Recent years have seen J.I The Prince Of New York arguably become one of Brooklyn’s most popular artists. At only 20 years old, he not only boasts platinum certified records but also a cult like fan base, sold out shows and much more. Born Justin Rivera, the Puerto Rican rapper’s melodic flair has provided him with a first class ticket to the top.
Despite having a seemingly quick claim to fame, J.I’s story dates back further than many know. Appearing on second season of The Rap Game hosted my Jermaine Dupri back in 2016. Although he did not win the season, delayed gratification was worth it in his case, with J.I now one of the shows most successful contestants.
Another project on the way, it’s exciting times for the musician. We caught up with him when recently he visited London to chat about it all.
Talk to us about you, who is J.I?
“Justin is J.I, J.I stands for Justin Irving. Theres two sides to Justin, he’s very heartwarming but is also very defensive & protective of what he loves. I came up with the name J.I as its true to me, its my initials, that’s my dads name”.
You’re from Brooklyn, New York. A lot of artists over the years have come out of Brooklyn. Jay Z, Biggie, Fabolous – with that being said, do you feel likes there’s a sense of pressure?
“Not at all, there’s no pressure because of the class I got. Even if I did come out in the 90s, I feel like I’d be nasty and I’d be spitting. What I love so much is that the OGs respect me, Fat Joe has been tapping in, showing me love. He sees that I’m heavy on the Hispanic heritage and representing my people. Theres artists that are Puerto Rican but they don’t capitalise off that. So to get big ups from people like that, it’s amazing. In a way I feel like the pressure is on because of my city, its hard city to make it out of. You know the saying, if you make it out of New York, you can make it out of anywhere”.
Would you say a lot of your influences come from New York?
“Tupac, Big Pun, Eminem, those were main 3 influences when I started picking up the pen. Those were the main 3”.
So they influenced you to pick up your pen and start writing, do you feel like you still incorporate elements of their styles in your music now?
“Of course, with Tupac I try to incorporate awareness, awareness towards drug abuse, awareness about street life, Tupac did that. Now when it comes to saying wild stuff, I got that from Eminem. I got a mixture of each but there’s only one J.I, just like theres only one Big Pun”.
New York and London harbouring glaring similarities; we share slang, culture and are both incredible melting pots of creativity. Touching on the similarities, J.I went on to express his shock on just how alike the city of dreams and London Town are. “Yesterday I went to a Jamaican restaurant, had fried chicken rice, curry, oh my God. I didn’t know you got everyone here!” he exclaims.
The multi-cultural aspect of London shines through in the music that is put out, would you say its the same in Brooklyn?
“Yeah, I’d say the New Yorkers and the Americans need to embrace that. It’s one thing to be known in America but to be known globally, you’ve made it. I don’t feel like I’ve made it yet, even though technically to the regular person yeah J.I made it. But no J.I did not make it, there’s a bigger picture, bigger vision. I want more, I want to be bigger, I want to go to China and not be able to get out the airport because theres people chasing me”.
Delving into his start in music, we pivot to The Rap Game. Hosted by Jermaine Dupri, Latto also notably appeared on the show in its first season. Her & J.I the most commercially successful following it. With 5 explosive seasons, the talent search gave way for a UK edition – both versions a pressure cooker type environment that sees rappers really have to apply themselves. J.I on The Rap Game ..
“They would give us a challenge on Monday and we had til either Tuesday or Wednesday to write something, memorise it and get ready to perform it, it was wild! A lot of people don’t get to see that but losing made me angry because I felt like I lot of people saw that, it was in front or the world, my people. After that it took me 3/4 years to be like boom I got it. Shout out Latto too as she was on the first season”.
You guys both came through the Rap Game, had a period where you were quieter and then came back and were like I’m ready to go. Do you feel like the show was still something you needed to do?
“Yeah, it’s something I needed to do. That’s why people called me the Prince of NY, now they call me J.I the Don too, two different names”.
As we now fast forward to his breakthrough year, J.I was almost instantly compared to Bronx superstar A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie due to their shared melodic style. Similarly as he progressed, Lil Tjay entered the conversation as another New York rapper which a distinct rap-sung approach. Recent times seeing him separately collaborate with both rappers.
“If it was up to me, I’d do a project with A Boogie and Lil TJay and then we’d go on tour after that, that’s outta here. The main 3 melodic artists in the city, not to knock anyone as there are so many dope ass artists coming out but ya’ll know who got it”.
When Lil Tjay came out, he got comparisons to A Boogie, you did too.
“Yeah I did too but I had to break out of it, that’s why I starting making use of my Hispanic roots, getting back to culture. I dropped like 2 projects in two months, they couldn’t tell me nothing after that. Not to be cocky but in the most humble way possible but after we had bidding wars, I remember A Boogie brought me out to perform for him and I literally had A&R’s from different labels telling me why I should go to them and it was like wow[…]me and Boogie have had our own separate conversations just off of him bigging me up in a crazy way, he showed me mad love, said I’m what the city was missing.
“He doesn’t realise how big he is in NY, New Yorkers love him, especially in the Bronx, he’s like Toronto’s Drake. He got it. Just like how I got it now and just to hear that come from somebody, its crazy, I worked hard for this”.
2019 was undeniably J.I’s breakthrough year. It saw the release of his Platinum certified record “Need Me”. It has amassed over 151Million+ streams on Spotify alone. Sampling Mya & Jay Z’s “Best Of Me”, although done very tastefully it’s an earlier example of the sample culture that is rife in music right now.
You sampled Jay Z and Mya on “Need Me”, in a very creative way that’s more reminiscent of what people did in the past. In today’s society theres a lot of sampling going on, it’s a bit more straight forward now. What do you think about that?
“You cant be mad at it, in the early 2000s late 90s, you had to be 1 of 1 to get a record deal, 1 of 1 to make it out. Yeah people were making it out, but now there’s Youtube, people can find their own beats. In NY, before 2019, before me, before Pop Smoke, before all these artists start coming out, before Cardi B, they were downplaying NY. They said Atlanta got it, Cali got it and before you knew it, all these drill artists came out, we stamped the city back. This is the tristate of hip hop”
2019 also seeing the release of first and second volumes of Rivera’s Hood Life Krisis mixtape series. Hood Life Krisis Vol 1 featuring “Need Me”, “Blame On Me”. Vol 2 headed up by T.O.K sampled track “When You Cry”.
Another notable sample you’ve used is from “When You Cry”. An interesting use of a classic Jamaican anthem. Is that something you grew up listening to?
“Yes! A lot of people when I first came out were like what’s JI’s ethnicity and although I’m heavy on being Hispanic, my mother called me like a week ago and told me I’m part Nigerian too and I’m also Caribbean. But it was a household record, would hear my mother play it whilst cleaning, at my families crib, I love it, we grew up on this”.
2020 saw the New Yorker complete the Hood Life Krisis trifecta with Vol 3 landing. Looking towards A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie for the sole feature on “R&B Shit”. The birth of the Welcome To GStar EP coming later that year and calling on guest verses from the likes of Lil Durk and Myke Towers.
In terms of EPs, you’ve had a few. It’s something that we can appreciate that artists do, you’re not scared to release projects. In terms of releasing how do you go about it, do you just drop or is it more calculated?
“I try to cater to my fanbase, I try to cater to the rest of the world as well because when I make music it needs to come from me, its need to be authentic and real but also needs to be put out in a way that people can understand and relate to it. When I’m in project mode, I’m just focused, I’m always pushing myself to go hard, I feel like the more consistent you are, that’s what the game is. Consistency is key. Only Adele can take years to drop and still be as hot, you need to be consistent because theres so may people coming out”.
Speaking highly on his Hispanic heritage, it’s clear its something J.I is adamant about pushing through his music. A bi-lingual talent, tracks like “Sufficente” and “Splanglish (ft. Myke Towers)” a nod to his Puerto Rican roots.
How did the single with Myke Towers come about?
“Myke Towers was my manager’s artist at the time so that was an easy connection, he was already in tune. He sent me the record and I said oh its outta here. I remember I went to Puerto Rico when I dropped it, I went to the beach and I heard them playing it and it was like wow, that’s crazy. On HLK theres another Spanish song “Sufficiente”, that’s my favourite. That’s my song! But you have to do that, it’s for the people, my people. I want them to know I embrace you, I’m not ashamed. That’s why I make reggae music too”.
Do you have other Latin songs tucked away or any other Puerto Rican artists you’re working with?
“We got more plans on the way. Theres a few Caribbean artists I’m working with, I’ll give you a hint, she’s huge right now, got a record with Megan Thee Stallion. I linked up with her through her producer Rvssian, me and him have been going back and forth, he goes crazy so we gon work that out”.
Lets talk about some UK collabs, you had the single with Deno & Chunkz. How did that come about?
“Through management, I knew about Deno for a while now. Around the time I was blowing up, he was going crazy with the singing. I remember he did a video with some kid that did like a cartwheel or something. It just had to happen, I did it for the love. Now I got a record with Tion Wayne on the way, shout out my brother Nemzzz. I got a record with him and somebody else. Got two more new records coming out for you guys[…]I pulled up on Central Cee too, two days ago he had a show. His management hit me up to come down. I’m proud of him, he hit me up before he blew, I kept in touch with him”.
Talk to me about the music this year, you dropped “I Aint Gon Lie” it felt like more of a street single from you?
“That was for the city. I’ve done drill records before that, but I wanted to put that out first. I had to co-direct that video, I don’t dance but I had to because people love it, they feed into it. Yesterday I’m at the club, they see me shooting for this record I got and NY dancing and everyone’s screaming, they love it, they know it.
“I Aint Got Lie” is a great record, it’s more for the gutter, the people that are going through what I’m going through, battling demons, growing up in poverty. It’s a New York term and I think it just worked perfectly, I wasn’t expecting it to go as crazy as it did. But I’m thankful, that’s all the fans”.
Can we expect more music in that space from you this year?
“The UK records we did are drill, they’re coming!”.
As we discuss drill, we talk about Central’s Cee’s track ‘Eurovision’. J.I immediately knowing the song and able to list the nationalities of all the features. Expressing its a concept he loves and would be open to doing.
“I feel like people don’t do that no more, like back then you’d see like 10 people on a record, New York days you’d see N.O.R.E, Dipset, Jay Z, DMX, The Lox on one song, now people don’t do that”.
You had 3 sold out shows at SOBs in New York, legendary venue. How was that?
“I made history there, the main owner came to me and said you know you made history here, you sold out SOB’s 3 days in a row, no artist has ever done that, we’ve had Kayne come here, he started naming artists and I’m like what!?
“I got emotional because I worked hard for this, my story is crazy, when the documentary comes out, you guys will understand why I go so hard, why I take my craft so serious, I’ve had a long journey. Even to be here, its overwhelming, most people from my city don’t leave the city, we’ve got people here that don’t leave their block, they don’t know that the world looks like outside of London, they don’t know what Paris looks like and Paris is only an hour away. I get to go on tour and I see these cities and I don’t take it for granted”.
Talk to us about “Toxic“
“I like that record a lot. It came from a dark place because people call me a toxic rapper so if you pay attention, the record is about me being toxic. I’m saying I’m toxic, let me bite into this. But it’s genuine, everything is pure, it came from a hurtful place in my life I was deeply in love with somebody. Even when I made “Letter 2 U”, that’s one of my fans favourite records, I went crazy. I got records on this project and you’re gonna know what happened, if you pay attention you’re gonna hear the story, I story tell through my music”.
You make a lot of heartfelt music, often reflective but you also pair it with some cheekiness, the ladies love it, do you consciously make songs for the ladies?
“Of course! RnB Shit, when I did that I knew. I didn’t even have A Boogie on that record at first and I’m just like wow this is for you guys[…]the ladies will buy tickets before men will buy tickets, I don’t care what people say. Like yeah I’m a ladies man, LL Cool J was a ladies man and he’s a legend so you can’t tell me nothing”.
Wrapping things up we discussed who J.I had been listening to, him including both industry mates and faves as well as several Jamaican artists.
“Lil Durk, I got a collab with him, he showed me mad love, my brother Dougie B from New York, there are so many people going crazy in my city, I love it. I could go on for days. Drake, Serani, Gyptian, free Vybz Kartel, we were meant to do a record that’s the crazy thing”.
Hitting him with the famous question as we close out, we ask J.I when we can expect an official album from him.
“My fans be killing me with this, whens the album coming out!? Do you know whats crazy, I’ve accomplished so much without dropping an album, I went number 1 on Billboard, I’ve got plaques, platinum plaques, that was my main goal.
“I wanted to do all this before I dropped an album, so once I drop it, ya’ll already know. With the next album it’s going to be very different. My next project, I got a tattoo of it, The Baby Don, it’ll be considered as an album technically. But when I really want to drop the debut album, I want to take my time, this is JI, I want this to be a classic album”.
Check out J.I’s brand new single “Toxic” above, out everywhere now!