Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Jay IDK was once a member of the go-go group New Impressionz. The group was an influence on the rapper. This version has been updated.
If you’ve ever dodged a bill collector, the skits on Jay IDK’s latest album, “Empty Bank,” might be the most panic-inducing since Wu-Tang Clan’s infamous torture tutorial. Across the track list, a collection-agency creep won’t stop harassing Jay by phone, leaving voice mails that escalate into threats. The Maryland rapper says he wanted to tap into an American anxiety that’s as widespread as it is taboo.
“Financially, people always assume you’re good when you’re a rapper,” Jay says. “Things are better for me now than they were, but most rappers don’t want to admit how hard it is out here. And I knew that there were a lot more people who could relate to that than couldn’t.”
His ambidextrous attitudes are reflected in his stage name, which uses an abbreviation for “ignorantly delivering knowledge” — a suggestion that youthful mistakes can generate durable wisdom. Raised in Prince George’s County, Jay has made some mistakes. After getting his musical start in the front lines of various go-go groups, he ended up in jail at 17. “That’s where I started writing rhymes, writing melodies,” Jay says. “Anything to free my mind and make the time pass.”
On “Empty Bank,” as on 2015’s equally impressive “Subtrap,” he’s freely exploring the breadth of his being, swerving between pugnacious boasts and sober confessions without sounding like he’s navigating an identity crisis. And although Jay is clearly enamored with the everything-goes ethos of Kanye West, he ultimately knows that he’s going to have to hack his own path. “It’s all about getting better,” Jay says. “I think the best artists find ways to reinvent themselves. They find new ways to tell their stories, or they find new stories to tell.”
As for how his story ends, he has only one outcome in mind: “I’m definitely trying to be Number One.”
With Isaiah Rashad on Feb. 2 at U Street Music Hall. Show starts at 7 p.m. 202-588-1889. ustreetmusichall.com. Sold out.
Warning: This video contains explicit lyrics.