IDK’s world is a bunch of things that don’t make sense, or so he says. The 28-year-old London-born, Maryland-raised rapper has spent his entire life, and subsequent rap career, searching for answers.
His 2019 debut studio album, Is He Real, only left listeners with more questions as IDK sent us down an Alice in Wonderland-like rabbit hole pondering the great beyond, its legitimacy, and our place in the world. Describing the rookie album as “More of a Da Vinci Code than a crossword puzzle,” IDK — an acronym for “Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge” — introduced himself with riddles and easter eggs.
IDK shifts gears on his sophomore album, USEE4YOURSELF, where the tactical rap magician now sheds the smoke and mirrors to lay out his family trauma, battles with toxic masculinity, and self-taught lessons on love for the world to see. Released on July 9, this was an album IDK always knew he would make, hiding its name in the last letter of each song title on Is He Real?
“I always knew that I wanted to create longevity within the trilogy of [2017 mixtape] IWasVeryBad, Is He Real?, and USEE4YOURSELF, and the best way to do it was this way,” he explains to Billboard. “It’s taking the time to think ahead to what I want to talk about and being very poised in knowing that this is for my fans and for myself. And even if the people don’t get it on the first two albums, knowing that it’s for my fans who will stick around for the next one was good enough for me.”
USEE4YOURSELF is also the latest example of the rapper’s elite lyricism and a reminder of his ability to weave together different artists into his story, with generation-spanning features from Young Thug, Offset, MF DOOM, Westside Gunn, Slick Rick, and more. However, while this album is equal parts snare-centric party tracks and audible therapy sessions, it’s not just for IDK’s benefit. As he describes, he’s trying to use his influence to be a positive example for Black kids to lean into their emotions.
“These are the things you talk about in therapy and you keep to yourself, but I’m letting people know, ‘Yo, bruh. Yeah I be doing the Dior s–t. Yeah, you see me with Virgil and Louis Vuitton, yeah you see me in this car and that — but this is my life.’ That makes it so that it’s cool to be vulnerable for the next kid. It’s cool to be real. It’s cool to speak about things like this because it’s happened to a lot of people and some of the people you look up to.”
Billboard caught up with IDK, and talked about getting MF DOOM on a trap beat, how JaVale McGee ended up on the production credits for “PradadaBang” featuring Young Thug, being unconcerned about the critics, and why he still believes in love despite going through endless pain and trauma.
First of all, congratulations on your new partnership with Guess. How did that come together?
It started with a woman by the name of Mennia. I was in Yellow Springs, Ohio with Dave Chappelle and Talib Kweli, and I met Mennia. She was in the car with me, and I was playing her the early drafts of the album, and she loved it so much that she was like, “You’re going to be a star.” She used to work at Guess, so she was just like, “Yo, you should meet Nicolai [Marciano],” who basically runs Guess, and she plugged me with him. So, a conversation that just started from saying hello turned into all of this.
For the first track, “3018091821,” whose number is that?
That’s my childhood phone number. When I would call it, my mom would get on and be like, “You’ve reached 301-809-1821, sorry I wasn’t here to take your call right now.” It was always that number, and that’s what the message was every time so the first song is me calling my mother.
Why did you also choose to sample Andrew Schultz’s comedy show at the end of that song? The quote itself seems deep until you realize it’s from a standup bit where he’s facetious.
It’s like in Transformers when Bumblebee used to use clips from different things to speak. That was just a clip that happened to be playing in the car that crashed into me, and it’s basically meant to be my mom’s voice. Not literally her voice, but my mom saying, “Sacrifice is how you love somebody,” or what her version of love was. And she sacrificed a lot for me, but it was hard to see that as a kid.
How did “Red” come together with you, MF DOOM, Westside Gunn, and Jay Electronica?
A lot of people don’t realize I did that before DOOM passed away. I did not do that to try and squeeze him in there to capitalize after his death. He cleared it. Secondly, it was me trying to be ambitious in putting together a rap track that also had playability in other environments.
Traditionally, those names together mean New York City, oversized fitted hats, hands folded bobbing your head in a small, packed club. That’s what those names mean. My idea was to turn it into stadium, strip club music. I wanted to bring those people into an environment that they’re not used to ever being heard in. DOOM’s verse is short because if I were to put a whole verse down, to me, it would have been overkill. I have to still keep the replayability, and the song is already around four minutes. So, I was being sensitive about the time when I put it together.
Originally, we weren’t even supposed to say anything about anybody on the song. I got excited and posted it on my Reddit, and maybe I shouldn’t have done that because DOOM was supposed to be a little surprise. The song is meant to be fun, dope, but legendary at the same time. I’ve never heard MF DOOM on a trap beat, and that was something that he wanted to do. Even though it’s not his main style, he’s interested in things like that, so I think it was a huge success, and I think it created a conversation, good and bad. But I think all the best music does that. Either you love it, or you hate it, no in-between.
Listening to “Red” reminded me of the first time I heard “Porno” off your last project.
It’s exactly “Porno!” It’s one of those, ‘I have to pay a shitload of money for samples, I’m probably not going to make any money off publishing, but charge it to the game. Everybody’s on it, fuck it.’ It’s unorthodox. It’s basically “Porno,” but for this album.
Another surprise I saw in the credits was JaVale McGee having production credits on “PradadaBang.” What the hell?
JaVale originally produced the original beat for it, and [Young] Thug did a long verse on it. Then I took the record and re-produced it and kept some of the elements JaVale had on there and broke [Thugs] verse up, so we were going back and forth. When Thug heard it, he was like, “Yo, this is fire.” It was just a testament to me being able to properly produce and not just make the beat, but actually produce the song top to bottom. It was like a flex moment, but yes, JaVale originally produced that beat. I’ll release the original eventually.
You really show your confidence on the latter half of “Dogs Don’t Lie” when you rap, “I feel the bad reviews comin’/ These bloggers givin’ me sixes, my confidence say a hundred.” How has your confidence grown between Is He Real and now?
My confidence has grown a lot. It’s grown with my success. I make music, first and foremost. Second of all, this album is for Black people, and the people I see back home that have trouble struggling with vulnerability. And knowing what it is to be in these households we live in. We live in a place where the Black person in America is fighting to survive, while the white person is fighting to have a better life.
For me, speaking to those [Black] people and creating a positive outlet to see the world differently is my main concern. Most of these critics don’t expect me to have the music to speak to the people that I’m supposed to speak to, because they’re used to me being this “alternative rap guy.” My biggest song on Spotify, soon to be dethroned by these songs now, is “Once Upon a Time Freestyle” with Denzel [Curry], and to be honest, the Black community isn’t who is really listening to that — that’s the white hip-hop head kids. And that’s dope, and I’m glad I have those people. But I’m trying to be a representative of the people that I grew up around. That I live around, that I want to affect their lives.
I want to affect everyone’s lives, but my main concern is the people who need it the most. So, when a critic who isn’t cut from that cloth or who doesn’t understand has anything to say about my music, that’s anything other than “this is amazing,” I just don’t care.
I learned in therapy that I love watching movies with people because that was one of the few things my family ever did all together when I was younger. What did you learn about yourself and how you might raise a family through making this album?
Transparency and putting love first, and being able to express the truth to my family and my kids. It’s up there because I don’t think my family understood that concept nor really cared much about doing it that way. Now I’m a result of that, but the greatest thing about us, our generation, is we’re the first generation to realize the trauma and what we’ve been through, and we’re comfortable doing the work.
You said you were in therapy. That’s something we used to run from and think was a scary and embarrassing thing. Now we’re here and we can do the work. It’s up to us to inspire the people coming up and the people we raised to be better people. We have the information and resources to do that.
You’ve spoken in your music about how your aunt was there for so many major moments in your life, from telling you your mom died to explaining heaven and hell. All for her to be a central root of your trauma. How did “Hey Auntie” help you level with that?
Before “Hey Auntie” was a song, it started with me just understanding that I wanted to do something. The concept of what it is and revealing that is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I just haven’t been able to find the right song or time to do it. Being able to do “Hey Auntie” is a long time coming, but it’s closure for me.
I think I got blessed with an influence, even if I’m not the biggest artist numbers-wise, my influence surpasses a lot of people who have a lot more streams than me because even those people are looking up to me and asking me for advice and trying to work with me. Influence and impact are at a high level for me, and with that I have to inspire the youth to think differently because, as Black people, we’re not listening to our parents.
We’re not listening to the professor in college, we’re not listening to the white people that work at our schools that are telling us we should live this life when they don’t even know what we deal with every day. I’m taking the place of the drug dealer in the neighborhood who everybody looks up to and who has the nice chains and car. A song like “Hey Auntie” means so much more. I’m doing the world a disservice if I keep it to myself.
At the end of “Hey Auntie,” when you reverse the bridge, you say, “If you really take the time to think about it, God and love is pretty much the same thing.” After just describing how your aunt violated you, and all of the love you were never given from your family, how are you still so firm in your belief in love and, therefore, God?
Love is the one thing we’re born with. When you’re a baby and you don’t know anything about society, you don’t know anything about what the norms are, and no one is teaching anything, you can comprehend a smile and smile back. That’s a form of love. That’s instilled in you. No one taught you how to do that, and that’s why I say love is one of those things that’s in you. People teach it to you, but it’s already in you. I think that that’s one of those things that we have to recognize and understand.
On “Cry in Church,” you sample “The Prayer IV” off DMX’s The Great Depression. After having X on the last album doing an original spoken-word piece, how important was it for you to have him close this sermon one last time?
If you think about it, he’s in the exact same place at the beginning of Is He Real? that he is at the end of USEE4YOURSELF. It’s one of the first things you hear in Is He Real?, and it’s one of the last things you hear in USEE4YOURSELF, before the actual ending. Dialogue is how the last album opens, then it goes into the songs and to X. Whereas here, dialogue is how it closes, but if you reverse it goes to the song, then it goes to him. It’s basically me bringing him back as a recurring character who seems to be my way of expressing my spirituality. Letting me know it’s present, even if it’s not prominent. And with this last prayer, he also cleared it before he passed. It’s literally him talking about love which was perfect when we put it in. It’s what ties God and love together.
It feels like “Cry in Church” leading to “Closure” is the last message to your mom. With your outro trilogy of “Black Sheep, White Dove,” “Julia,” and now this, how far has your healing come?
I don’t know if you’ll ever fully completely heal from something like that, but I think I’m as close as you can possibly be. It’s literally closure; it’s basically me saying, “Look, I may mention my mom here and there, but I’m not having these conversations anymore on my albums with my mom or about my mom.” This is it, this is what it is, this is how I feel, and this is where we are.
You tweeted, “No matter what, this new album will bring me to the next chapter of my career and as long as I’m blessed to be breathing, I can continue to reach new levels.” So after tackling religion, your demons, and family traumas, what’s the next chapter in your career look like?
I don’t know. If we’re talking about music, I couldn’t tell you today. I have another project in a good place, so I could tell you kind of, but not really. As far as this next thing, I think I’m going to break a lot of boundaries, and you’re going to see that in the next couple of weeks. There’s a lot of boundaries about what a rapper or artist should be that are going to be broken very soon. That’s what I want to continue to do.