Hip-Hop

Meet J.I., the Melodic Romantic Who Believes in Real Love

J.I.
George Mercado

J.I.

If you ever heard J.I.'s music, you would think he's had his heart broken one too many times.

Despite being only 18 years old, his googly eyed takes on love have more substance than your typical college freshman. While rappers his age may yearn for instant gratification, he's seeking to forge an unshakable bond that can withstand the test of time.

"When I was younger, I used to always want to be with one person. The lifestyle I embrace doesn't really showcase that. Yeah, you have rappers in love, and they got their wives, but ever since I was younger, my parents weren't together. They split up," he relays during his interview with Billboard. "I feel like every family, you have aunts and uncles that are still together. It's more common for your relatives to still be together for a long time. It was more common for them in their time period when they were growing up, and that's something I always found dope."

Songs like "Used To" and "Love Scars" not only highlight J.I.'s penchant for syrupy melodies, but reveal a wounded soul desperately trying to stitch his heart back together. And while he revels in creating emo-leaning songs about heartbreak, he flourishes in building spirited bops centered around samples. His 2019 breakout hit "Need Me" -- which samples Mya's "Best of Me" and sits at 33 million views on YouTube -- finds the Puerto Rican hyphenate floating seamlessly over the '90s classic. "With samples, I've always loved the challenge. I love flipping things. Like, you gotta come correct with it [on those kinds of tracks]," the Interscope Records signee opines.

Last week, ahead of J.I.'s release of his new single "Proud of Me," Drake paid homage to the rising star by playing his songs "Used To" and "On Me" during an Instagram Live session with OVO Mark. The lofty co-sign was a confidence booster for J.I., who admitted to feeling nervous before the single's upcoming release. Five days after dropping "Proud of Me," the video sits at over 800,000 views on YouTube with plenty of room to grow.

Billboard spoke to J.I. about his new single "Proud of Me," his responsibility to the Hispanic community, dealing with rap comparisons, his admiration for DMX, and what love means to him at this stage of the game.

Your original rap name was J.I. the Prince of New York. Clearly confidence and pressure isn't a thing you struggle with.

Nah, I mean kinda. I'm a huge critic of myself. Like, the record "Proud of Me," I've heard the record so many times, [but] I'm iffy about it. I'm always iffy when coming out with a record because I never fully know what to expect from the audience. That's why I just come with snippets and based on the reactions, that's how I determine [if the song is going to be good or not]. But the reaction is crazy, so I want to see what happens when I release it. I'm excited, though, because I haven't really dropped anything in a couple months. 

Playing off your single "Proud of Me," who was most proud of your deal with Interscope last year?  

I would say my father and my manager 'cause my father at the time, I was staying with him. Everybody is proud of me now in my family, but at the time, I was living with him and he knew what was going on -- he was a part of the process. He'd see me working, going to the studio late night, coming home late, ya feel me? There was a time of me being in Cali and having the opportunity to see different labels. When we ended up signing with Interscope, he had to jump on a flight to come all the way to New York and then go back to Cali. He was definitely part of the process. 

You competed on Jermaine Dupri's show The Rap Game. As a competitor, how did that loss prepare to move forward in your career? 

With these TV shows, what matters is what you do after it -- that's usually the main thing. A lot of people kind of get lost in the sauce and it's like, don't get me wrong, you gotta showcase your talent and gravitate attention towards you and run with the platform you got, but it's really about what you do afterwards. So many people won that TV show and they don't really end up going nowhere. There was a point where I was at a standstill for a long time and I wasn't really doing anything. I had to kind of get to a point where I motivated myself. In general, that TV show is like a boot camp -- like you do different s--t. They made us memorize songs, but it kind of preps you for the industry. For me, it was just an experience.

You said both Pac and DMX are two of your favorites. What song or album from either rapper's career best describes your life right now?

[DMX]'s "Ruff Ryders Anthem." I don't know. That's just my anthem in general. I wouldn't say it describes me, but I feel like DMX in general would describe me. He'd be wildin'. I swear that's how I be. I talk to myself sometimes and I gotta calm myself down. When I play his music, it just gets me amped up. It's energy. It's always energy.

The one thing I respected about him is I remember when I was younger, I was in middle school, and I used to hear about how he came up, how he was dealing with addiction and how he was raised. It was just crazy. His drive and his work ethic. The way he got involved with the addition and it started f--king with him and s--t, you really got to hear the music that he put out. They'll never be another DMX. 

You're only 18. So for you to talk about DMX, who's a '90s legend, is pretty dope because he was clearly before your time

I came from New York, ya feel me? I feel like it's right that I do the research. A lot of people don't really do it. A select few will, but I'm always trying to get some pointers. 

You come from a Puerto Rican background. Based on your shows and fan base, you have the Hispanic community really backing you up heavy right now in New York. How does it feel having that responsibility of carrying an entire community on the rap front?

That was always the plan. That's why I was a Big Pun fan because that was something he was doing and that was something I kind of want to continue. I mean, I'm not gonna front. We used to have people attempt to do it like 6ix9ine and s--t. I mean, he's free now, but I don't know what's going on with him. He's Mexican and he did it differently too. 

For what I'm doing, it's genuine and authentic. I don't have a gimmick going on. What sells is my music, it's not my character. I don't go on social media and bug out. I let my music speak for itself. So when it comes to my people, I just try to incorporate my heritage. I definitely plan on crossing over and getting into Spanish music. That's a different market -- a huge market. I definitely gotta embrace that.

I know you've heard the comparisons of A Boogie and Lil TJay, but you've brushed it off and said you're aiming for an Elvis, Michael Jackson kind of career. What do you think you'll need to reach that level of success? 

Yeah, I get the comparisons and stuff like that, but it's like I don't really care for that. I understand it. I get love from everybody. I got people showing me love. Other artists respect the craft, especially people that they mention sometimes. The fans, they enjoy a lot of controversy, but I don't get in the booth trying to sound like somebody. This is really how I talk. I guess maybe New York n----s sound alike because we do talk similarly, but I genuinely don't get in the booth and say, 'I wanna sound like the next man.' That's just how I express myself and that's why I'm constantly coming out with tapes and bodies of work.

If somebody said every song I made sounds the same, then they got something big in their mouths right now, for real. I always try to mix it up and do different sounds. I'm never really trying to sound the same. The topic could be the same, but I always try to switch it up. Right now, I'm trying to work on different vibes. "Proud of Me" is a different vibe in general. I'm always trying to be different. 

You rap about hardships in relationships, but you also have some deep records like "Pain" and "When You Cry." How do you maintain the balance between love and edgy raps, especially knowing your fans gravitate towards the former?

I wanna connect with everybody. I feel like that's how you win when you're able to connect. My thing is with a lot of the artists coming is that you got the drill music, you got the gang stuff, I came from that. I grew up from that, but I never really embraced it or broadcasted it. I never really went out of my way to diss the next man. I get love from everybody.

The hardcore music, I grew up on some bar-for-bar type stuff. I was really into that kind of music. With samples, I've always loved the challenge. I love flipping things. Like, you gotta come correct with it [on those kinds of tracks]. The dope thing about it is like, some of the samples that I have like "When You Cry" and "Need Me," I got Kevin Lyttle -- he did the "Turn Me On" record -- he hit me up to do the record like that. It's just dope how the music connected me with other people, especially people I grew up listening to. I love what I'm doing and I'm having fun with it.

Drake played some of your records during OVO Mark's Instagram Live last week, including "Used To." How does it feel to be on his radar so early into your career? 

It was really crazy. I was chillin' in the crib and my little brother came in. He told me. My friend was calling me. He called me, like, 10 times and I was wondering why he was calling me. Then my little brother showed me. I was excited OD. It's funny, too, because that record, when I had made it, I was like, "Nah, I hear Drake on this," like I heard him on it. Even him just playing it was mad random 'cause month priors, DJ Akademiks posted a video of me performing and Drake liked the video. That's kind of how I got the first glimpse of it. I thought it was dope since he was in-tune.

So when I saw him Live and s--t, he was showing mad love. He's huge. He didn't have to go out of his way and show love like that. That s--t definitely meant a lot to me. I grew up listening to Drake. I'm a big fan of his work. I hope we can work and link up later on down the line. That would be crazy. 

I remember asking Kiana Lede this question recently, so I thought it would be cool to get a male's perspective, especially for someone your age and the kind of music you've been releasing. What does love mean to you at 18, 19 years old?

When I was younger, I used to always want to be with one person. The lifestyle I embrace doesn't really showcase that. Yeah, you have rappers in love and they got their wives, but ever since I was younger, my parents weren't together. They split up. I feel like every family, you have aunts and uncles that are still together. It's more common for your relatives to still be together for a long time. It was more common for them in their time period when they were growing up, and that's something I always found dope. Like you can just meet somebody and build a connection with them and just create this life and family. I never had that and I never grew up on that. That's something that I always wanted.

I always wanted to have a big a-- wedding, my own family and do it the right way. Me, I'm young, but I'm not really impressed with a lot of things. Females that used to dub me back in the day are trying to come at me now. It's weird. For me, I was trying to find somebody earlier because I knew if s--t took off, it would be hard to find a genuine person. Not a lot of people are genuine nowadays. Love is powerful. It's really what you do with it. People use it for the wrong things and you can manipulate somebody with it. I feel like if you use it the right way, it could be so good.