By Eóin Donnelly
In the eclectic geography of hip-hop cities, there is no more curious a case than Atlanta. If you were to assess the state of hip-hop today purely based on album sales, streaming numbers and mainstream visibility, you’d quickly come to the conclusion that very little outside of Atlanta matters. The familiar names of Future, Migos, 21 Savage, Rae Sremmurd, Playboi Carti Lil Yachty, Young Thug and 6LACK are just a smattering of the musical offerings that have ensured Atlanta’s takeover of this decade; however, it’s worth remembering that to be a rapper from Atlanta was once synonymous with the role of playing outcast. Speaking of which, it was OutKast who changed everything for Atlanta. Although their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmusik is now rightly regarded as a classic of the genre, at the time of its release in 1994 the competitive ethos that acted as regional hip-hop’s throughline had turned sour, with the West and East Coast scenes vying for supremacy at hip-hop’s top table. With egos running wild and inter-coastal animosity at an all-time high, neither side was about to entertain the arrival of a third competitor to the nouveau riche hip-hop scene; and when Atlanta’s favourite sons OutKast won ‘Best New Artist’ at the 1995 Source Awards, it was obvious that Atlanta had a lot to prove before the long-maligned southern hip-hop would finally be taken seriously. As a visibly upset André 3000 went up to collect the award amid a raucous din of boos ringing round Madison Square Garden, his retort was simple: “The South got something to say.” Three more groundbreaking, classic albums (ATLiens, Aquemini and Stankonia) and six years later, and 3 Stacks’ message had turned on its head: “You know, right now everybody wants to be from space/And like want to be from the country and everything like that/You know, like, really, like, the South/It’s like cool to be from the South right about now”, he observed on 2001’s ‘Funkin Around’, and even still the upward trend in hip-hop of the Atlanta variety has yet to flatten out.
In 2018, however, Atlanta hip-hop has arguably come full circle again. Although it resides at the forefront of hip-hop and pop culture at large, the kind of music emanating from Atlanta today is far from the version of the South that OutKast’s innovative, perception-altering vision presented. Some fantastic music aside, the ubiquitous Atlanta trap and ‘mumble rap’ that now dominates the airwaves is planets away from the consciousness-exploring ATLiens, instead prioritising chasing hits with a by now predictable formula of rattling hi-hat production, party-heavy lyrics and easily-repeatable hooks. The South is producing more hits than ever, but unlike that momentous night in 1995 it hasn’t got so much to say anymore. More importantly, over a decade of over-saturation has left it running out of ways to say it.
With that being said, the arrival of Atlanta lyricist JID could not be more timely. It’s no wonder so many in the industry are so excited about him. Signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville label, Di Caprio 2 is JID’s sophomore album after last year’s The Never Story, a release I included in my top 25 albums of last year. On his debut, it was clear that JID was posturing himself as a different kind of Atlanta rapper, quickly earning a reputation as a ‘rapper’s rapper’ for his emphasis on clever lyricism, inventive flows and a preference for a jazzier, more organic production style. Comparisons with his mentor were obvious, but musically JID has much more in common with Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar, marrying the former’s incessant barrage of witty punchlines with the Compton rapper’s mature presence on the mic. Like Lamar, JID has an exhilarating arsenal of flows and an elastic, high-pitched cadence that can turn forceful and vehement at the switch of a beat, two foundational attributes upon which many’s a successful rap career was carved out. Don’t be fooled by his short stature and youthful features; JID is 28 years old, a relatively seasoned rapper who has been on the mixtape circuit since 2012. To borrow from the wisdom of J. Cole, overnight success is never really overnight success. JID is not a name built on viral singles, dance challenges, zany tattoos and hairstyles or controversial headlines. He has really had to grind to earn his place in the spotlight, and it shows.
On Di Caprio 2, JID flows with the unpredictability of a virtuoso saxophonist. It may be several listens in before you catch up to the complexity of the rhythms he is spitting bars at, as well as the bombardment of lyrical gems he casually drops. JID is an extremely self-aware rapper, one who seems in tune with his place in the culture and the opportunity he has to take the lyricist’s throne for himself. The abundance of clever lines from JID across this album are too abundant to quote even a small proportion, but take this sequence of bars on ‘Slick Talk’ for example, which is the first proper song on the album: “I know alotta your favourites not gon’ fuck with this part/When I’m done, please know that I was trying to diss y’all/’Cause if this is a competition, then I’m setting this bar/In my city, who’s with me? I’m in my own lane, Jack/Ni*** said, “JID so flame, I propane rap/I’m from East Atlanta like Gucci and Travis Porter/But my story is familiar to the hare and the tortoise.” ‘Slick Talk’ is as impressive an album opener as you are likely to have heard all year, immediately serving as a reminder of exactly why JID’s second album was so highly-anticipated in the first place. Within just a few lines he reminds us of where he’s from, pays homage to his contemporaries and challenges them in one breath, and alludes to a classic story in folklore that encapsulates his struggles as an artist, all of this while hitting multiple rhyme schemes with impeccable timing and a charming delivery that is altogether his own.
In the songs that follow, the momentum barely lets up for a second. Di Caprio 2 is a front-loaded album that immerses you in JID’s thrilling rap style from the get-go; although a little jarring at first, A$AP Ferg’s bellowing hook on ‘Westbrook’ is a welcome addition of fist-pumping simplicity after JID’s fiery, energetic verses threaten to spontaneously combust my headphones. The singles which preceded the album, ‘Off Deez’ and ‘151 Rum’, are among the most technically impressive exhibitions of pure rapping of the year. The production on ‘Off Deez’ is a little too rudimentary and repetitive to be a truly memorable song, but by placing the spotlight on the verses it allows you to come away marvelling at JID’s supreme ability to uplift even the most basic of instrumentals with his rapping prowess. Guesting on the track is J. Cole, flowing at a speed that I didn’t realise he was capable of and which serves as testament to JID’s ability to raise the bar in itself. ‘151 Rum’ is reminiscent of the standout track from JID’s debut album, ‘NEVER’, both of which are tracks so resplendent with lyrical acrobatics and bombastic sonics that you might not even notice the undercurrent of desolation that runs through it: “Standing next to Lil Tay when that bullet hit him/Shit, I miss him, I wish that that bullet missed him but it didn’t/And since I been living with it like a sickness.” JID is full of apt metaphors, none more so than when he likens his “infinite rhymes” style to fetching a baton and running with it to the finish line like a ticking time-bomb. In that sense, the ominous sirens that ‘151 Rum’ are the perfect soundscape for him to rap over, indicative of the sense of panic that pervades JID’s turbo-speed rhyme patterns. The stakes are much higher when you market yourself as a technically gifted rapper: JID’s rhythms are so complex; his array of vocal inflections so vast; and his flow switches so frequent and ambitious; that at any one moment he threatens to fall off beat with his tracks falling apart as a consequence. His nuanced, nimble verses are akin to a tightrope, where the slightest mistake or awkward transition is to ruin the entire spectacle. The most impressive thing about him is that he seldom seems to make one.
On the other hand, Di Caprio 2 is not without weaknesses. At times, the production is too similar to the kind of beats that J. Cole frequents. He may be the protégé, but in my view JID is an infinitely more engaging presence on the mic than his label boss. If he is to truly eclipse him, however, he will have to craft a production style more singularly his own in projects to come. Moreover, JID’s newest album is refreshingly brisk at 50 minutes, but it is not without filler. The melodramatic ‘Tiiied’, where JID pursues a more RnB direction with the collaborating Ella Mai and 6LACK, simply doesn’t work. The unorthodox singing tempos are more irksome than anything, seeming like they are dropped in from a different track entirely; the hook is too clunky and verbose to be catchy; and I’ve heard this 6LACK feature a thousand times before. Thank u, next. The beat on ‘Mounted Up’ is a Xanax in audio form, a monotonous droll that doesn’t afford JID with the requisite space to make his charismatic personality shine through. Fans of old-school boom-bap will be enamoured with JID dusting off the vintage New York sound, especially considering his addition of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man, but were it not for Joey Bada$$- who has certainly done his part in boom-bap revivalism- laying siege to his verse then the track would’ve been totally forgettable.
For a man of JID’s vibrant imagination, extensive vocabulary and musical versatility, it is also a source of some disappointment that JID has so far seemed reluctant to tether his prodigious talents to more lofty ambitions than exhibiting how far he is ahead of his peers in the League of Wordsmiths. This is not to ignore ‘Workin Out’ and ‘Just Da Other Day’, two of the best tracks on the album; JID can flow as fast as Twista on Adderrall, but it’s when he slows and quietens things down and gets personal that Di Caprio 2 reaches its peak. Both tracks exemplify the value in sombre piano production, which will never go out of fashion. Humanity will go extinct before rappers stop reflecting on the impoverished struggle they emerged from to be successful, but there’s a weight to JID’s vocal delivery and quirks to his storytelling that hint at the levels of depth a more polished JID could eventually travel to. The beauty of hip-hop is in its simultaneous universality as well as its ability to transport you into the perspective of another person entirely, a marriage of relatability easily achieved on these two indelibly haunting cuts, particularly on ‘Workin Out’ which contains one of the most emotionally affecting lines I’ve heard all year: “On everything I gave everything and nothing back.” This is the precisely kind of line, and ‘Workin Out’ precisely the kind of song, that you aren’t hearing from anyone else in Atlanta. The burden of sacrifice is you can put everything in and get nothing back, the dread of failure is that you can chase so hungrily for success and still be left standing in the same spot. JID is rubbing shoulders with superstars, but he’s a late bloomer not so far removed from the travails of the common man that he’s forgotten what it is to be human.
All in all, JID is a welcome alternative to the prevailing sound, aesthetic and attitude of his contemporaries, but if he’s really going to change the course of Atlanta hip-hop, he’s going to have to do things that little bit better next time around. Artistic decisions are not made in a vacuum. It could well be that he is saving a more introspective, thematic and conceptual record for when he has ascended to a higher plateau; like Kendrick circa Section 80, he might be just one album cycle and a few artistic tweaks from turning the world of hip-hop on its head. For the sake of the future of lyricism, I bloody hope so.