Fresh off a terrible breakup, Denver hip-hop artist IMJLS (pronounced “I’m Jealous”), aka Isaiah Smith, wasn't feeling festive for Valentine’s Day. So when his manager suggested dropping a project in honor of the romantic holiday, IMJLS was skeptical. His dear friend and frequent collaborator Livid Color, aka David Baez, who was also bouncing back from a bad breakup, encouraged him to channel his emotions into new music.
Inspired by an audio sample from the anime Dragon Ball Z that says “What did they do to you,” IMJLS decided to create four tracks, all produced by Livid Color, exploring the dynamic between love, loss and trauma. “What I’ve been inspired by is new love and loss of love,” he says, calling this project a love letter to the lonely, the misfits and the outcasts. On the resulting EP, titled What Did They Do to You?, IMJLS evokes a dark moodiness and drawl reminiscent of Isaiah Rashad. It’s not your typical corny Valentine’s Day fodder.
But then again, IMJLS is not your typical rapper. For starters, he rejects the label. “I hate the term 'rapper,'” he says. “I do make a lot of beats, and I rap a lot of bars. But I also write a lot of poems, and literally have like seven-, eight-person jam sessions in my house with a full band.”
A precocious writer from a young age who grew up in Boulder, IMJLS entered the world of hip-hop through poetry. His quick wit made him a natural when it came to freestyling, and as a classically trained musician (he plays piano, clarinet and drums, and is working on guitar), it was only a matter of time before he combined his two talents into writing songs. The name IMJLS is both a dig at his haters, who now can’t say his name without admitting their envy, and his initials (which stands for Isaiah Mason James LaTourette Smith).
A self-described “emo rocker” until his late teens, IMJLS was a reluctant hip-hop fan: “I really didn’t listen to hip-hop or rap, with the exception of Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, until I was like eighteen,” he explains. Growing up biracial in a predominantly white area, he felt that hip-hop unfairly shaped his white peers’ view of his racial identity.
“Because of how I articulate myself and speak, I would always get referred to as a ‘fake nigger' and shit like that," he recalls. "I think I kind of pinned hip-hop on the mainstream media right away, and said, ‘Well, this is why I’m a "fake nigger" to these white people who haven’t ever been around other black people except for me. They think they can tell me what a black person is supposed to look like because of hip-hop.'”
Fortunately for IMJLS, the end of his high-school career coincided with the skyrocketing popularity of alternative rappers like Flatbush Zombies and Tyler, the Creator. This new wave of hip-hop put the spotlight on young artists who grew up as emo kids, goths, punks and general misfits and were now bringing that energy to hip-hop. Their brutally honest bars about mental health, trauma, substance abuse and identity created a whole new crowd of hip-hop fans like IMJLS. He does still count Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Colorado’s EDM scene among his influences, and is looking forward to exploring all different genres of music in the future, but says, “I’m hip-hop to the bone at the same time.”
What Did They Do to You? shows off a new sound for IMJLS, partly thanks to Livid Color’s production. While beats made by IMJLS are usually harder and more energetic, Livid’s tracks have a chill vibe that fits with the theme of the project. Originally, Livid Color was only going to produce the first track, “They,” but IMJLS was so pleased with the result that they decided to collaborate on the other three tracks as well.
“We worked on the first one, and it was like, it’s simple, it makes sense and it’s very pleasant," IMJLS recalls. "He’s my brother. He’s been through all that shit with me. If he knows what I’m going through and I tell him how I imagine the concept that we kind of thought of together, I trust him to do all that."
For IMJLS, nothing is ever simply a piece of music. Every project is a concept, each aspect rich with symbolism and meaning, from the lyrics to the cover art to the production style. “That’s why I was just like, ‘Let’s leave it un-mastered,’” says IMJLS of What Did They Do to You?. “Because I don’t believe mastering it is going to make it sound any better than what it sounds like, and at the same time, it’s a project about love. Who are we to take a concept like love and not make it as raw as possible?”
“The whole project is straight raw," adds Livid. "There’s no tune, no pitch correction, nothing. Just what I have and what I can do with the best vocals he can give me to his ability.”
IMJLS wanted the project to be “short and sweet, but deep and complicated,” just like love itself. The four song titles in order create the sentence “They Lost The Love,” which he conceptualized as an A side (“They Lost”) and a B side (“The Love”) to highlight the duality of love and loss. The term “they” is more than just a pronoun to IMJLSl; it is a representation of any opposition.
“’They,’ for me as IMJLS, is what I’ve always referred to as, like, any doubters, any haters,” he says. That’s why he’s naming his new label “TheyAllAre,” as a cheeky response to the statement hidden in his artist name, “I’m Jealous.” What Did They Do to You? is also his way of introducing the new label, which will be the more branded side of his art as opposed to the Creative Collective, a nonprofit for other artists that he has in the works.
IMJLS has a lot planned for the next year. After neglecting his own mental health and experiencing a tumultuous relationship and breakup, healing as a person allowed him to grow as an artist.
“I’ve been going through this process where I feel like my creative flow was really fucked up by someone," he says. "I was with someone who didn’t appreciate my art. So now I feel like I can really be as blunt as I can possibly be about everything.”
Pointing to Sian Shirley’s drawing of his decapitated head on the cover of What Did They Do To You?, he says, “We’re coming for heads this year. But I had to get my own head on first.”
What Did They Do To You? will be available on all streaming platforms February 14. You can also catch IMJLS and Livid Color co-headlining Trip Face’s B-Day Bash, at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 15, at Dickens Opera House, 300 Main Street. They will be joined by Trip Face, PJ Kool, Kaos The Mi$fit, Phantomb Ghost and a surprise guest. Tickets are $10 and available here.
Listen to IMJLS and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.