When the time comes to speak with IDK, it’s a bit unsettling. By this point, I’ve waited outside in my car for about two hours and the space we meet in—a second-floor loft-turned-production studio on Melrose Avenue—has a fridge-sized gap in the wall letting sunlight beams into the main room. Squinting, I shake hands with IDK, greet his manager, and begin stumbling through small talk with the grace of a three-legged deer.
It’s a mess capped off by me fumbling with my recording device, but once the three of us sit down in a dark, cramped room in the corner, the conversation starts to flow.
After all, it isn’t as if the 25-year-old rapper hasn’t experienced struggles himself. From what he tells me, I gather IDK (real name Jason Mills) has spent most of his life straddlin between separate stints in jail and numerous get-by jobs. But also, more critically, between right and wrong.
IDK is from PG County. He grew up in a middle class household with a mother and stepfather who both graduated from college. He also attended Duval High, one of the most dangerous schools in the area at the time. This discord can be precarious—a pendulous swing between moral and immoral.
For Mills, it meant confusion. Tipping the scale too far on the wrong end is, in part, what led to Mills becoming the first in his family to go to prison when he was 17. Mills won’t disclose much about the case or his personal strife to me, but he also doesn’t have to.
IDK’s soundtrack LP IWASVERYBAD, released last October, is full of answers, both for the listener and for a Mills still grappling with earlier missteps and the loss of his mother in March of 2016. Most of what IDK has been through are not things you merely get over. Rather, you confront and grapple with them until they carry less weight. On IWASVERYBAD, the rapper is breezing between genres while unpacking some of the remaining baggage.
IDK stands for “ignorantly delivering knowledge”—a notion to use trap’s sonics as a vehicle to deliver conscious, thoughtful rap. It’s a concept that is executed much more refreshingly than the idea reads on paper thanks to IDK’s sharp songwriting and musical range.
“No Shoes on the Rug, Leave them at the Door” is a requiem that confronts his mother’s death in a vivid, sharpened reality that becomes difficult to look in the face. The epiphanic “Black Sheep, White Dove” finds IDK working through tears as he draws motivation from his late mother’s influence.
When he and I sat down we spoke about the making of the album, the art of concept projects, his upcoming tour with Denzel Curry and ASAP Ferg, and the burgeoning Maryland rap scene. —Myles Andrews-Duve
You don’t drink or smoke.
IDK:I mean I drink, but rarely. Honestly, I think I’m about to completely quit now.
What’s your vice?
IDK:Joey Bada$$ just asked me that same thing, ’cause we were on tour and I wasn’t really messing with girls like that. My vice is probably clothes and shit, that’s probably what it is. I be chilling for the most part.
Talk about the tour. You ready for it?
IDK:I’ve been preparing for this my whole career, so it’s gonna be easy. Well, it’s gonna be harder than normal because Denzel Curry is a crazy performer and Ferg is definitely gonna be crazy so I have to be on my P’s and Q’s man, I can’t slack. I’ve gotta make sure they remember me when I get on so I’mma bring something else to the table.
PG County is seeing a bit of a renaissance right now. Who are some of your favorites?
IDK:I like Q Da Fool, he’s gonna blow soon. When Big Flock gets out of jail I think he’s gonna be good. There’s this kid named Lil Nei who’s doing good. Rico Nasty. There’s a few people. Right now is a good time for PG County honestly, but those are some of the people I can think of off hand at this moment.
How did the city influence your music?
IDK:Hmmmm. Go-go is a part of my creative process and also the way I perform. If you listen to it, the way I project my voice is almost like a go-go band member.
How did you approach making IWASVERYBAD?
IDK:It’s usually different. Everyone is different. With this one I was more so thinking about how much information I have given people that have listened to me and I don’t think I gave them a real understanding of who I was. But I don’t think I understood who I was. So what I did was I wrote down my life pretty much from the beginning to whenever I could think of. I would write every day more and more. Then it just kind of clicked for me. When I started making the music I started writing about some of my past experiences, because I had already been writing about my life. So that’s kind of how the concept came out, I just knew that I wanted to tell my life story.
Did you feel like you had to let a guard down?
IDK:Not really. It might sound crazy, but usually when I make projects or certain songs, I don’t think about people hearing it, I just make it. It wasn’t letting a guard down, it was just me understanding myself.
What did you learn about yourself?
IDK:I was very bad [laughs]. Honestly, I forgot about that part of my life and I didn’t remember it until I started to get back into it. Then I started reconnecting with a lot of my friends that I grew up with, doing all of that stuff with just to kind of confirm that damn, this shit is real. Like I’m not making any of this up, they all could vouch for me.
Especially ’cause you probably see your friends in different places than you are now.
IDK:Way different places. Very. Some of them are still in jail, some are just…definitely different. Nobody has like really turned their life around for real.
You talk a lot on the album about growing up in a middle class household but going to one of the worst schools in PG County. How did that dynamic shape you?
IDK:It’s probably part of the reason I didn’t understand who I was until recently, ’cause I was hiding who I was from my parents. Or I was hiding who I was from my friends. I don’t know which one it was to be honest, because I was two different people. Like, my mom never heard me curse a day in her life before she passed away, but I was definitely cursing and doing a little more than that you know what I mean?
And then my friends, they kind of knew what kind of parents I had but they didn’t know really what I grew up in at the same time. Like they knew I lived in a good neighborhood or whatever but they didn’t know really the magnitude of the type of parents that I had. So it was like me just being two different people.
What did your parents want you to do?
IDK:They wanted me to go to school, go to college and stuff. But I think, even though they never saw me do things, I got in trouble at school all the time but they never believed that it was my fault. Or they thought it was a friend or something like that. They never believed that I was making some of these decisions.
When did your mom pass?
IDK:2016. March of 2016.
Was that before the making of this album or in the process of it?
IDK:Yeah it was before.
“Black Sheep White Dove” touches on her death and probably cuts the deepest for me. Did making it feel like a coping mechanism for you?
IDK:I don’t know. Subconsciously probably. I didn’t do it in that way, I just let out my emotions. That’s all I kind of did and that’s what came out. That wasn’t planned, I didn’t know that was gonna happen, I was just in the shower one day and started thinking about it. I was actually in the shower getting ready to go to the studio to work on a whole ‘nother song and then I was like ‘yo, I wanna record this.’
The process sounds a bit like therapy.
IDK:Yeah I mean writing period is therapy. Letting it out, you know what I mean? Not on purpose but it just happens to do that.
You showcase a lot of range on here. How intentional was that?
IDK:It was. One, I don’t want to be boxed in. Two, I want people to understand that I have a lot of influences in the way that I make music. So I want to show that in my music. I don’t want to be limited to anything.
How did the Chief Keef collaboration come together on “17 with a 38?”
IDK:Through his uncle, actually. When I first started doing music, I just was hustling so much and I was looking through other artists’ bios for their booking information. I didn’t know that there were booking agents back then, I just thought that it was either them or their manager or something. So I just saved a bunch of people’s numbers from that and then I had a phone where I would mass text everybody in my phone when my music would come out, and one day Chief Keef’s management responded back and said ‘this is kinda cool’ and I was like ‘thank you.’
He’s just been messing with my music ever since. I remember I told him to follow me, so he has been seeing my progress since back then. And then the time came where I thought Chief Keef would have been the perfect person for that song, so I reached out to him and he thought it would work. He reached out to Keef, it took him some time but he got it done.
What draws you to the concept album?
IDK:I don’t know, it’s just what I grew up on. Like Eminem, Kanye West. They weren’t all necessarily stories, but they were albums that had concepts and moods and feelings, and that’s kind of what I always listened to. It just kind of rubbed off on me.
IDK:It came about from me wanting to create a movement for just me and my homies. Not so much the fans at first. Then it got to the point when the fans saw me repping it and put on for it. It stands for “Hated By Others Loved By You.” Tribe backwards stands for “Everlasting Bond in Rough Times.” And then “i” is lowercase because “I” is a small figure in what makes up a tribe. You need more than one person, it’s a group of people.
How does that feel to see people not just connecting with your music but also your message?
IDK:It feels good. It motivates me to keep doing more, you know what I mean? That’s really what it boils down to is just motivation.