J.I.D is technically living out his dreams, but today he’s dealing with the generally pedestrian and occasionally frustrating existence of an up-and-coming rapper. His manager is doggedly emailing an unnamed producer trying to track down a sample and, a couple of hours, later the Atlanta rapper’s frustration will boil over. “Wasting my fuckin time up here doing fuckn press and dis goofy ass producer nigga don’t know where da sample came from so we fucked, exact reason why u don’t work with just anyone,” he writes on Twitter.
On a cold New York morning in late October, J.I.D is outwardly confident, but there are signs of nerves swelling. He and those around him are buzzing with a mix of excitement and anxiety. Shower steam sticks to J.I.D as he races up the stairs of an unassuming Park Slope apartment, while his manager hurriedly grabs coffee. The whole place is spinning as J.I.D and his team prep for the release (and promo) of DiCaprio 2, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed The Never Story.
“He’s like my favorite actor,” J.I.D says a few minutes later as he crashes on the couch, explaining the series title. “He didn’t have an Oscar at the time. I didn’t have a deal. Now I got a deal, things going forward. He got an Oscar, things are going forward. I wasn’t trying to make it seem like, ‘Oh, we’re the best friends. We have the same life story,’ but I’m like, it’s similarities there.”
Despite his explanations, the similarities between J.I.D and Leonardo DiCaprio are not immediately apparent. Destin Route is a 28-year-old rapper from East Atlanta, covered in a menagerie of tattoos and tapped as one of the best traditional lyricists of his generation. Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio is a white, 43-year-old actor who was never scouted by J. Cole for his Dreamville Records label or even named an XXL Freshman (basically the new Oscars). Regardless, even the most casual observer can tell they both have indelible charm and chips on their shoulders.
In 2015, J.I.D dropped the dense but promising DiCaprio. The bar-heavy mixtape (again, hard to overstate the project’s density), featured J.I.D rapping in a faux-Kendrick Lamar yelp as clips from Leonardo’s movies slide in and out. His manager zooms us on the couch to describe it as the rapper’s Catch Me If You Can. J.I.D calls its sequel his Gangs of New York. The bold proclamation runs counter to a clear sense of nervousness. Before sharing the aggressively cinematic first song, “151 Rum,” he warned his fans on Instagram that “this project isn’t like the nevrr story or anything u heard from me b4, it isn’t my gkmc [Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City] or whatever else your are expecting it to be.”
“I don’t want them to listen to [it] with the same like ear as they would with Never or something with people they compare me to. I don’t want to be compared to. I just want you to listen to the music,” he says. “They might not be ready.”
DiCaprio 2 is a subtle evolution. J.I.D’s raps are still thick, intricate and compressed, but aren’t as impenetrable. The raps are tighter, the stories more streamlined, the beats more luscious. A song like “Tiiied,” featuring 6LACK and Ella Mai, is in the running for one of the best uptempo R&B songs of the year. Even with the Auto-Tune cranked up, J.I.D’s energy doesn’t slow, his syllables always come tumbling out with a ferocious energy.
J.I.D rolls through his growing résumé with a practiced assuredness. He describes his time as a D1 football for Hampton University matter-of-factly and says he wasn’t shocked that he received a scholarship, rattling off his All-American accomplishments. But he recoils at the mention of his alma mater; his disdain for the institution is still palpable. On 2017’s “General,” he rapped, “Kicked out of college for tongues, niggas be talking / I wasn’t even on camera, just hit the lick with some amateurs,” about the experience that led to the end of his collegiate days. He declined to elaborate. Not long after leaving Hampton, he found a new, but still unlikely, avenue to success.
“Only person who took me serious was my mom and my sister Rachael,” he explains of his 2012 transition from ex-football player to potential rapper. “Everybody else was like, ‘What’re you doing?’ My dad kicked me out. He’s like, ‘I knew you was going to be a fuck up.’ Cause I got kicked out of school. I remember him saying that shit. ‘Like damn you knew it? You didn’t even say anything, my nigga.'”
Three years later, he was being courted by Kevin “Coach K” Lee for a potential spot on Quality Control Music, home of the Migos, Lil Yachty and Lil Baby.
“He heard a record I did with I feel like Maco, whenever OG Maco popped off. He just liked the way my voice cut through. He was like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a star,’ J.I.D remembers. “So that’s what he told somebody and somebody told me. One day I just saw him out on like Edgewood, where everybody used to be in the city. He was like, ‘I fuck with you. Let’s go to lunch.’ So we went to lunch. Met up with him, chopped it up one time. We met another time, sat down and ate. We was closer to really about to sign and shit and Cole and them was like ‘Hold off, we want to fuck with you.'”
Cole had seen Route perform on Ab-Soul’s These Days Tour in 2014. J.I.D decided to go with the Fayetteville MC-producer whose creative disposition and laid back energy seemed like a better fit.
“There’s a song I did called ‘D/vision,’ I did on Never Story. It was the first beat he did. When we [EarthGang] came in the house he was like, ‘Alright, first thing y’all put your stuff down, write a verse.’ That was the first verse I wrote, barred that shit up,” he says. “I’m not nervous about no beat. I bar Cole up. I bar the beat. I don’t give a fuck like. I came to work.”
One of DiCaprio 2’s standout moments comes from that same pack of beats. “Skrawberry” was produced by Cole, but it took J.I.D three years of tinkering to get the song right. Strings, horns and keys combine for a beat with a nostalgic edge. It was ultimately Mac Miller whose vision helped push the song to completion. “Even on the song with BJ, it was a whole like the beat was still punchy. He [Mac Miller] dropped the whole hook. He dropped the whole hook and made that shit sound like you fall into a pocket of fucking cloud or some shit.”
Miller would go on to arrange all of DiCaprio 2 before his death in September.
“We started getting closer this whole year. Like this year, because I knew him before, I met him before, but this year we started getting close. Hitting me up, checking on me type shit, and vice versa. Talking about relationships, like real friendship type shit. That shit fucked me up, bro. I would have had the project out if he was still alive right now. We were going on tour. The tour would’ve been in fucking three days, three days.”
“I still be having a loss of breath when I think about it. Shit sucked the air out of my stomach. Man, I dealt with that my whole life, just being from East Atlanta, being where I’m from. Dealt with people dying all the time, but this shit was like damn, I was really just talking to you the day before, literally shot you a text, he was like ‘Bruh, I gotta do some shit’ and then next thing you know. That shit still hard to deal with.”
It’s that nightmare-within-a-dream-situation that evokes the most similarities between J.I.D and a Leonardo DiCaprio character; in this case his late-career signature role as Dom Cobb, in Christopher Nolan’s dream-centric thriller Inception. Recently, he shared a graphic of the infamous shot of a spinning top that closes the film. When I ask the question everyone has at the end of the film — does that top keep spinning or does it wobble? — J.I.D waits before answering.
“Gotta keep spinning,” he says. “Gotta keep spinning.”