We close out our season with Brooklyn’s finest! Rapper J.I. recalls his middle school days rapping in the cafeteria to now performing sold-out shows in his hometown.

We close out our season with Brooklyn’s finest! Rapper J.I. recalls his middle school days rapping in the cafeteria to now performing sold-out shows in his hometown.

Photography: Nick Freeman

Text: Kala Herh

J.I. is creating his own route to stardom. Having been a staple on the New York rap scene since he was 15, the New York native is back in his hometown–and it’s never felt better. Back in 2016, the rapper started making a name for himself in the second season of The Rap Game, a television series that featured aspiring hip-hop/rap artists battling it out head to head. Jermaine Dupri, who was the host at the time, first spotted the rapper on Instagram and was immediately attracted to his ability to freestyle. And since then, the young Brooklyn-born and raised rapper has been on the rise. In the intervening years, he’s built up a loyal fanbase, garnered over two million monthly listeners on Spotify, and even achieved a Certified RIAA Platinum status for his single, “Need Me.” 

“I'm in the big leagues now,” he laughs, recalling his May 2021 Platinum crowning. “I didn’t think it was going to happen so I didn’t even get my hopes up. Most artists don't get the chance to see platinum or even gold so I never thought it could happen. But when my team told me, I was at a loss for words.”

Being at a loss for words is a rare experience for the rapper, who’s always had an affinity for the spoken word. He tells us that even before he got into rap, he always loved English and translating his experiences and emotions into short stories and poems. This love slowly blossomed into free-styling. He first honed his craft in the middle school cafeteria, no less, where he and his friends would engage in impromptu rap battles that often ended up with the whole student body cheering on his name. Only 12 at the time, he knew that rap was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. And while he was set on forging a path for himself, he moved forward with his career, cognizant that he was standing on the shoulders of the many great Brooklyn rappers that came before him. 

“New York is the Mecca of hip hop,” he shares. “And because I’m from Brooklyn, it put even more responsibility on me because we have so many dope artists coming from this specific borough. You have Jay-Z, Fabulous, and Biggie.”

And if you were able to catch his latest performance at Irving Plaza, where V caught him in the latest episode, you know the rapper has definitely left an impressionable mark on the empire state and its people. Over the crowd of screaming fans, he delivered a high energy performance of fan favorites like “Blame on Me” and “Hood Scars 2” along with his latest single “Toxic.” And if the audience’s reaction is any indication of his trajectory, we can’t wait to see where he goes from here.    

Check out the final episode of V Magazine’s second season of  “My New York” created in collaboration with Milk Makeup

Thanks for watching Season 2 of My New York! Catch up on all episodes this season from Gossip Girl's Zion Moreno to model on the rise Amelia Gray, all here on! Stay tuned for Season 3. 

Read the exclusive interview with J.I. below! 

V MAGAZINE: First, we have to talk about your necklace, a bedazzled version of the Statue of Liberty. It’s so cool. Can you explain that piece and how you made it and why you wanted to get it?

J.I: It's done by Avianne for anybody wondering where I got it from. Majority of my pieces are from that jeweler. I was debating about the model of it, but the idea was still iconic. The jeweler had presented it to me and he was like, 'Yo, J, I'm going to do a Statue of Liberty. It’s going to have a gun and a microphone.' I can't say why he did that. If you know me, you know why he did that. It came out beautiful. It has two half skulls, one black, one red. If you pay attention to the detail, it's two-tone gold. So it has yellow diamonds and white diamonds, and even a red diamond right here. It's pretty dope. It came out pretty fire.

V: That’s insane. So how does New York and Brooklyn influence your artistry and who you are today?

J.I: New York one hundred percent influenced my artistry because New York is the Mecca of Hip Hop. There are other states that capitalize on Hip Hop–you have Atlanta and California—but if we talk about where Hip Hop came from, you have to mention New York. And because I’m from Brooklyn, I put even more responsibility on myself because we have so many dope artists coming from this specific borough. You have Jay-Z, Fabolous, and Biggie. There are so many people I haven't even mentioned. And for me, it was like, 'I have to stand out.' I had to stand out when I came out, I had to come correct. And whatever your style is, is your style. J.I.'s style is completely different, J.I. stays true to his sound and he's still developing at the same time.

V: How did you first get into rap?

J.I: It was always around me, but I really put myself in it. My mother had this Yamaha keyboard and I started making beats on it. There's this picture of me, I was probably a couple of months old. It's crazy. But I want to say 12 years later, I really started playing on it with my friend. We would make records and I would make beats. I felt like DJ Khalid. 

My production of music now is different, but that was really my introduction to it. And then for rap specifically, I would rap battle other kids who claimed that they rapped at the time. So I was just like, 'Alright, this is how I'm going to stamp myself.' After a few years, I got on the television show and it put everything into a different perspective as far as who J.I. was and what I was doing.

V: Can you describe those early rap battles? What was the energy like?

J.I: My first one was in middle school, probably 7th or 8th grade. I had done a couple of rap battles in my neighborhood, but my school was different. At first, my friends and I would just rap battle to ourselves, and then all of a sudden, the whole lunchroom paid attention. When it got to me, everybody was screaming. I was like, 'Okay, we did it today.' So that was the beginning of it. Then I had the platform of The Rap Game, the television show, to rap battle there too. That exploded my presence on the scene because now I got clips that have over 10 million views. I guess people just like to see a young kid that's hungry, they love to follow the story. For a long time I hated it, but I learned to accept it because it's a part of who I am. 

V: Yeah, it’s an insane trajectory. It’s so crazy you went from rapping in the lunchroom to national TV. How did your middle school form you and what do you love the most about that place? 

J.I: I feel like middle school is a part of who you are, it has a large part in shaping you. Middle school was also my last time to really enjoy being a kid. After high school, everything just changed for me. I stopped going to high school, my sophomore and junior year, I started getting homeschooled. 

V: Where did you spend most of your time during middle school?

J.I: At this park by the school that had a basketball court. I lived in a different neighborhood, about 20 blocks away from the school so I would run like four miles. In the wintertime, everyone still had their coats on and I'm sweating because my body's overheating from the run. They would look at me like I'm crazy, like 'Why does this kid have his shirt off in the middle of December?' But that was really one of the places I would go to escape my reality as a child and just bond with the other children.

V: How would you describe yourself as a middle school student?

J.I: I was in Delta for all three of the years, so I was really smart. Delta is the top of the class. So in that school, there are three houses. Each house had a class that was top of the top with all the smartest kids. I guess I was in that class for three years. They felt like my grades showed that, but that's crazy looking back on it now,

V: Did you have a favorite subject?

J.I: Writing and English, for sure. I had the opportunity to free-write. I started as an author before I became a rapper and artist. I would write short stories, comic books, all types of stuff. It transpired from that to poetry and then music.

V: I also want to talk about your music. How does your songwriting process work? Do you usually go in with some lyrics or do you like to listen to a beat and then freestyle?

J.I: Now, I freestyle everything. Two, three years ago, I wouldn't tell you that. I would tell you that I had something written, but now I just freestyle everything. My biggest records are freestyled. It feels more authentic and real because it's coming from the mind. I'm just saying how I feel on the spot. 

V: And speaking of other places that you love in NYC, why do you like the Lower East Side Piers? 

J.I: You get to see the whole city. I would go there and I would see the city. It changes my perspective on the city because you can see everything. I also love the bright lights. You get to just see everything for what it is, you know?

V: Yeah, for sure. You get a whole picture of the city. Can you tell us a little bit about your new song, “Toxic”? What did you want to talk about in this song? 

J.I: Well, I get compared to being a toxic artist. My fanbase says that I'm a toxic artist sometimes. So I feel like with “Toxic,” that was my opportunity to take advantage and fully run with that label. So in the record, there's a part of the verse where I spell out toxic and then I say that's me. That whole record, I'm just basically owning up to being toxic. That was another record I freestyled. It was dope to freestyle that record because I really could control everything. 

V: Another one of your more recent songs, “Need Me,”  went certified platinum. What was your reaction when you learned about that?

J.I: It was amazing. I'm in the big leagues now. I didn’t think it was going to happen so I didn’t even get my hopes up. Most artists don't get the chance to see platinum or even gold so I never thought it could happen. But when my team told me, I was at a loss for words because I remember not liking that record. I remember wanting to go back to the studio and change it, but I didn't have time to change it because the summer was ending. And my first line with that record is, 'I swear this going to f*ck the summer up.' And I was dropping the song on August 27th, which is the end of summer. So I wanted to change that, but people still resonated. 

V: With all of your music, what do you hope people take away? 

J.I: I just hope people take from it what they take from it. There’s no specific message because I feel like different records have different messages. So I just hope that people have the chance to listen to it. I get DMs from people from everywhere so I try to make sure that whatever I release is more elevated than the prior release. I don’t want fans to think they got cheated out of something good. I have to apply myself 100% to what I’m working on. 

V: Yeah I feel that always leveling up in some way. You recently had a show at Irving Plaza, can you describe the energy of the New York crowd?

J.I: New York is a very, very tough crowd. If they love you, they're going to tell you. If they hate you, they're going to tell you. It was another awakening for me because I haven't performed since my last tour. So I didn't really know what the response was going to be. Well, I knew what the response was going to be, but I’m trying to be humble about it [laughs]. But it was bigger than what I expected. It was just amazing. It really reminded me why I'm here and what I'm doing.

V: What does being a New Yorker mean to you?

J.I: For me, being a New Yorker is everything. I embrace my people. I embrace where I'm from. I embrace the culture that's in New York. And if you listen to my music, you can hear that because it’s not just one genre. You hear reggaeton, you hear Caribbean, you can hear all types of Dancehall, then you hear trap. I have my city in the back of my head. Even when I make certain decisions, I try to dig back to the roots and not forget where I'm from. You can get lost and forget that sometimes. 

V: What do you love most about New York City?

J.I: I just love that it never sleeps, no matter what time of day you go outside, there's going be people outside. That's really what I love. I love the activeness of New York, and how alive it is. It's very empowering. COVID really tried to take a toll on the city and it took a toll, but now everything is starting to change up and open back up.


Series creators: Sam Tracy & Czar Van Gaal

Director: Nick Freeman

Executive producer: Kala Herh

Producer: Aubrey Wipfli

Editor: Nick Freeman

Art director: Sonya Olomskaya

Series beauty director: Mitch Yoshida

Production assistant: Carlos Chinn

Special thanks:

Milk Makeup

Universal Music Group

G-Starr Entertainment


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