No I.D. may not have been a household name before becoming the sole producer credited on Jay-Z‘s new 4:44 album. But the 46-year-old has built an extraordinary resume in hip-hop, crafting essential singles for Kanye West (“Heartless,” “Black Skinhead”), Common (“I Used to Love H.E.R.”), and Drake (“Find Your Love”), helping to launch the careers of Vince Staples and Jhené Aiko and serving as both the President of West’s G.O.O.D. Music label and Executive Vice President of A&R for Def Jam.
Despite these accomplishments, the producer, whose real name is Ernest Dion Wilson, is relentlessly modest, and when Jay-Z initially approached him about working together, the producer passed. He already had credits on Jay-Z’s American Gangster and singles like “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune),” but he attributed those successes to being in the right place at the right time during sessions helmed by Jermaine Dupri and West, respectively.
“At this point in my life, I want to do incredible things with the intention of accomplishing something different and new,” No I.D. tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not a pursuit of money; it’s a pursuit of raising the bar in a cultural sense.” And when Jay-Z initially asked him to work, he was feeling uninspired. “I didn’t think I really had anything at the time,” No I.D. remembers.
But he eventually returned to the rapper and the result of their collaboration, 4:44, came out on Thursday night (it’s the first time Jay-Z has worked with one producer on an album). Rolling Stone caught up with No I.D. to talk about his role in the album’s creation.
How did you first start working on 4:44?
Maybe a year ago I saw Jay-Z at a restaurant. He goes, “You got any music for me?” And I go, “Nope.” He goes, “What are you working on?” I said, “Getting better.”
The thing that made me want to get better was I heard a quote by Quincy Jones where they asked him, “What do you think about music nowadays?” He said, “four-bar loops.” It really affected me. I said, “Wait a minute, that’s not what I want to be a part of.” So I went and did some studying with the intention of growing.
“You’re with Beyoncé, but what is that really like? What’s the pressure? What’s the responsibility?”
A little after that, I decided to just do 500 ideas in a short amount of time. It’s like shooting free throws in the gym. I’m going to do this until I have something new. When I got up in the hundreds, I thought I had something new. The first person I actually went to see was J. Cole. I played him them and said, “Who do you think I should give this to?” I wanted a different perspective. We discussed some things, and it led to me hitting Jay-Z up.
My actual email was: “I got some things that I think are Blueprint-level, [Jay-Z’s widely acclaimed 2001 album]. I know that’s a lot to say, but we need to do this.” And from there, I literally probably gave him three to five new ideas every day for a nice amount of time.
At what point in the improvement process did you feel like you were ready to take the music to Jay-Z?
I humbly studied and read. I went to people from my friend Adrian Younge to Puff [Daddy] and Dr. Dre. The thing that was holding me was reading a lot of Quincy Jones’ story and his words. He was an incredible producer and musician for so many years but people didn’t really give him full credit because he was in jazz. I understand that feeling. At a certain point, I remember reading that he took some years in his forties to go out and get better. That resonated at this point in my career.
When you and Jay-Z started working on this, was it clear that it was going to be an album and just you two working on it? He’s never made an album with just one producer.
I don’t think we discussed anything. Another part of the beauty was: I saw that he, from our initial conversation, wanted to say more and wanted to say some things that he hadn’t said. Part of my growth as a producer was not just about making beats but also helping in the process of inspiring the song and making the song the center. This album is about Shawn Carter, Jay-Z, opening up, and me scoring that. It only came about me doing the whole album because the scoring part of the story started getting so specific that no one else knew how to do the music that fit what was going on. That just happened by default. Half of this album we credited him as co-producer on. At a point, I said, “Man, make me a playlist of songs you like. Where’s your taste at right now?” And there’s a value in a one-producer album. Most of the greatest albums in the history of music are one producer. It’s just a fact. Or one collective.
So that playlist you asked him to make gave you a sense of what he wanted to say?
That came from conversation. I would go by his house with my laptop. Once I showed him I had enough ideas, then it became about conversation. We would sit and talk for hours about life and different things. That would allow him to unlock these ideas and truths that he wanted to share but maybe didn’t get to talk ’em out. A lot of it was talking early on at his house. We created some music at his house. After a while, I think B[eyoncé] wanted to use the room they use as a studio so that led to him coming by my place. But at this point, we had discussed no business. We were just creating music.
It was literally a labor of love and us becoming friends in the process. It wasn’t about, “I want to produce your whole album.” It was more like, a lot of people want to hear you say more. I know you made it, I know you got everything you want and everyone else [knows that]. Let’s talk about the rest now.
So you gently pushed him towards the personal parts of the record?
I knew he wanted to [say those things]. I don’t want to take credit for what he wanted to do in the first place. I helped push him by saying, “Hey, this is what you said, this is what we know. And I don’t think people need to hear it. I think people need to hear what they don’t know.” Meaning: You wanted a Picasso, but why? You’re with Beyoncé, but what is that really like? What’s the pressure? What’s the responsibility? What’s the ups and downs? I wanted him to not be over people’s heads.
“This album is about Shawn Carter, Jay-Z, opening up, and me scoring that.”
I knew as a human being we all have these things and we never really want to tell the truth because we’re supermen – in our own eyes – to the people we want to love us. It was just a nudge. “Hey man, I’m going to push you to say it.”
Even the song “4:44,” Guru [longtime Jay-Z associate Gimel “Young Guru” Keaton recorded most of 4:44] had told me [Jay-Z] had the idea of writing a song like that. So I went and made a piece of music that would box him in to telling that story. I remember [Jay-Z] just looking at me, sighing. “O.K., I’m going home.” True story, at 4:44 he wakes up in the morning and writes that song. He hits me a little bit after. It’s literally the way a producer and an artist should work – nudging and pushing, creating boundaries and allowing him to be the center.
So you dug up that Hannah Williams & The Affirmations sample, which is also about infidelity, on purpose to Jay-Z to push further?
Oh yeah. That whole piece of music was created with me knowing: I’m going to make you say it on this song, and this song will be the only song you need to say it on so it wouldn’t turn into a full Lemonade response album. I boxed all of those parts in and said, here, what are you going do with this?
Was there any fear on your part that you would push too far into his life?
No, no, no, no. By this time, we had established the relationship of trust and knowing that what we both were doing was a labor of love. It was at a pure point. He knew what I was saying by playing it. And I knew that it would help him as a human to say it and get it over with and get it out of your system.
What was it like to hear him record that song? No one’s ever heard Jay-Z in that way before.
He recorded it at his house with nobody around – on [Beyoncé’s] mic. I’ll let him tell the rest of the story. But I remember Guru brings it back and he does this little thing, walks in the room and doesn’t say anything. He stops everything, presses play, and walks out the room. I go, let me go find my wife and give her a hug. Walk down the street and hold hands. It’s a lot.
This album is so sample-heavy at a time when so much of rap has moved away from that sound. Did you two speak on the album’s sonic direction?
That was part of my 500-idea regimen. In the process, I realized that the business half of samples is a bad thing, but [samples are] an instrument. I began to play the samples like I would play an instrument. At some point I knew that was my strength. I had stepped away from my strength sometimes because the business makes you think you can’t do it. I’m like, I can do it. And I can create new art. That allowed me to be myself and put my personality in the music.
There are a couple of Nina Simone samples – were those from Jay-Z’s playlist?
Yes, that was definitely him. He put both of those on there. That’s the score to his life. That’s the core reason for using them. There’s a million things to sample that could sound good.
This is where switching up the process helped me. Maybe before I go, “We can’t use two Nina Simones! We can’t use Steve Wonder!” But that’s what he wanted. I left it up to him to do the rest of the business. It freed me up to just be creative and be told, “this is what I want.” It’s challenging as well.
“I held up classic albums and said, ‘What were the good parts and what were the mistakes?'”
At what point did it become clear that this was going to be an album and it was actually going to come out?
We got heavy into it by accident. The first time it happened, I sent him the “Kill Jay-Z” record, and he called Guru, who happened to be in town, and that was the first record. But then the holidays happened. We both went away for the holidays. He had already asked me to work on Vic Mensa’s album. I was juggling working on both of them. When we came back in January, we get deep in. Then I had to go for Chicago for a month because my dad had a spill at home and he was in the hospital. We took a good month off there. In March, I got back and we got back into the full stride. We had intended on dropping it on 4/4. That was the plan. Unfortunate circumstances slowed it down.
But it helped us in the sense that it gave us more time to make some really important records. A lot of the thought process was, I held up classic albums and said, “What were the good parts and what were the mistakes?” Sometimes these classics, the continuity is what makes them classic, and then you have these examples of reaching for the single or the radio record. Albums I was pointing to were like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Confessions by Usher, [Jay-Z’s] The Blueprint, [Nas’] Illmatic, [Kanye West’s] My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I analyzed the mistakes and tried not to make those mistakes. We wanted 10 really good songs where at no point are you like, “I know what you’re trying to do, you could’ve kept that one.” Sometimes you look back 10 years later and you go, “I see why you did it then, but ‘No, thanks’ today.” By March, we were into that [process].
So the concise 10-song length was important for that purpose?
Yes. There’s three more songs that are coming out as bonuses. James Blake came in and joined into the process. There’s more coming shortly that’s equally as revealing.
Tell me about the first time you heard it in public.
We listened to it last night for the first time in a social environment that wasn’t the studio. It really played well back to back. It felt like a beginning and an ending and an arc and a story. It gets deep, it gets painful, it lifts you up, it make you dance a little but it’s not overly [danceable]. This is the best music I’ve ever created, to be honest. The simplicity of it, the personal nature of it, the timing of where music is – it’s a great piece of art for me.
Was it nerve-wracking to air it in a public setting for the first time?
I’m a veteran now. There’s zero fear. I’ve won; I’ve lost. I’m at the point where I do what I believe in, and win or lose believe in what I do. There’s times that I know I’m doing what I’m born to do. [Jay-Z and I] also joke, he’s like, I can’t believe, all those years we weren’t really connecting. He cracks it like, “You were so rude to me for 18 years!” But you know what? It was meant to be.