On his third album, Lamp Mode recording artist J’Son addressed hood problems on his Christian Hip Hop community-acclaimed project, City Lights. On his new album Growing Pains, a Hip Hop version of The Psalms, the St. Louis, Missouri-area emcee addresses his own troubles.
J'Son recently spoke with HipHopDX about his new album, parenting, sexual abuse, his acting career, being raised by the streets, misconceptions about church and the personal challenges he’s faced over the last year.
HipHopDX: Tell me about the new album, Growing Pains.
J’son: Ah man, Growing Pains is actually my fourth album. It will be released February 21st. But if I’m honest, man, Growing Pains is more than an album. I feel like it’s my last year of life on record; if people were to trek with me and my journal, just the things I’ve been experiencing, me and my wife, over the course of the last year.
Every song on Growing Pains was written from a very personal place, either directly linked to me or directly linked to my wife. We moved from St. Louis to Iowa City. Upon moving to Iowa City, obviously we left everything we knew in St. Louis.
I don’t think we recognized how difficult that would be, to just be removed from everything. No friends, no real relationships, having to re-establish all of that. In light of that, certain sin, depression and frustration were present in our hearts, and we were having to deal with that.
Growing Pains is a reflection of that time. I would also say it’s much like a psalm. The Psalms deal with the grittiness of life and expressions of brokenness throughout The Psalms but in a very practical real way. It also presents those broken feelings to the Throne [of God].
I’m very excited about the project. I personally feel it’s my best work to date, and it’s a very mature project. It’s for a mature listener, people coming and listening with a mature ear. You can’t come to Growing Pains like, “Alright, when you going to talk to me?” “Growing Pains” is more so one of those projects you’ve got to ask yourself, “Have I experienced that? Have I ever felt like that? Have me and my wife ever been through that?” You have to look into a person’s life and then kind of draw out what you can to relate to their life.
DX: You mentioned that this album came from a place of brokenness. Can you talk about how the songs relate to the seasons of life you were experiencing?
J’son: Absolutely. I have song on the album called “Held me Down.” It’s me, Butta P, and Ron Kenoly, Jr. on the hook. The whole song is this married couple talking to each other. First, it’s me talking to my wife. Then Butta P, I wrote that verse with her talking as my wife. The whole song is just saying, “Dog, we don’t trust each other.” Marriage is getting difficult. We just had a baby. Anybody whose had a baby and their married knows that just adds fuel to whatever is going on. That just made it more difficult. Ultimately, we come to find out that the ultimate situation is that we’re not trusting God. That was a time of brokenness when our marriage was having real boiling points where we had to trust God and trust each other.
Then I have a song called “It’s All Right” with MIKESCHAIR. The lyrics just start off, “The walls are closing in. I know what it’s like / To fight when nothing in all in life seems it’s going right / The pressure’s heavy on you, I’m talking heavy pressure / You look around everyone else is doing better.” So it’s like that place where you almost feel claustrophobic; where everything you do seems like it’s wrong. It doesn’t happen the way that it should. It’s just really, really frustrating. That song was written from that dark place.
I also have a song called “Secrets.” It’s about somebody really, really close to me. It’s a song about sexual abuse, child sexual abuse. You talk about brokenness. This is a perfect picture of that brokenness. It’s a very graphic song. It’s a very, very real song. J.R.’s on the hook. It’s a picture of what brokenness looks like.
I also have a song called “My Joy.” I don’t want to go through the whole album, but “My Joy” is just the same way. It’s like, “Man, I’m writing this song, and this song is really my tears.” That’s kind of what I’m communicating throughout the song, like, “Man, I’m tired of experiencing this.”
The last song on the album, called “Good Bye,” is just about when I had to leave St. Louis. In the song, I just paint the picture of the day before I was gone. My friends helped me pack up. My real brother, we crying as we know I’m fitting to leave. Brothers around us is crying. It’s the brokenness of knowing you leaving everything behind, knowing that you leaving because God has called you leave. The brokenness you feel is heart wrenching. The album is very, very emotional, and it’s a picture of brokenness. To add to that, most men wrestle with the idea of wanting to deal with those emotions. I realize for some men this album may be difficult if you’re not a mature dude, a dude that’s willing to wrestle with some of the emotions that come with brokenness.
I want to challenge men to wrestle with these emotions. We can’t only wrestle with being angry and happy. We have to be able to deal with being sad. We have to be able to deal with being frustrated. We have to be deal with being wrong and failing and making mistakes. And this album is a picture of all of those things as you kind of walk with me through my experiences of it.
DX: With this album being so personal, is there a song with you that just means the most?
J’son: If I’m honest, different songs means the most at different times. If I used somebody else for example, it would be like Tupac [Shakur]. There’s a point in time that if you pop in “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” and it’s like, “Oh my goodness.” Then it’s other moments you pop in “Dear Mama” , and it’s like “Oh my goodness.” This album really feels like that to me, where it’s really difficult for me to put my finger on one song, because I feel like every song depending on where you are is like that for me.
If I did have to highlight a song, I would probably highlight “Secrets,” because of the importance of the subject matter. One in four women are sexually abused. There’s an interlude before the song where we give statistics on sexual abuse. For women, I think it’s like 69 million abuse cases in America. Those stats are astronomical.
The reality is that most people who have been sexually abused never tell anybody. They just never talk about it. This song is probably really dear to my heart, because of the nature of it. It’s going to give a voice to a people who have yet to let their voice be heard on the subject matter. It’s a song that’s really weighty. That would be one of the songs I would highlight.
DX: City Lights was a great album, but I’ve heard you say on several occasions not to expect Growing Pains to be another City Lights. What’s the difference between the two albums?
J'son: City Lights is a street record. It’s a record for the streets. It’s real gritty. I would say it’s a real manly album. Even though there are some personal records on there, City Lights is a hype record. Growing Pains is the opposite. Growing Pains is a very, very personal record, and it’s just me bearing my heart. The reason they’re so different is you just don’t make a hood album living in Iowa City. You just don’t do that. [Laughs] You just don’t do that. More so, I think it should be based on where you are in life, man. Even if I tried to write another City Lights at the time I wrote Growing Pains, it just wouldn’t be the same, because I just wasn’t in that place.
When I wrote City Lights, I was around my partners. It was dudes getting killed while I’m writing City Lights. I’m going to funerals. I’m having to speak at my partner’s funerals. My partners getting locked up. I’m trying to send them bread. They calling me talking about they want to change. City Lights was a reflection of that. Growing Pains is me in Iowa City, me and my family, pretty much alone, and me having to deal with everything. It’s a reflective album. It’s just me feeling like I’m alone, and processing everything I’m going through.
Sonically, they are different as well, because [this album] has more of a mainstream sound. There’s a lot more slower cuts. This is a listener’s album. I still got some hype joints, some bangers on Growing Pains here and there. It’s different overall, because it’s an emotional album.
DX: I heard that you had scrapped a lot of the music for Growing Pains initially.
J'son: Basically, some of the stuff was just ideas. Normally, what happens is that it’s not a song that’s completely finished. Maybe I didn’t record the whole song. Maybe I just wrote it and I had the hook done. I normally have about three or four or five different dudes that I send stuff to. And if the majority of the dudes is like, “Nah, this ain’t good,” then I scrap the joint. Normally what I do with this music, and any rapper can relate to this, the verses if they’re tight I keep them tucked away. If someone needs a feature and the verse might fit that feature, or if I need to do something later on, you keep these verses tucked away. You never know when those mugs could come in handy. Then another thing dudes do is use it for free music. Maybe later on down the line and they’ll say, “Let me take a couple random verses and give it away to people,” you know something like that. Most of the times they don’t make the cut, because they’re mediocre; you know, just weren’t great songs. And I really tried to remove every song that I felt was just mediocre from this project. Either I felt like they were mediocre or they didn’t match the quality of the project or they didn’t bring more to the album. That’s kind of it in a nutshell.
DX: There are a lot of talented artists on Lampmode. You definitely have a distinct sound compared to your label mates. How do those relationships work?
J’son: Yeah, I’m definitely different. But the funny thing is that if you examine Lampmode, everybody is kind of uniquely different. The only ones that are really close to each other are Shai Linne and Timothy Brindle, and they’re even different in their own right. So Lampmode is actually a roster full of people that are individuals in their own right. It works really well, because I kind of get to ping my stuff off of dudes that are in different lanes than me. They can give me feedback on what they think, even though they may be in a different lane. It actually works really well, too, because I’m the only one of my type on my label. Sometimes you can get lost in the shuffle if everybody on your label kind of has the same sound, you know what I’m saying.
In Lampmode’s case, we all have our own audience in a sense. And because we’re on the label, we end up kind of sharing audiences, which is good. It actually works out really well, man. Because we all are unique, we all bring something different to the table. When you think of Shai Linne, you think of wordplay and storytelling. You think of Hazakim, you think of a musical type of feel, but dudes with dope word play. Stephen the Levite, you just think of a dope underground rapper. Anybody underground would respect Stephen the Levite. S.O. you think of this dope London dude who can spit fire. All of them are great artists. It works well bouncing things off of each other. It makes things really good.
DX: Since your last album came out, you were one of the “gangsters” in Reach Records mini-film, Man Up. And you were also in a film called Dreams? Talk about how you got into acting and how big a part it will play in your future.
J’son: If I’m honest, I never acted before I did the Reach Records joint. I never took acting classes or nothing like that, but I really felt like I could do it. So they cast me into a role. When I got there, it just felt so natural, dawg. I knew all my lines. Shot out to Sho Baraka. Some of those words were stuff he let me add in to make it more authentic. It just felt really, really natural. When I finished that, even people in set was like, "Dog, you killed it.” Afterward, I was like, “Man, I really, really enjoyed that. I really enjoyed it.” Then my boy, a friend of mine hit me up about a movie called Dreams. Now in this movie, you got Angie Stone, you got Tommy Ford, you got Geoffrey Owens from The Cosby Show and a host of other people that people really know. And I’m like a main character in the movie. I’m already intimidated, but it went really, really well. The movie isn’t out yet. I don’t know the exact date of the movie, but it’s called Dreams. I think it’s going to be a major movie. I’m looking for more opportunities, Lord willing, to get into acting and do more acting. I really enjoyed it. Man, I liked it a lot is probably as much as I can say about it.
DX: You made a mini-documentary. What was the inspiration behind that?
J’son: I’ma be completely honest with you. That mug was off the cuff. Real talk. When the dude that shot Parent Me, came to St. Louis to talk to me about Parent Me, we never planned on a documentary, none of that. That exact same day it was just like, “Man, let’s just get some footage.” And it went from getting footage to a documentary. Now the reason I wanted to do the documentary was because most dudes when they think of a church dude, there’s statements in Hip Hop like, “If you’re scared, go to church.” You know what I mean. That’s such a false statement. You go to church, because you’ve been rocked by truth.
I grew up selling dope. My mother was a drug addict. That’s all I knew. Dudes in the hood raised me. I wanted cats to get a picture of a dude that has come from that environment that has been rocked. For you to visually see, for me to have my mother straight talking about what I did to affirm, like, “Yo, this dude ain’t just talking.” I ain’t saying I was the ‘thoroughest’ dude in my neighborhood. But I ain’t saying that I was soft. I wasn’t no punk. This is what I did. It was really my life. I wanted people to be able to visually see that, and then have people, dudes from my neighborhood, dudes around me, my mother, to be able to affirm that, and people be able to say, “Wow, if this dude can change, I can change, dog. If Christ can rock his life, then my life could be rocked.”
You see me now and I’m calm and I’m respectful. If you would have saw me 10 years ago, my temper was horrible. Dog, I’d snap off for nothing. I’ve been shot at and I’ve shot at dudes for nothing, stupid stuff. What you’re experiencing now is not a dude that never did any of those things, but a dude whose heart has really been changed. Another thing I wanted to show with the documentary was the impact I had. Before when I was doing all that, I raised and taught dudes to snort heroin, how to sell dope. Some dudes I specifically taught how to carry guns and shoot guns and cut dope and hustle. I raised dudes in that lifestyle.
Some of those dudes haven’t made a change, and they are products of me investing in them that way. I destroyed lives. I’m the reason some kids woke up on Christmas morning and ain’t nothing up under the tree. Their mom bought work from me on Christmas Eve or the week before.
I wanted to allow people to see that impact, then on the flip side see the impact I’m having now. Now I’m snatching dudes out of that hood environment, meeting with ‘em and teaching them how to live life differently, how to follow Christ, how to get a job, how to control anger and their temper. I’m teaching dudes how to invest in other lives. I’m teaching dudes the value of their life. I’m teaching dudes the value of knowing Jesus and what a relationship with him looks like. I wanted people to see the entire vastness of how I can be a person that either invests in death or life. With my music, I wanted people to see I rapped prior to being a Christian. I didn’t rap because I didn’t feel like I couldn’t make it in the secular industry. That wasn’t the reason. I just felt like, “Yo, if I’m investing in life, I want my music to be an investment in life.”
I want dudes to get my music. It’s not that I don’t rap about real subject matter. I ain’t just Jesus, Jesus, Jesus on every song. The Bible is filled with real subject matter. I’m still talking about life, but I want to make sure that what I create points to the ultimate creator. The ultimate Creator approves of my creativity, and that’s the question we should all ask ourselves. That’s really the large part of the documentary. I want you to see the vast stream of my life.
DX: Did you expect the song “Parent Me,” to take off like it did?
J’son: Man, the feedback was astronomical man. If I’m honest, I kind of did expect people to connect to the song in that way. I wrote the song, you know, just looking out and seeing so much brokenness. Broken homes, broken households and how that is affecting children. So I already knew that I wanted to do a song on parents, but I didn’t want to do it like, “The Bible says parent like this.” I didn’t want to do it like that. Then I was watching a documentary on Lil’ Wayne, and they were interviewing his daughter.
They asked his daughter, “What’s the best gift your father ever got you?” She sat there for about 30 seconds, and she said, “When he came home.” It just blew my mind. It didn’t matter what economic ladder you’re on, what social ladder you’re on, none of that mattered. The most important thing to that little girl was her father being home. If you think about it, Wayne’s probably bought her the world. She can probably name gifts that’s beyond us. But the one thing that caught her eye is when he came home. I felt like the song would connect with people, because I felt like it was real life. Any time you write real music, people connect to it. My heart for the song was that I wanted to speak on behalf of children.
One of my biggest concerns with Hip Hop as a whole is that it seems to have lost some of its substance. Dudes are no longer going to records to hear something that’s touching them. That’s when cats rapped about the Hip Hop era when it was dudes really killing it, like [Big Daddy] Kane or Rakim, or 'Pac or [The Notorious] B.I.G., Scarface; the things these dudes said made you feel you like, “Wow.” I remember listening to 'Pac and being like, “This dude is really spelling out my life right now.”
So “Parent Me” was one of those joints where I felt like people would feel like that. I’ve had kids hit me up and be like, “I feel exactly like this. Thank you for writing this song. I’m going to sit with my parents and let them listen to this song.” I’ve had parents hit me up like, “Wow, this made me rethink how I parent.” I’m hoping that the Hip Hop culture will look at it like, “Wow.”
Looking at T.I., his new show [T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle], it’s dope to a see a dude that seems to really care about raising his children. Now that’s a dope picture, dog. You never see that in our culture. It’s rare you see a dude loving his wife and loving his kids. And not just providing for his kids, but actually trying to instill a way to view the world and view life to his children. So I wanted “Parent Me” to provoke that in the hearts of people. Pastors have been hitting me up, just a range of people from all creeds and colors. I pray that it continues to reach more and more people, man.
DX: Earlier you mentioned that you’re in Iowa. How did you get from St. Louis to Iowa?
J'son: I don’t know dawg. I’m still trying to figure that out (laughs). But honestly, I moved to Iowa City, because I’m on staff with a church called Parkview. Predominately, we work with kids from Chicago. It’s called “The Spot.” On Mondays, we work with younger kids. On Wednesdays, we work with junior high and high school students. Most of these kids don’t go to church, and they’re not Christian, for lack of better terms. So what we really want to do is invest in their lives, mentor them, share the gospel with them. We just try to spend time with them. On Wednesdays, we average anywhere between 70 to 120 kids a week, every Wednesday. These are junior high and high schools kids, and none of them are Christian. On Mondays, we have more like 20 through 50 students. These are elementary-age kids. It’s just us being able to mentor kids. I’m here in Iowa with the heart of growing while I’m here sitting amongst elders. My ultimate heart is go to back to St. Louis and be part of a church plant called “The Gate.”
Right now, I’m just growing and learning. Like I said with the album Growing Pains, I particularly believe it was the Lord who led me here to Iowa City. I particularly believe that the purpose He had for us coming to Iowa City was that we might grow through the sufferings we’ve experienced and He’s teaching us to trust Him more. All of the exact reasons we came to Iowa City, I’m beginning to realize that God had a different purpose and design for why He brought us here. And we’re experiencing that growth through pain.
DX: What’s next for you?
J'son: After the album, obviously we’ll be doing a lot of traveling to promote the project. I have shows coming up in different places. I believe I’ll be at South By Southwest this year, a couple of things. We just want to get out and push the project. Lord willing, this Dreams movie will be dropping soon. That would be a really, really good look, because they’re pushing to get that joint in theaters. If it comes out in theaters, that would be a really, really big deal. We got that going on. Myself, Thi’sl and Flame are actually thinking about working on a group project. Keep your ears posted on that. Lampmode has a lot of projects going on, so you’ll probably catch me on features on Timothy Brindle’s new stuff, or other dudes on the label, Steven the Levite and S.O.
Lord willing, I want to try to put out another record next year. Other than that man, I’m just trying to love my wife and love my kids. Ultimately, if the Lord says the same, we’d like to move back to St. Louis in three or four years. I’ll be part of a church plant called “The Gate.” Our heart is to impact the city planting culturally relevant churches, and just impacting my city. That’s my ultimate heart and my ultimate goal.