Never Story mostly features songs J.I.D released a few years ago, his neosoul bent on Atlanta hip-hop stylings still felt like a revelation to new fans like Yasiin Bey, plus whoever caught his first headlining North America tour or saw him perform overseas with his new label boss. J.I.D has nothing against what has been happening in music today, least of all the buoyant trap from local heroes (he is currently reading The Autobiography of Gucci Mane). But what makes him most excited for his future in music is how he will be able to think for himself.
“For me to be creative, I have to have peace,” he says. “I have to have a space where I don't have to think about you, I don't have to think about anybody, I don't have to think about myself. I can let the experiences flow. I need that type of solitude.”
Born Destin Route, this still-young artist grew up as the youngest of his East Atlanta Brady Bunch, with seven children total. All he remembers of his childhood bedrooms — and there were many, since his family moved around from one East Atlanta apartment building to another — is how many people were there with him. “There was no decorations. It was straight to the point: bed, clothes, whatever. But I always remember there being three or four people,” he says. While J.I.D doesn't seem to think much of his upbringing now, The Never Story's “General” alludes to more dire days, of people he knew going to jail, his brother having court dates, enough drug deals to make him feel cynical toward “happy trappers.” That same song also breaks down the career path options he saw for himself: “Friday Night Lights, I was catching and dropping punts / thinking about rapping, I could be J.I.D or Chris Johnson.”
J.I.D went to school in coastal Virginia on a football scholarship, as inspired by his older brother and his own success on the field. “I was fast, and I ain't really give a fuck,” he says. (Such confidence might also explain why today, at City of Ink in Castleberry Hill, he gets a falcon's skull tattooed on his bicep. “A falcon,” he says, “ain't no bitch ass bird.”) But meeting Earthgang made him second-guess himself. J.I.D used to cut verses at his classmate Pat's dorm room studio in between practices. He thought that he was the best emcee on campus. One day, though, he came back to Pat's and overheard Doctur Dot and Johnny Venus, of Earthgang as well as a collective called Spillage Village.
“Ever since then, we was cool, like, 'Shit, I fuck with you,'” J.I.D says. “We were some of the few people who were from Atlanta, who went to that school. And they were a group since high school. I was just messing around. But their focus and drive kind of made me go, 'Oh, this is attainable. I could really do this.'”
I have to have a space where I don't have to think about you, I don't have to think about anybody. I can let the experiences flow. I need that type of soliTUDE.
J.I.D wouldn't start writing what became The Never Story, though, until he felt like he had no other choice. He had lost his football scholarship. (“Kicked out of college for tongues, niggas be talking / I wasn't even on camera, just hit the lick with some amateurs,” he explains in “General.”) He lived with his parents for a spell, then the 2006 Pontiac G6 his grandmother helped him buy, which he still drives to his day. He would write songs in that same car, in between shifts delivering pizzas on Atlanta's Westside specifically, hoping that he wouldn't see anyone he knew.
“It was just a horrible feeling, when you are not in control of anything,” J.I.D says. “It was a real struggle, the fact that I know I want to do something, but I got to sacrifice this time so I can eat, or live, to be able to pay rent.”
By the time J.I.D wrote “Never,” The Never Story's apocalyptic lead single, its chorus — “Never had shit, never been shit, never knew shit” — couldn't have felt more true. “I didn't feel human,” he says. But creating the music itself felt like a life-affirming act. “Hereditary” is a gloomy ballad about how your romantic relationships may be doomed to fail, if you grew up seeing relationships in general wither away. When J.I.D created that song in Los Angeles, though, SZA was in the room next door; her manager, Terrence “Punch” Henderson from TDE, was asleep in the hallway. He wrote “Hereditary” from a woman's perspective and even did his best Rihanna imitation in the booth. Since then, he has not stopped thinking about what he could contribute to culture — not necessarily in the spotlight, but as a songwriter, if not a screenplay writer.
Plenty of labels, including Quality Control of Migos fame, approached J.I.D to sign them. But J. Cole, who J.I.D met when Earthgang toured with Dreamville signee Bas, was already family. J.I.D and Earthgang both contributed vocals to “Jermaine's Interlude,” what was originally a Spillage Village cut, off DJ Khaled's Major Key.
Today, Cole and J.I.D share some of the same sensibilities and priorities. That includes a generally blasé attitude toward fame. (J.I.D quotes Tao Te Ching: “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”) They also both view their careers as almost scholarly pursuits: While Cole has worked through The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, J.I.D reads everything he can learn of his favorite artists, from D'Angelo to Little Dragon and Arctic Monkeys, to better understand how he, too, can write music with layers of hidden meaning. Along with Cole's good friend Kendrick Lamar, J.I.D is now part of a recent movement where mainstream rap values have shifted away from prosperity gospel. During a sold-out show in Durham, North Carolina, J.I.D met the 9-year-old who reenacted his “Never” video on Twitter, and brought him onstage to rap along.
“I don't care about being famous,” J.I.D says. “I want to be remembered. I want to have a legacy. Van Gogh only sold one painting before he died, which would mean that he wasn't famous when he was alive. But in 2017, I know who Van Gogh is.”
He says this upstairs, where the still-lively discussion and “Everyday Struggle” playing on TV can barely be heard. A suitcase of clothes (that are clean, he promises) appears to have exploded all over his bed. J.I.D doesn't sleep in the master bedroom with its double doors to a backyard view. That has become a makeshift office, with easel tear sheets spelling out a business plan taped on the walls. J.I.D's home makes his priorities clear: When J.I.D talks about needing peace and quiet, he isn't talking about having some designated mediation room, but an act of ruthless prioritization.
“Your crib is supposed to be where you find peace,” he says. “I can play any song in the world that I want to hear, to set any mood, before I actually start the session. Or I can just feel the vibes when I wake up. I've never been too comfortable; I still am not comfortable today. But I can always find my peace or find solitude or express myself through recording. There has never been anything that could fuck it up, and if there was, I wouldn't be here.
“I am always able to find that solitude. I am always able to find that peace. Which is tight. That is what has helped me keep going. Everyone uses that setup downstairs, and for us to be in a position where we're at right now, that is a big testament to how, damn, you don't even need the biggest studios or anything. You can just do what you want if you got that focus, drive, whatever.”