I first came across IDK when he was still using the JAY as part of his name and was walking around one of my favorite festivals, Trillectro, with a Ben Franklin lookalike. At first I thought it was an obscure reference from The Office but it wasn’t. It was part of a marketing plan for the roll out of his project Empty Bank. The album cover features Benjamin Franklin holding a noose around IDK’s neck to symbolize the strained relationships rappers and other entertainers have with money. I always appreciate when artists pay extra attention to detail and build bigger concepts and stories around their projects. The P.G. County native is someone who has done that consistently.
Enter IWASVERYBAD. In true IDK fashion, the imagery surrounding the album is all based on themes he explores on the project. He touches on the pivotal moments in his past that led him to being incarcerated and his life in the aftermath. We got some time with IDK to talk about how he approaches marketing and imagery on his projects, getting valuable lessons from Swizz Beatz, how to properly build up to a debut album, and much more. Read our insightful talk below.
OTW: Why did you drop the Jay from your name?
IDK: It was always supposed to be “IDK.” People just started calling me “Jay” and I kind of ran with it. But I think “IDK” definitely has a little bit more mystery to it. You want to know a little bit more about it, and that’s honestly what I always wanted it to be.
How have you changed as an artist and as a person since the release of Subtrap?
As an artist, I’ve learned how to channel my own voice and talk about things that affect me personally. I’ve also learned how to express more of my emotions in my records. As a person, I look at life a lot differently. I’m learning how to enjoy the simpler things in life.
Let’s talk IWASVERYBAD. You decided to drop it in different pieces. Where did that idea come from?
It originated from Russ. I saw he used to drop a song a week, and I kind of wanted to build on that idea. I want people to listen to my entire album and I want to create a story. I don’t want to have singles that just blow up. So I decided to take that concept to another level. Since my music is like a story, I called each a song an episode. Each song just flows into the next. I initially wanted to have a visual component so I could premiere it on television and release the audio after. So I contacted Jason DeMarco (of Adult Swim) saying I had a really cool idea I wanted him to be a part of, and he liked it. That’s how I brought in Adult Swim as a partner. At first, it was going to be one song a week but I didn’t want press hitting people every week with a new song. Also, some songs on the project aren’t as good alone as they are with other songs, so I wanted to break it up into three different pieces. I do have a visual component, which we’re working on right now. It’s not all the way done yet, but it’s getting there.
Are you happy with how everything rolled out?
Yeah, it definitely got a lot of attention. A lot of people have seen the cover art, the orange jumpsuit, and blonde hair. Now it’s just a matter of keeping the rollout going and finding out which songs people are gravitating to the most.
What was your experience recording this project and reliving some of those memories?
It was emotional at times but it was something I needed to do for myself.
Was there a song on there that was hard for you to write?
No, everything came out pretty easily. Nothing took me too long. I took my time on some of them purposely. When I heard the beat to “Black Sheep, White Dove,” I immediately knew it was special.
How much is Prince George’s County a part of who you are as an artist?
Without P.G. County, I wouldn’t be doing anything. I wouldn’t have this story to tell. A lot of people have my same story back home.
What is it about P.G. County?
It’s the weirdest place, man. You could live in a really nice house and get shot. People sell drugs. It’s one of the only places like it. There’s a middle class with six hundred thousand dollar homes, where people are still trying to prove themselves. Gentrification pushes people out of the hood and into these nicer neighborhoods that are predominantly black so it creates a very unique environment.
You worked with Swizz Beatz. That’s pretty exciting. How did that come together and what did you take away from the experience?
We were hanging out with his manager one day and she ended up asking us to come to the studio. We went to the studio and we were hanging out for a bit. Swizz came in, and he knew who I was, so he asked me to play some music. I played some music and he really fucked with it. He kept asking me to run it back. I played him the song I wanted him on, and he didn’t do it that day, but then he asked me to come back the next day. He ended up laying down a few different hooks and I pieced together what I wanted it to be. He definitely gave me a lot of gems. He gave me a lot of game about life outside of music and how to get ready for success. I also got to observe his workflow. He’s very spontaneous. He does what he does without thinking about it too much and sometimes you have to do that with music. You can’t always overthink everything.
Let’s talk more about the marketing stuff. How do you position yourself in the rap ecosphere? Do you follow a blueprint or do you just do things that you like?
Doing things that I like put me in this middle ground that a lot of people aren’t really in. There are two types of rap right now. There are people rapping about something and there are people just having fun. I feel like I’m in the middle somewhere. That’s why I’m able to do a song with Chief Keef and Yung Gleesh but also able to do a song with DOOM, Del, and Swizz. It’s part of who I am. I’m a Gemini so I naturally have two sides. It’s who I am so I feel like I’m in this rare middle ground that a lot of people aren’t really in.
Why do you like doing concept projects? Is there a guide in your head you like to follow when making music?
That’s what I grew up on. I feel like the best artists can make a concept but still have standout singles that touch the radio and crossover to mainstream. Those are the best artists to me.
What are some of your favorite concept projects like that?
I like most of Kanye’s older stuff, 50 Cent, Eminem, and Jay-Z. Those are the main ones. More recently - Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Schoolboy Q. There really aren’t a lot of people who can execute it at a high level.
You have a really strong understanding of marketing and how everything fits into music. What are some tips you can give to up-and-coming artists?
I think the most important things that will attract everything are your branding and your music. When your brand is so potent, so dope, and so well thought out that everybody wants to be a part of it or know more about it, you attract all the other stuff you need. When your packaging and music are dope, fans are going to come. When you have fans, everybody else comes. If your shit is corny, you might still get on, but it might not last as long.
The “Pizza Shop” video with Gleesh is pretty interesting. I also read that you’re creating a 30-minute TV show using the music from the project. What can you tell us about it?
It’s a visual representation. Some people need that. It’s just going to help paint the picture and give the album more life. It’s not done yet, but we’re working on it. I don’t want to talk too much about how I want to drop it but we really have some cool and innovative ideas that are definitely going to shock some people.
In another interview, you were clear to make sure that this isn’t the debut album, and that the debut album is still to come. What do you feel the difference is between something like this and your debut album?
If I were to compare this to anything, I would say this is what Acid Rap was to Chance the Rapper or Section.80 to Kendrick. This is the foundation. Before I can put out that debut album, there are certain things I want to talk about and certain goals I want to accomplish. I need people to understand who I am. That’s the only reason this isn’t my debut album. This will be the project that sets my foundation so I can really make noise when the album comes out.
Where do your concepts and appreciation from sequencing come from, understanding the build-up?
My debut album is special to me. I want it to get the attention it deserves. I have to respect the fact that I’m new and not everyone knows who I am yet and in order for me to give people my debut album, it has to get the attention it deserves. I’m proving myself with this project so anybody that listens will realize that I have something special but I’m still building. This is only the beginning.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Keep watching us for more from IDK in the near future.