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Rap has a long-held upstanding tradition of finding and questioning faith on record. The latest artist to join this longstanding legacy is IDK, whose new album, Is He Real? is an eclectic, adventurous entry into the canon of recent projects that draw inspiration from wonder.
IDK — formerly known as Jay IDK — has long pulled from his own autobiographical and rebellious stylistic inclinations to craft the sort of rap music that stands apart from existing trends yet has an irresistible magnetic pull. His 2017 project, IWasVeryBad, examined America’s flawed criminal justice system through the lens of his own personal experiences. Its title, referring to his tendency to act out in school, where he was one of few Black students, reflects the ways in which stereotypes and tropes can become our own self-perceptions. The tightly-wound narrative of the album unraveled over 35 incisive, harrowing minutes, tracking his seemingly unstoppable slide down the school-to-prison pipeline.
Likewise, Is He Real? draws on IDK’s lived experiences to take a look at another heavy topic: The concept of faith. Specifically, the kind of faith you search for in the desperate, dire situations many Black Americans find themselves facing as a result of their status in a nation where it seems they are trapped in a second class just for being Black. Just like recent projects from the likes of Kendrick Lamar (DAMN. and To Pimp A Butterfly) and Chance The Rapper (The Big Day and Coloring Book), and the upcoming project promised by Kanye West, IDK looks at religion in all its complexities and flaws, trying to determine the answer to the question posed by his album’s title.
The answer, such as it is, could very well be his stage name, as the album never comes to a definitive conclusion one way or another. What it does do, however, is unearth some arresting philosophical entertainment from wrestling with the fundamental parts of the question. Beginning with the intro, “Cloud Blu,” IDK leads a sort of Socratic discussion through a series of skits with surprising special guests with prompts like, “What happens after you die?” The responses are wide-ranging, illuminating, and often contradictory — just like they would be in life. The cynical reply from “Cloud Blu” could be one observer’s last word, but its placement at the beginning of the album suggests that even IDK finds it such an unsatisfactory answer, he’s willing to spend 40 more minutes dismantling it.
Certainly, from the conditions described by “42 Hundred Choices,” it’s easy to see where that level of nihilism might come from: “My momma told me go to church / I was sitting ten rows from the first / Daydreaming ’bout all the things I could probably get / If I take the lady in front of me’s purse.” He then spends a few tracks expanding on and pondering the lessons learned from those Sundays spent in the pews, from the prosperity gospel (“24”) to religion’s complicated relationship with love and sex (“Lilly” and “Porno”). He wonders at the church’s positions on “European Skies,” telling his pastor “your theory lacks reason.”
That push and pull between IDK’s sharp-eyed observations and the often seemingly nonsensical tenets of organized religion — particularly Christianity — creates the central tension of Is He Real?. It’s the through-line that allows IDK’s eclectic musical tastes to run rampant as he tries on different styles, from the DC house and reggae of his DMV area upbringing to the rambunctious, concrete-splitting stomp of “Alone,” “Digital,” and “Michael What TF.” IDK’s raps are stitched through these rugged and sweet soundscapes alike with the stuttering grace of a power sewing machine, bringing the seams together into one of hip-hop’s most concise, intelligent takes on the subject matter yet.
Is He Real? is the middle ground between the high-concept, metaphorical approach of Kendrick Lamar’s best on the subject and the full-throated exultation from Chance The Rapper’s latest projects. IDK questions without rejecting, contemplates without navel-gazing, and relates to the listener, drawing them into his worldview with heartbreaking narratives such as “Julia…,” the album’s gut-punch of closer. IDK isn’t preaching, but he doesn’t reject any possibilities. Is He Real? is a testimony in the truest sense, a man coming to terms with all he doesn’t know and pushing forward anyway — the very definition of faith.
Is He Real? is out now via Clue No Clue LLC and Warner Records. Get it here.
IDK is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.