In today’s age, hip-hop has evolved for better and for worse. In an oversaturated industry filled with clout and ignorance, real talent is so much more appreciated. Insert J.I., here to make sure the real ones are both seen and heard. Sporting the heavy nickname of the Prince of NY, the Brooklyn, New York native lives up to the title by going against the grain and defying all odds when it comes to making it out the hood—refusing to fall victim to his environment and becoming another statistic.
Real name Justin Rivera entered the game at age 14, getting his start on Jermaine Dupri’s The Rap Game — but no one could anticipate how quickly his career would flourish. With last year’s breakout single “Need Me” going completely viral, J.I. cemented himself as a force to be reckoned with in the industry. The record itself became the anthem in the city, as the rising star showcased his singing and rapping versatility in serenading the ladies.
To date, he’s the first artist to sell out 3 consecutive nights at the legendary SOB’s. Boasting 1.9 million followers on Instagram alone, J.I. continues to feed his fans with nothing short of the truth, creating music to motivate and inspire. Putting in the work necessary to make it to the top: if he can do it, you can too.
Most recently, J.I. unleashed his newest project titled Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 3. Spearheaded by lead single “Excuse My Pain,” the 7-track EP hails a standout feature from A Boogie wit da Hoodie on “R&B Shit.” Flaunt caught up with J.I. via Zoom to discuss his humble beginnings, selling out 3 nights at SOB’s, releasing Spanish records, the meaning behind the new project, his fashion drip, goals, and more!
Can you bring us back to when you had $800 in your account?
This was last year October, I’m at a venue getting ready to go on stage. At this time this exact date, we had so many A&Rs at that performance trying to interview me to get me to sign. I’m talking to my security guard like “yo we got so much dope things going on. My record’s taking off, I got people trying to sign me.” I show them the ATM statement, because I went to the ATM to take out cash. I can’t even cop any weed or food to eat, I only have $300. He said “don't worry, remember this conversation. It’s crazy fast forward a month and a half later, everything’s changed.
Did you feel pressure with all these A&Rs in the building?
Yeah because don't get me wrong, it’s what I wanted. But when you get what you want, you have other goals that come with it. Alright bet I got this attention, now I have to prove to these people I’m the right artist y’all chose. I'm the right artist for this label. I take my music seriously, this is more than a job. With me, I always have to put my effort into this 110%. I'm here for a reason so I don't like to half-ass anything I do. The pressure’s definitely there because I was new to everything. I wasn't signed through an independent, doing everything on my own. I got used to it pretty quickly.
Talk about your experience on Jermaine Dupri’s The Rap Game.
It was alright, it’s really a bootcamp to prep young artists for the industry. It’s what you do afterwards. You could get as much attraction as you need during the show, but if you don't do anything afterwards that doesn't really matter. I try to really work hard and develop a name for myself out there. That’s the main challenge, it took me 4 years to really get out there and become J.I., this artist that people listen to.
You sold out SOB’s 3 nights in a row. What was that feeling?
It was dope, we ended the tour with 3 sold out shows. My first headlining tour too, I had gone on tour prior with the television show I was on. There’s a point in time where we had the middle coast, that market was quiet. We came back and sold out a show in Chicago, so that was shocking. Oh shit this is the Midwest, we’re going crazy right now. To see how everything took over… SOB’s, they told me I was the first artist to ever do that. We took a picture with the head owner of the venue, it was crazy. I literally made history that night, nobody’s ever done that.
Why do you feel you’re the Prince of New York?
Funny thing is, I get called that all the time. That was my Instagram name, never a rap name. I go by J.I. You know how Drake got Champagnepapi or Lil Wayne got Lil Tunechi or Weezy F. Baby? That's how the name is for me, another nickname.
What other artists influence you?
Drake’s definitely one of the pioneers, but I definitely took a liking to Spanish music too. Recently I went to Puerto Rico. I had dropped “Spanglish” for my childhood, my first Spanish record I got. I'm Puerto Rican, going over there to the motherland was very dope. The experience was amazing because I saw how my people react to certain music. We came out with another reggaeton record which is on my project. I also handed over “Dakiti” remix with Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez, it's going crazy. I've heard it at least 5 times on the radio already, different times. they're going crazy with it, I'm very excited. The #1 record right now.
What do you make of your career skyrocketing the way it did?
It was meant to happen. I have heavy faith in God, I try not to preach my beliefs and put it on other people but if I'm being honest, that's who I believe in. To ask certain things and to get it back specifically the way I wanted, for it to unravel in front of me, it's overwhelming. Wow, there’s somebody listening to me. Obviously it's you putting in that work and things aligning the way it's supposed to but the fact that you’re able to come into this world, you struggle and go through so much, then this blessing opens up and you're being listened to. It's very shocking. It can feel unreal at times but I try to stay level-headed and focused on the main goal which is to continue to make music. Continue to put out great bodies of work for my fans, that's really it.
The other day I got a Youtube plaque and I wasn't even expecting that. I'm so focused. Sometimes I be in my head with things I need to do, I don't even pay attention to the milestones. Oh shit, this record went Platinum. I forget, I'm so focused on the next chapter. In this industry, you can't get comfortable. You can't sit down and take a break. When I did that, a hundred other artists came out and fucking made noise. You have to constantly stay buzzing and stay working if you want to be a superstar. For me, I want to keep on putting out music and getting my name out for the viewers.
Do you ever get sick of performing “Need Me”?
Nah, COVID got everything on lock so I barely perform. I’m in the studio working, cooking up.
“Excuse My Pain” is super personal, what were you going through recording this?
I wanted to give people a different side of me. I wrote this record right after performing at a festival. I wanted to write something different. Through my music, I'm always telling people what somebody else is doing to me, but I never really tell the audience what I do. My train of thought, my thinking process, I never break down how I get down. I always brag about how I'm innocent, I’m getting played. I'm a little fucked up too, I do messed up things as well. With this record, you hear it with the hook “I'm evil, I deserve to die in pain.”
I was going to ask about that line! You say “I’m an evil n*gga I deserve to die in pain.”
You know what karma is: what goes around comes around. You get back what you give. I’m explaining I’m an evil person in a way so deserve to die in an evil way, that's how I broke it down. When I make music and I say certain things, I like to get to the point and I like to shock people.
Why do you say you’re evil?
Different things. I’ve done certain things where I had to catch myself almost like whoa, what the fuck? I don’t stand by that or I wasn’t raised to do that, so why am I doing it? Throughout life we all experience trials and tribulations where we see certain things, we come face to face and stare in the mirror. You realize oh shit, is this who I want to be? Do I need to elevate? Do I need to work on myself? Change the direction of where I'm going, how I’m moving, how I’m carrying myself everyday, the way I speak to others, my appearances to other people, all that plays a role with understanding who you are as a person. First impressions are everything. There’s people where I left good impressions on, people I left bad impressions. There’s always time for me to work on myself, I'm still young too.
You say no one’s really describing the reality of coming up in the hood, how are you able to articulate that in your new project?
That's the thing, with each project it gives me an excuse to be myself. That's why I called it Hood Life Krisis, I got to a certain age where I realized I don't want to stay involved with hood shit. I didn't really want to go down that path because I saw what the outcome was, either jail or death. It's not worth it, you’re always looking over your shoulder. I realized I want to make music. I want to leave my neighborhood and be able to see the other side of the world that other people don't get to see when you stay in one place. The project shows elevation of me being an artist and the way I put together my music.
How did you end up linking with Durk and Nav for “Painless 2?”
Originally we had Nav on the record first, but we ended up putting Durk on it. After putting Durk’s verse, we threw Nav back on it. They’re good genuine people, I like meeting and talking to them. I come across people with different energies so them being as genuine as they were was pretty dope. It was a good experience, I had a good time shooting it.
Best memory from that shoot?
Chopping it up with Durk and seeing how he moves was dope. He played me the Drake record before it dropped so I’m like oh shit, I already knew. It’s about to be over with, the fans don't even know what’s about to happen. He played me the Drake verse and said “I'm on Drake’s album.”
I love Durk so much, I feel bad about what happened with King Von.
I was a big fan of Von too, I had peeped his music. Durk put him on to me. I really wanted to cook up and link with Von, I'm a big fan of what he had going on. It’s fucked up man.
What’d it mean to get Lil Tjay on “Hood Scars 2”?
I try to listen to the fans, based off what they throw at me and artists they tell me to collab with. That was a fan favorite, they mention him a lot. Fuck it, let's do this collab. I have this collab with A Boogie too for the fans, another artists they told me to collab with. I’m excited, about to be crazy.
One thing you wants fans to get from Hood Life Krisis Vol. 3?
I want people to appreciate it, to understand I take time for my music. It shows elevation which is me being who I used to be, the type of music I used to put out, the overall vibe. There’s different vibes on this project, no repetitive vibes. When you listen to it, you'll hear different things.
You say you’re a real energy person, how tight is your circle?
That's the thing, I try to keep it very small. Even now, there’s too much people in my circle. There's people I can still cut off and get them out the way. People show their true colors very late, it's very shocking. Oh shit, you waited this long to reveal who you really are? It throws you off. I don't like being around people because nobody does anything for me. Not to be disrespectful but you’re not putting anything in my pocket, if anything you're taking money out of my pocket. You’re not supporting me emotionally. You're not my girlfriend, you can't phase me. You're not doing to me something I can’t do for myself.
If you’re pulling up somewhere, how many people you mobbing deep with?
It depends where I'm pulling up. With COVID, 5 or 6 people. Really depends on where we’re going, I try to not pull up with too many people in general.
You’re always fly, how would you describe your drip?
My drip is genuine, I try not to do too much. People like to come at me, people act like fashion police and try to tell me what I can and cannot wear. I go to their account, their clothing is weird. If you’re critiquing me, you gotta be on the runaway in London doing your thing. You go to their page and they got on regular outfits, this is embarrassing. I'm into fashion a lot. I can stand up real quick, get the Gucci belt, Amiri jeans, the Dior, Moncler jacket, very nice. I try to not stay focused on drip. Every once in a while, I pop out in a nice outfit to show people I still got it. People can get lost in the sauce.
Talk about your waves blown out, going from Vol. 1 to Vol. 3.
The afro’s a new look. I haven't had waves in 2.5 months. It’s time for a new look, I could always go back to the wave. The fans like the afro too. I got tired of the waves. To be honest, I got tired of brushing my head everyday. I got tired of waking up with a headache so I said “okay, let me let the hair grow out.”
That’s an iced out chain right there, how much is that guy?
Not a lot, it's the label GStarr, there's a logo back there, you can't see it but we have the Gstarr logo in the studio. You can see it in every one of my videos. Any time you see a video, you see the logo in the beginning of it. I wanted to get it iced out.
Anything else you want to let us know?
I’m always looking for ways where I can expand myself and my sound, so people around the globe can hear me. A couple years ago, I got recognized in Bermuda. That changed my whole view on the type of music I was making. If people can recognize me on this side of the world, people can recognize me anywhere. It goes with the music I make. I’m pushing for a better, bigger sound. Everything I do can always be elevated. I want to make sure everybody knows who J.I. is, we’ll get there one day.