The Questions Are The Answers For IDK

The Questions Are The Answers For IDK

The truth behind 'Is He Real?'

Nowadays, effortlessness is often seen as a virtue in hip-hop; the less you try the better. At its best, it comes across as a show of virtuosic talent. At its worst, it’s an attempt to short-circuit criticism through indifference. But Maryland rapper IDK, who recently released his debut album 'Is He Real?', is cut from a different cloth and unafraid to let the seams show.

“That’s one thing I don’t really like about what people are doing right now with music. People don’t understand how powerful music is,” he says. “You have the ability to control somebody’s emotions with music. You have the ability to take somebody out of a world that they don’t want to be in for however long.”

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IDK takes his craft extremely seriously, both from a technical standpoint and a philosophical one, and there are many questions that animate the record, beginning with the one in its title. The rapper is quick to explain that he knows he can’t answer the question of whether there is a God, but he also feels strongly that such a thing cannot be disproven, and that makes it a topic worth exploring.

“I’m at the point in my career where it’s not just about making the music better, but figuring out how I can push the envelope of what music is supposed to be. I think we often lock that part of our minds out because we don’t realise our true potential as artists. When something hasn’t been done before, it’s like thinking of a colour that doesn’t exist. It’s very hard to do.”

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The connection between colour and perspective appears on the album’s closing track 'Julia…', a stirring ode to the rapper’s late mother. On the outro, IDK explains that we can’t know that red appears the same to all people, and because we don’t have clarity on such a basic concept there can be no definitive answer about the existence of God.

“I make my music and I play it and I have my philosophies and I test them out in real life. I’ve asked that question [about colour] to many people. That was the one question—the one philosophy—that nobody could answer,” he says. “I have another one—a new one—for my next album. I’m not going to talk about it yet. It’s even deeper than this one, and everyone is going to be like, Shit.

If the connection between colour and proving the existence of God seems a bit tenuous, the former does connect to another key idea about religion that permeates Is He Real? which is the way our perceptions of faith can differ and erode our desire to believe. He doesn’t come to a definitive conclusion on the merits of organised religion, but has issues with the moral relativism of sins (as explored on 'Porno') and the reliance on blind devotion without explanation. To illustrate, he tells a story about a time in his own churchgoing past that left a younger IDK extremely disillusioned.

“I remember I was seven or eight years old and I went to church one day. We were in church for an hour praying, then it became two hours, then three, then I started getting hungry. It became four hours, and I said, ‘Mom, I’m hungry,’” recalls IDK, who was raised in Maryland. “Then it became five, six, seven—we went 24 hours fasting and I didn’t fucking know what was going on. You know what that’s going to do to you? It’s going to make you hate religion.”

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Though deeply personal stories like that abound on 'Is He Real?' the record is not a solitary statement by IDK. It walks a tricky line as a concept album that features a cavalcade of stars, including Pusha T, JID, and Burna Boy, as well as interludes with DMX and Tyler, the Creator, who shares his own thoughts about a divine being (“Hell yeah, it’s a higher power...I think God is in everybody”) on “I Do Me...You Do You.” IDK stresses that he doesn’t want to steer his collaborators any particular direction, providing as much or little insight into his thought process as they inquire about.

“The conversation and concept [of a song] is all subjective to the person listening, so when concept is subjective, one word could mean 10 or 20 different things,” he says. “Usually, when somebody has something on an album and they send me a verse and they’re somewhat remotely touching the subject, it matches regardless.”

The day before 'Is He Real?' was released, IDK tweeted out a timeline that seemed to imply he would retire from music in 2022. When asked whether that’s a concrete plan and what he would do besides make music, he collects himself for a moment before eagerly laying out of his vision. 

“I’m a musician. I am a rapper, I do know how to rap, but I know how to make movies, films...I wrote a story in the Huffington Post about the prison system in America and my experience that was very well received,” he explains. “I know how to write stories and make movies. If you listen to Is He Real? again after I say that, you’ll see what I’m really talking about. I think that’s what I want to get into eventually.”

A week after the album’s release, IDK revealed on Twitter that the final character on each track spells out the phrase, “U see 4 urself.” Like the music itself, this Easter egg cements what makes IDK an artist worth paying attention to: nothing is ever done without care.

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'Is He Real?' is out now.

Words: Grant Rindner
Photo Credit: Mike Miller

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