After the suffocating sensation of lockdown, the 2000s are fully back in their spattery, hyperactive, overstimulated glory — think chugging a Rockstar mid-flip on a BMX. And while aesthetic is all over art and media, few have condensed and consolidated it like JELEEL!.
"My aesthetic is like Monster Energy. You know, Nitro Circus, Jeff Hardy-esque, early 2000s WWE aesthetic," the splashy rapper tells GRAMMY.com. "It's very Y2K, but I like that extreme stuff. A lot of artists now are doing the Y2K punk aesthetic — all black — but I'm more like electric green."
On his energizing new album, REAL RAW!, JELEEL! drinks straight from the bottle; that "electric green" sensation permeates it like Nickelodeon Gak.
Featuring top-shelf producers such as FNZ, Working on Dying and Bone Collector, as well as guests Denzel Curry ("SHOTS!"), Chow Lee ("CONFETTI!") and Ty Dolla $ign ("FAST CAR!"), the album is a distillation of JELEEL!'s backflipping, party-rocking, muay thai-ing energy.
Read on for a conversation with JELEEL! about the making of REAL RAW!, his May 5 release; how being a "scared kid" got him into martial arts and what the uninitiated should expect from his juggernaut live show.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
On an essential level, what were you trying to artistically impart with REAL RAW!?
REAL RAW! is real, raw energy. JELEEL! has no additives. I don't need anything to feel complete. I'm high off life. I don't need to do any drugs; I don't need to sell out to be someone. I'm real, and I'm raw.
The album is showing different sides of JELEEL! — his heritage, his culture, his life. That's basically what I want to present to the world. I want them to see that; there's no filter. I'm opening my heart to everybody.
I'm sure you didn't always feel that way — that you don't need "additives," or to put on a face for people.
Mm-hmm. When I moved to L.A., I didn't know anybody, really. I'd seen a lot of people try to follow other people to become somebody, or try to fake a persona. And I was like, I'm gonna just be myself. F— that. I'm gonna just dive in headfirst. Who cares what they think? That's always been my motto.
Tell me about your heritage and culture.
I'm from Rhode Island. My family lives in Nigeria now. Rhode Island is a small state. My parents came from Nigeria to Rhode Island to find better opportunities and help their kids out. Growing up in Rhode Island was chill; it wasn't too bad. Very boring.
Growing up in Nigeria was a little different, because a lot of people really don't have a lot of opportunity to get what they want to do. There's not a lot of opportunity to make money like that, unless you have a really good job.
They're different lifestyles. In Nigeria, people are hustling hard to get to where they want to be. In America, it's a little more laid back. You still have to work hard, but in Nigeria, it feels like you have to work harder.
How did you transmute that unadulterated feeling into the music on REAL RAW!?
Basically, I kind of transmit. I never really thought about transmuting it. It just kind of happened — me taking my personality and being like, You know, I don't care. I'm just gonna sing it like this or that.
Instead of talking about drugs — I don't do drugs — I'll talk about something else, because it's more JELEEL!. I was just trying to put me inside the songs, and me inside the music, and just be more intentional.
How did you evoke that feeling through music?
I guess using certain sounds. Maybe I'll go on Serum, and the sound reminds me of Limp Bizkit or Sum 41 or Janet Jackson, you know? So it's all just creating something and bringing that nostalgia back.
That vibe is certainly back. A lot of hardcore music is drawing influence from 2000s alt-rock.
It is completely. Even, for example, the PinkPantheress and Ice Spice song "Boy's a Liar" — the beat, the flow, the video,
I feel like that splashiness directly relates to the pandemic. We're ready to bash into each other again.
Yeah, we needed a reset, bro. People were just trying to do too many different things.
Tell me about the guests on the album, starting with Denzel Curry on "SHOTS!".
Denzel Curry was fun; me and Denzer are like the same people. He does muay thai; I do muay thai. He's just a very active guy — animated. He's just a funny dude, and he's turnt up. He's very talented, and he loves to create, so Denzel was definitely someone I had to put on there.
I appreciate his intentionality, even doing his verse. He had to redo it and redo it to make it the best he could make it. So, I appreciate him taking the tie and making it the best it could be. He brought the energy.
How about Chow Lee, on "CONFETTI!"?
He's definitely running that drill sound in New York. He's coming up heavy. He's about to take over hip-hop; people don't know about him yet, but he's on his way up. He was a perfect person for that song. It's a different sound that people don't know me for, but he had to get on there. It was perfect.
And what about the one and only Ty Dolla $ign on "FAST CAR!"?
That was a very random song for him to hop on. You would expect him to be on some R&B type of vibe, but Ty is a very, very versatile artist. I didn't know what to expect when we started clicking up, but he just slid on the song and I was like, Damn, he went crazy.
How'd you get into muay thai, and how does it connect to music?
It all started when I was young and scared of the world. I never really like to get hit. I'd been bullied, and that kind of carried into my adulthood. So, I was like, I'm going to go full-face forward and try martial arts. And then I ended up falling in love with it.
They're both arts — martial arts and music. Everything has to flow. When you listen to a verse, what captures you is the flow. When you're sparring, or fighting, you can't be tense. You've got to flow; you've got to be in the pocket.
You performed at GRAMMY House; I know you incorporate MMA in your live show. What should people who haven't seen you live expect on an energetic level?
People definitely are going to expect something crazy [laughs] because people see me on Instagram, all these videos, and they're gonna be like, "I know he's going to do some crazy stuff."
But I'm really performing. I'm trying to get all the words out. Yeah, sometimes there's high energy moments, but I'm actually a performer. I'm actually singing the words. So, that's what I want people who haven't seen me before to know.
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