There comes a time in a musician’s career, if they’re lucky, that they must make a choice. Will they accept help and partner with people that don’t make music at all, or keep working independently?
For IDK, the choice came five years after he started releasing music. His first mixtape, 2014’s Sex Drugs & Homework, is an oversexed ode to drugs and money with tracks like “2 Hoes” and “Party Animal.” It also has moments of brilliance, and revealed the then-21-year-old rapper’s canny melodic and rhythmic choices. Whatever you felt about the lyrics, there was no denying IDK had done his homework.
We’ve had a full, thoughtful release from IDK every year since. 2017’s IWASVERYBAD was a breakthrough moment for the artist born Jason Mills. It put his collaborative powers on full display: Chief Keef, MF DOOM, and Swizz Beats added their voices to his story. Mills is the son of doctors, a D.C.-area, upstanding family that watched its teenage son begin to embrace and explore crime. On IWASVERYBAD, IDK’s slide is contrasted with the death of his mother, Julia Lynch, who passed away in 2016. The album is a thrilling, heartbreaking reflection on their relationship.
After IWASVERYBAD, IDK was presented with a choice. His indie career had taken him just about as far as it could, and the labels hadn’t stopped calling. So earlier this year, he announced a joint venture of his own, in partnership with Warner Records. He called it Clue, and marked the occasion with a tattoo of the new label’s fingerprint logo spanning his right shoulder. It was time to level up.
IDK’s new album, Is He Real?, is the first fruit of this partnership. It boasts another jaw-dropping collection of features—Pusha T, J.I.D, Burna Boy, and a spoken word sermon by DMX are along for the ride this time—but it’s IDK’s stark honesty and musical intuition that will keep a ravenous fan base fed for another year. IDK has his eyes on the future, and he's building a legacy that will last.
Is He Real? sparked a realization for me: your album covers have a theme. You appear, usually staring at camera, with one or two opposing objects. This time it’s the sheep and goat, IWASVERYBAD had the dove and inmate uniform, and you’re holding a gun in one hand, keyboard in the other on SUBTRAP.
Yeah, I was just looking at them today and they have that one thing in common. It plays off of "Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge"—it's two things that don't go together. I feel I'm a walking paradox. Things that don't normally go together, but with me somehow they make sense. That's kind of what I am, what I represent.
You’ve been really active online in the run up to this album, especially when it comes to interacting with fans. After listening to your music for years, it feels like that’s something that’s different this time around.
I'm doing it a lot more now because I have more of an active fan base than I've ever had. So it's easier to kind of get people to actually participate. Because it'd been times where I'd say stuff and no one cares, you know what I mean? So I guess I'm having fun with that.
I want to give people incentive to do things outside of just, “Oh I have new music out,” you know? I'm trying to create that type of culture around everything that I do. I made handwritten letters, sent them to hundreds of fans. I'm giving people shirts that cannot be purchased. The next one is giving people a framed poster of the album artwork.
What about on the business side of this album? Is He Real? is billed as your debut album. Has partnering with a big label like Warner solved all the snags and scrambles when it comes to rollouts?
I find that problems always occur when you're doing something big. There's always something wrong. So it's like, you can't dwell on what's wrong, because if you plan on being successful you're going to have to learn how to get through things like that quickly. Or else you're going to be miserable every single time. And it's going to happen a lot more the more successful you become.
But other than that, I've just been thinking about what people's reactions are going to be. Which celebrities are going to stumble across it. Because I feel like it's going to happen. I don't know why. I feel Drake is gonna see it and post it. I hope Kendrick Lamar sees it and posts it. You feel me?
The new partnership is called Clue Records. Up until now, you’ve been a success story for independent artists. What could Warner provide that you didn’t have before?
I got to a point where I was making decent money, but most of the money I was making was going towards [music]. I know that everyone who is very, very successful is partnered with someone at some point, and I think that it was the time to do that. Also, I wanted this album to have as much push as possible. I knew what I was sitting on. I knew that I had something special and I knew that I needed to put it out the right way.
I wanted this album to have as much push as possible. I knew what I was sitting on. I knew that I had something special and I knew that I needed to put it out the right way.
When I heard the news, my first thought was that it made perfect sense. Not just because of your drive, but because you’ve put me on to a lot of great artists in the past. I remember you telling me about Rico Nasty in 2016.
I have a good ear for music and I also have a good eye for buzz and what could pop for various reasons. I try to get on things early. But with Clue I'm all about putting out important music. When I say important music, music that means something more than just, “Let me go turn up real quick, let me drive my car and be aggressive.”
Music that lives forever. I look at people like Marvin Gaye. And I'm not saying everyone has to make music like Marvin Gaye, but if your music can have that sort of impact or lean in that direction to have that type of impact... Like on What’s Going On, that's someone I'm interested in dealing with. I don't want to work with nobody that don't got nothing to say.
Now that Is He Real? is out, do you feel any closer to answering the title’s question? What does the word “god” mean to you these days?
I think it's just something that could be inside of us. It could be outside of us. I don't really know what it is. I just know it's whoever engineered this earth and engineered us, that's the best way to put it. A genius made all of this. This is everything. You can take a screw on this door and say that screw is the reason why the door can open and close. Without that screw, it wouldn't do that. That's the human mind, that's how powerful the human mind is. But who made the human mind? Someone even more powerful than that.
It could always be aliens.
It could be aliens, could be God, I don't know. I don't know what an alien actually is. Do I believe in life on other planets? We don't know enough to say there isn't. So I'm not, I'm open to the idea.
IWASVERYBAD was released soon after your mother passed away, and your relationship with her is central to that album. The last track on Is He Real, “Julia,” is named for her. On that track, you share that she died after contracting AIDS from your stepfather. How has your relationship with your mother’s death changed, two years later?
I just understand it more. I'm okay with it. I've come to terms with it and I'm willing to share it. Those are definitely the main differences right there. I'm willing to share details. I wasn't willing to share details before at all.
You address it on “Michael What TF.” Can you talk about the story you tell on that track?
Everything has double meaning. [The chorus] is like, “I'm back on my bullshit.” Bullshit basically means evil shit. Like, the devil, satanic almost. I'm saying that all of the shit I'm going through makes me want to be back on my bullshit.
That's why I say, "I aim my pistol at your heart / That's how I know it's really beating / I was your band-aid at the start, but now I'd rather see you bleeding." I'm trying to see if these people that are around me are real. I grew up with my stepfather my whole life and I didn't know who he was the whole time, even though I thought I did. I thought he was one of the greatest guys in the world. And when my mother passed away I learned everything about him. And that's crazy. How do you know somebody for that long and then... You know how much that would fuck you up?
No, I don't.
How do you not know somebody after knowing him that long? That means that anybody can be fake as fuck. “Back on my bullshit” is retaliation, going against everything that's right.
Are you two still talking?
I still talk to him. He's still around. There's just a lot on my mind. That's the best way to put it.
You’re meeting a lot of new people this album cycle. How did you end up playing the album for Tyler, the Creator?
We have a lot of mutual friends. Neil Paul, who mixed Tyler's last two albums, mixed half of mine. I sent him the record first, and he sent it to Tyler. Tyler knew of me. I met him once and he was like, "Yo, your song, with Chief Keef played in my store. That shit is crazy." And this was before [Is He Real?]. So it was just a matter of him already being familiar and people hearing my album and saying, "Bro, you gotta check this out."
The album did all the work. People heard the music and were like, "Dude." I'm content with focusing on the music and making the music powerful. Now, I'll do things business-wise to give it a higher likelihood of higher levels of success. And the music will make it easier. If the music is very powerful, people will come to it. That does all the work. If an artist see something that you're doing and it's next level and they can connect to it, they're going to reach out to you and fuck with you. They want to know.
Are there any sessions that stand out from the making of Is He Real?
Probably Burna Boy. He came to my apartment by himself, sat down, smoked 20 blunts, I don't smoke, so I got high off contact. He laid the verse down—freestyled it. And we hung out some more and he asked us if we wanted to go out to eat. I was tired as fuck. It was four, maybe five in the morning.
Now that you’re working at this upper level of the music industry and live in Los Angeles, do you still identify as a DMV rapper?
Yeah. That's where I'm from. I'm a product of that environment. That's where I'm from, that's what I represent. That's who I do all of this for, for people like that. From that, from where I'm from, to feel that they can be what I am. I'm a DMV artist. I like to say “D.C. area” more than I like to say DMV. But yeah, I am definitely that.