“I want mainstream success, but I don’t want to compromise.”
IDK has plans to be a superstar, but he isn't taking any shortcuts in his journey from the DMV to hanging out with Kanye West for the day. He served up his major label debut under Warner Records with the conceptual Is He Real? in September, which found him grappling with religion and his place within it.
Nearly two months after its release, the slept-on effort has continued to pick up steam without much terrestrial radio play thanks to co-signs from NBA superstar and fellow PG County native Kevin Durant, as well as listeners passing the word on after digesting the multi-layered project.
"I didn't make it for you to listen to it once and have you understand," he tells Billboard. "I think there's beauty and longevity in having you listen to it, and then listening to it again and catching something you didn't know before. I wanted it to be sonically appealing, and not so much conceptually. As long as the sonics feel good, you'll listen to it enough and catch what I'm talking about."
The 27-year-old is cool, calm and collected in his visit to the New York Billboard office on an overcast October afternoon. He's perfectly content with playing the long game to reach rap's pantheon, much like the artist behind the design of the new Travis Scott Jordan 6's he's wearing, as he lays out grand plans to one day build an influential brand in the mold of Tyler, The Creator or Lil Yachty. "I always say I'm not really a rapper," the "24" artist states. "I'm more of a producer and a bigger-picture person."
Check out the rest of our interview with IDK, as he explains why Kevin Durant would be doing music if he wasn't in the NBA, spontaneously receiving a phone call with Kanye West, having to take Frank Ocean off his album, why it was the right time to open up about his mother's death on album closer "Julia," and more.
Billboard: Do you feel like Is He Real? is picking up more steam more than a month after its release?
IDK: Yeah, it's like a word-of-mouth thing. More and more people are starting to see it. One thing I see is a lot of people don't expect this from a new artist, which is getting me a lot of love. A lot of the things I'm doing like the [BET Hip-Hop Awards] cypher are bringing people back to the project.
Did you think it was going to be tough to have everyone understand what you were trying to do?
Definitely. Some people are having trouble listening, but that's fine.
Does this project fit in well with the streaming era of music we live in currently?
Yeah, I tried to put it together so it could be that way. If you noticed, a lot of the singles are short. "24" is one minute and 54 seconds. Also, if you loop it, it repeats and never stops saying, "Run it back." You have to trust me and know that everything means something and is well-thought-out.
Are you striving for mainstream success?
My ear is to the streets as far as knowing what's popping for the most part. I want mainstream success, but I don't want to compromise. I love what Tyler, The Creator is doing. Travis Scott is another one. That's what happens when you have a brand. I'm focusing a lot on my brand to build my merch. I pull from some of my favorites like Tyler, Travis and Kanye. I love their brands and they're some of the strongest we have in hip-hop. Yachty and The Sailing Team had one of the strongest when he came out.
That's what I'm trying to model after. Music is important, but music is more influence than anything. The brand is kind of what holds everything else. The power comes from the brand. For me, what's important is making sure I focus on who I am and how to project that in my everyday life and what my fans see. Then the people who feel like they can connect with me are going to be real fans. It's not about just the music — it's a lifestyle.
It was pretty cool to see Kevin Durant shout you out as an artist that should blow up on Hot 97.
I thought it was amazing. It takes a lot of fearlessness to say something that's not popular. KD understands music more than people think. He knows a lot about music. I was talking him the other day and he knew about arpeggio and all that. I actually just got a beat from him that's kind of tight. He makes beats. If he wasn't playing basketball, he'd probably be doing music.
The end of the album threw me off when you said, "How do we know God isn't real?," rather than questioning if He is.
Exactly, a lot of people don't get what I was doing with this album. The problem for journalists with music today is if it isn't based on an a model that's already been done, or from an extremely successful artist like a Kanye, they almost think it's wrong. I've seen people say, "There isn't a complete answer at the end, so it doesn't make sense. He never answered the question." Why do I have to answer the question? I made the album because of the confusion I have in my mind.
It's also an album for you to listen to and think about what's on your mind. I made it so you can relate to it and have your own outcome. Traditionally, conceptual albums are your point of view and that's it, but my point of view is confusing. One minute I believe in God, and the next I'm not sure. I left this off with how do we know there isn't a God? I believe in God. It's more how do you know there isn't. I think that we have so much to learn when it comes to religion, there's 4,200 different ones in the world.
In order to choose one properly, you'd have to study all of them and pick the one that makes sense. We can't do that, but we can think about the idea of color and think about how much we don't know about it. If we don't know about something as simple as color, then maybe we can't say there isn't a God.
I think people don't realize how involved you are when it comes to the production, visuals and total package of your music.
I used to sell cars and candy. I once traded a pair of Jordan 17s for a 2002 Chevy Impala that was overheated, which I fixed in my garage. I've always been that kind of person. Having such a diverse background, now it's way more than just writing raps. I'll write, arrange the music, change frequencies, get someone to play an instrument. I didn't study music as a kid. I knew music without every studying it. It's just something natural, but I take piano lessons now. Writing music is the idea. I'll tell them exactly I want something to be played. I do all of that when I make music.
I think you have an advantage as a producer because you have a holistic view of what a song should sound like. Every good rapper has a good producer, and I'm not just saying a beatmaker. I'm talking about someone who can take a record to the next level. Without that, there's no longevity. The best all have that person around them.
The "U SEE FOUR YOURSELF" acronym going down the first letter of every song on the track list tripped me out.
There's a million more of those. I wasn't going to say that one at first, but nobody caught it. I wanted to let the fans know there's more to dig in to. It took weeks and the label was hounding me for the names of the songs. It's just not that simple, but I got things like that from Zelda games, which Nintendo was good at.
How tough was it to put a track like "Julia" into words where you touch on losing your mother in 2016? What made this the right time?
It was hard, man. I heard the beat and I had tears in my eyes. I just knew it was time to talk about that when I heard it. I did that shit in one take. I always knew I'd talk about it one day, but I waited a couple years. That beat spoke to me. I'm good with hearing a beat and knowing what the intro and the outro are first. My album was really in motion once I had the intro and outro. It can just be the beat.
When are we getting the Frank Ocean vocals on there that you took off "Julia" at the last minute?
Everyone's saying it's a feature, but it's actually a sample. The way it was done almost made it sound like a feature. His manager reached out trying to get it cleared, but the timing [didn't work out].
I had to take Frank Ocean off of The album because I didn’t get the clearance in time. Frank ocean is my favorite artist of this generation and I would have pushed the album back again but I couldn’t do that to my fans. I do appreciate his team for reaching out to get it cleared
— ? (@IDK) September 4, 2019
I respected that you didn't push the album back.
I had no idea when I would hear back. I actually heard back the day of, but it was too late by then. I haven't talked to Frank and I feel like we'll have the conversation soon.
Is it coming out?
How was playing the album for Kanye West?
With Ye, I hung out with him to play the album, but we ended up just chilling. I was with 88Keys and he got a call from an unknown number. He goes, "Yo, Ye wants to speak to you." I just remember my heart dropping. I wasn't ready for that. I kept it together and he said, "Tell me more about this Is This Real? I've been hearing about." It was a Sunday, so it was a family day. I went to [Kanye's] crib, it was an amazing house and he was just sitting there outside by the garden. I was about to start playing basketball.
The Kanye fans began connecting the dots to find out you have a record done with him and 88Keys.
I can't really speak too much on it. There's a record, let's just say that. I can listen to it anytime I want.
You also took some heat for your top 30 hip-hop albums of all time list.
I didn't take a lot of shit. People were mad, but that's normal. I think a lot of people said it was a solid list. I thought about it and took my time. Kevin Durant actually helped me with it, too. We all sat down and shit. There were a lot of albums like Slick Rick's The Adventures of Slick Rick, but it didn't age well to me. Those albums [I picked] are albums people still talk about to this day. The albums before that were more of the foundation. Without those, there wouldn't be some of the albums I said. But as far as what had an impact and my opinion, that's the top 30.
People were like, "Why isn't To Pimp A Butterfly on there?" In terms of impact, I felt like Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was the one that really resonated with me. Artistically, To Pimp A Butterfly is better, but that initial impact was like a Get Rich or Die Tryin'. It's my taste, so at the end of the day, fuck you.
Can you explain your album cover?
The goat and the sheep represent heaven and hell. When you think about the sheep in the bible, it's always close to Jesus. When you hear about the goat, it's always about Satan. It's the balance of good and evil, while I'm trying to get away from the goat, it keeps getting my attention.
How was going on Mike Tyson's podcast?
That's my n—a right there. He's a very wise guy. I don't know if people know how smart he really is. I did it because I like to do out of pocket things. If I was Frank Ocean and I'm coming back with a new album, my first interview would be with Mike Tyson just to fuck everybody up. That shit would be crazy.
You told The FADER this album was going to lay the foundation to a classic project. What can we expect next?
To just keep making music. You'll see for yourself. I'm looking at some artists right now as far as Clue goes. I'm on tour and people are coming out.
Do you stand by your album as album of the year?
For now, yes. I haven't heard anything that [topped it]. This is the one.