IDK's "Is He Real?" is the latest project from a long line of self-described Kanye West disciples. Whether or not it lives up to the billing is up for debate.
IDK’s meet-up with Kanye West sounds so bizarrely similar to previously documented interactions with the musical auteur that it simply has to be true: “Yesterday I get a call from Kanye West and he says ‘Wussup brother, tell me more about this Is He Real project’. Then invites me to his crib and we ate lemon cake and solved Rubiks cubes with 88 keyz. Very cool guy.”
Beyond the fact that the quaint rendezvous sounds like it was plucked from the imagination of Lewis Carroll, it speaks directly to the (sometimes active, other times passive) mentorship role that Mr. West has grown into in recent years. It seems almost redundant at this point to recount the many ways that the College Dropout’s blueprint has impacted the evolution of modern music given the countless number of industry insiders who have chronicled his career. Kanye legitimized himself as “the thinking man’s alternative” to gangsta rap through a deeply personal brand of storytelling and unconventional subject matter that ran counter to what was expected of the mainstream at the time of his breakthrough. In appointing himself in relation to the listener, Kanye irrevocably altered the rules of what a hip hop artist could be, carving a lane for a legion of “socially conscious” emcees looking to replicate and build upon his formula.
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When considered within the lens of self-described disciples like IDK, who cited Kanye’s “I Don’t Like” as a pivotal moment in his pursuit of music, the picture becomes that much clearer. Without stereotypically framing IDK’s career narrative, his music is born from the post-Kanye era of blog-driven hype. Marcus K. Dowling’s assessment of the Prince George’s County rapper is startlingly accurate: “IDK is the total of an equation that is equal parts Kendrick meets Jay meets Kanye meets 50 Cent. He’s a new suit comprised of comfortable old clothes: happily familiar, yet progressed.”
A full seven years and five mixtapes into this progression, IDK, born Jason Mills, stands firmly on the shoulders of such inspirations. Nowhere is this more apparent than on his latest full-length project Is He Real?, released through Warner Records as his major label debut. The follow-up to 2017’s incisive and airtight IWasVeryBad is a loose concept album that probes the existence of a higher power, with the “He” in the album title being God. The eclectic 14-track contemplation of faith, in all of its complexities and flaws, spends nearly 40 minutes trying to dismantle the opening query of “Cloud Blu”: how can God be real when humanity’s day-to-day existence is marred with acts informed by the seven deadly sins?
IDK sets the scene through the eyes of a boy named Max, whose childlike wonder at the thought of standing in line at the Pearly Gates quickly deteriorates into a fevered denial of God. The juxtaposition carries over to second track “42 Hundred Choices,” where IDK spends the song’s lone verse reminiscing about his younger years as a parishioner. Those Sundays in the pews, ten rows deep from the church pulpit, have yielded stockpiled daydreams of making off with “the lady in front of me’s purse” for an unordained tithe. Vocal inflections aside, IDK’s punchline-heavy bars are styled with the same (occasionally raunchy) pop culture references and button-pushing theatrics that define much of Kanye’s discography. The “dear teacher, suck my penis” beat halt of “Alone” is the kind of salacious aside that Kanye would throw into the mix of a song about “huggin’ Satan” and “gossip hating,” while the reverbed “bang-bang-bang” ad libs sound eerily familiar. Even the monstrous piano keys and flamboyant internal conversation of “24” beg Ye-sized braggadocio.
“Porno,” which features crooning as sweet as the “strawberry lemonade lips” of the hook, deals more intimately with the hypersexualized nature of society, an addiction that sucks us in at an early age against our better judgement (see IDK’s explicit hypothesis: “the bible say beatin’ my dick and killin’ is equal/But that don’t add up”). Over the clash of speaker-shuffling bass and snares, the repetition of “bad hoes is the devil like 666” bursts through the static like something that would have been plastered across Life Of Pablo tour merch. “I Do Me ... You Do You” interpolates Amerie’s “Why Don’t We Fall In Love” while pressing Tyler, The Creator to elaborate on his beliefs regarding divinity, at which point IDK suddenly spirals into a blathering, Kanye-esque rant comparing “Noah’s Ark” and “robot b*tches we can f**k.”
It’s here that things take an even stranger turn. IDK forgoes his previous line of existential questioning for an afro-fusion groove on “December,” a reprieve that only lasts so long before he’s right back to playing devil’s advocate on “European Skies.” The stripped-back track pits pastoral knowledge against iOS virtual assistant Siri in an attempt to reason through humanity’s relationship with the notion of “seeing is believing.” It’s a perplexing soliloquy in which IDK’s mouth struggles to keep pace with his mind, his thoughts ping-ponging off the tip of his tongue without any semblance of guidance. The nonsensical interrogation gives way to “No Cable” and “Digital,” the former a meditative, channel-changing social commentary grounded in shortening attention spans and an idolization of excess, and the latter a muted funhouse clusterfuck.
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The album’s strongest and most stimulating section is its final two tracks. “Michael What TF,” derivative of the sonically abrasive Yeezus, finds IDK grappling with the anger that he feels toward his stepfather. His venting builds up to the emotionally raw capstone of “Julia … ,” a heartbreaking curveball of a closer where IDK remembers his mother, Julia Lynch, who passed away in 2016 due to complications from AIDS, which we learn she contracted from none other than his stepfather. The revelation’s final moments are reminiscent of Kanye’s "Roses," both from a contextual standpoint and the intimate intonation that drives it.
In hastening for the comfort of knowing that there’s something more after life, it becomes evident that IDK’s personal revelations are far more potent than his sweeping proclamations of self-importance. Having come to terms with our inability to dispute or ascertain the existence of a higher power, IDK concludes (in rather unsatisfactory fashion) that questions are all we have and that art is the best means of postulating. And yet he largely fails to connect the death of his mother with his crisis of faith. To make matters worse, it all unravels within the final minute or so when he decides to commence with an asinine examination of the color red as it relates to our perception of the world around us (he told Complex that he doesn’t smoke, but this regrettable ending reeks of late night blunt hits and microwaved brain cells).
This is the underlying stricture of Is He Real?. Like Kanye the great aesthetician, IDK is never actually beholden to the showy thematic structure that he presents. He clings to the aesthetic argument within until he eventually abandons it in lieu of some other highfalutin premise that has caught his attention. The transitions are relatively smooth, but are plagued by tired hooks and a mishmash of ideas. Some are blandly uninspired, whereas others are markedly bolder in their vision. It makes the hollows feel that much more empty, and the high notes feel that much more enticing, a sort of claustrophobic imbalance that leaves the listener wanting more if for nothing else than the ambling potential that peaks through the cracks.
All of this isn't to say that IDK is a cheap knockoff of those like Kanye who’ve paved the way for him, or that his introspection falls completely flat. Rather, he simply spreads his artistry too thin, falling victim to the same trap that has plagued a slew of his contemporaries whereby the many distractions that he chooses to erect end up hindering the overall continuity. His ambitious approach to what is already a grandiose setup is what leads him to bite off a bit more than he can chew. Ultimately, IDK is his own worst enemy in trying to carry out such prolonged philosophical posturing. As is the case with Kanye, IDK doesn't always connect, but he periodically stumbles upon veins of rich and witty fun.
In an interview with The Fader, IDK brazenly characterized Is He Real? as “laying the foundation” of his career. “It will give people a greater sense of who I am, where I’m headed. If I may use Kendrick Lamar, for instance, as an example, this will be the Section.80 mixtape before my good kid, m.A.A.d city.” Such a comparison, though applaudable in its intentions, seems somewhat foolish, what with the growing pains that are outwardly spurring IDK forward. That said, he remains a technically proficient emcee fully capable of clever writing and topnotch verbal dexterity, skills that should serve him well as he continues to flesh out his place in hip hop and nurture more fully-formed ideas to sonic fruition. Whether he reaches the heights of those emblazoned on his sleeve or grows stagnant in heady ambition remains to be seen.