“What does New York sound like? What I think New York sounds like is lyricism, ’cause that’s one thing that we all have. It’s about holding your own as a lyricist,” 21-year-old Jimi Tents explains.
We’re inside The Vamp Cave, a studio in Brooklyn named after his production team consisting of Smitty, Kof, Raleigh, Ciaus, and Lehkz; it is where the rapper recorded the majority of his sophomore album, I Can’t Go Home. Tents is embracing the idea that New York rappers need to co-mingle more. He once said his goals in music were to not be the next Biggie or Big L, but to be the first Jimi Tents. “Bridge the gap,” he says of the divide. “I feel like a lot of New York doesn’t fuck with New York. It’s so divided that it’s kind of like high school where it’s like there’s this table, there’s that table, but there’s a lot of dope people at each table. I don’t see why people aren’t blending.”
A few days later, Tents put his preaching to practice when he held an album release show at Rough Trade. Other creatives like Queens rapper Anik Khan were on hand to congratulate him on the release. Tents also emphasized that he is not a conscious or mumble rapper, but someone who takes their time to make quality music. The best litmus test for such a statement? A New York crowd. Several mosh pits erupted during trap-infused cuts “All Of It” and “Rick Rubin,” indicating that Tents’ fans are more than willing to turn up with him.
One of the prevailing themes of I Can’t Go Home is gentrification. Any native of the city can relate to seeing the culture of their neighborhood vanish for wealthier prospects. Tents’ own family was forced to move out of their home on New Jersey Ave and Blake Ave in 2016. The album cover depicts Tents sitting near a worn couch in front of a gate in Brooklyn. “This is what my living environment is, but this is clearly not a livable environment,” he says when we’re back in the studio.
With a disposable camera in hand, he invited Highsnobiety to some of the locations that inspired the album. Our itinerary included a neighborhood liquor store, his mother’s foreclosed home, the church where he attended Catholic school, and his father’s house in the 90’s which is nearby Bobby Shmurda’s childhood home.
Along the way we saw the respect Tents has earned from his community, and watched a proud father welcome his son home by treating him to a plate of fried fish and dumplings. As Tents opened up, one message kept recurring: Return home in a better position than you left.
NY vs. LA
I chose the title “NY vs. LA” because I wanted people to have a preconception of what they think I’ll talk about. In the record, I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who is frustrated and fed up with their place in life. I’m saying, ‘I’m tired of this 9 to 5. I’m tired of the way I’m living.’
For “LA,” it kind of drifts off into a dream. The beat switches. This is him [the character] dreaming about the contrast between where he is and where he thinks life would be if he packed his stuff up and moved to L.A. At this point, he’s like, ‘I’ve been out here California dreamin’ on the East Coast/All my bitches tanned and all they fathers own speedboats.’ It’s just this outlandish lifestyle that he dreams of achieving.
Chelsea Market was kind of an inspiration because it was my first real job. I was sweeping, wiping tables, and mopping floors and shit. Now, going back into that building and just going upstairs to YouTube or to handle business in that building, it’s kind of crazy.
No Looking Back (Glance)
“No Looking Back” is about trying decide if you’re going to leave your comfort zone. That idea touches on a lot of the things that lead up to me making the song. I’m looking back on times where I was sleeping on the floor in the studio or I wasn’t in the position that I am now. I’m thankful and somewhat boastful.
The hook, ‘Look at the watch/Look at the rims/Look at the Jag’ is coming from the perspective of someone telling me, ‘Yo you need to get out. Look at what I have. You can get the same thing.’ I’m not rapping from the perspective of flexing, I’m rapping from the perspective of look what is achievable.
I have a ton of memories standing in this very spot. I lived 14-plus years in this house so there’s a lot of memories. I remember being a kid and riding my bike up and down. My mom would say, ‘You can’t go past that block.’ This house is where I found the freedom to spread my wings a bit and do what I wanted.
I was blessed with the opportunity to go back inside and I saw how much shit has changed. They let me see the backyard where my siblings had all written our names in concrete. The thing is, they’ve covered it up. It’s not even there anymore. The moments that made it home are somewhat erased. Now it’s a home for someone else.
I Can’t Go Home is also about finding comfort in uncomfortable situations. Going into 2016, my family’s house got foreclosed. The house I grew up in, my childhood home, we lost that. I didn’t connect the can’t go home idea until after the album was created. I was like, ‘Oh wow, subconsciously I must have been thinking about it.’
This song is written from the perspective of somebody that’s stuck in their daily routine but wants more. Whether they have a girlfriend or a 9-to-5 job, they know they have this talent. They know they have this spark, this flare—something within them—that can change their entire life. Still, they’re scared of disappointing people by jumping out of that daily routine and being in a more comfortable space. I’m challenging myself as this character to go further. To just say, ‘Yo, fuck what I have right here because in the end this is what I’m doing it for.’ I’m leaving to come back with something greater.
I appreciate everything he’s contributed to hip-hop culture— his executive production and being creative enough to venture out of hip-hop into rock music and metal. He’s just extremely dope as a human being just based on the research I’ve done aand seeing things that he was involved in.
I’m hoping that he hears the song soon enough (if he hasn’t already), and I hope that he reaches out. I feel like I have so much more to offer. Someone like Rick Rubin can definitely help steer or push me into the right direction even if it’s not from an involvement standpoint. Even just words of wisdom would be great – he gives me a sensei vibe.
When people listen to the song, a lot of them don’t know actually know what the fuck I’m talking about. They just love the bounce and they love saying ‘Rick Ruubbin.’ For the older people who actually know about Rick Rubin and what his history in the game is, they get all the nods and references. I reference [Jay Z’s] “99 Problems,” LL Cool J, Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Geto Boys.
Whatcha Gon Do
I really rep East New York and I really do champion my neighborhood. I try to talk about it with a lot of respect. I hold it near and dear to my heart. I want to help do something to make a change there. Not only for me, but for the people in my community because that environment is what shaped me.
When we moved to the neighborhood I was going to a public school—P.S. 13 Roberto Clemente. My mom didn’t like the neighborhood – how gritty it was, how hard it was. My block was pretty active but it got worse once you got to the parts under the subway; that’s also where my school was located. Being a mom, she didn’t feel comfortable having me do that commute. So she was like, ‘You’re going to school on this block right here and I’m putting you in Catholic school.’ I was in the third grade.
She definitely couldn’t afford to put me in Catholic school. I have eight siblings, but as far as being in my mom’s household, there were four of us. She still made sure all of us went to Catholic school, singlehandedly.
Below The Surface
“Below the Surface” is probably one of the most vulnerable and personal records on the album. Shoutout to Saba for getting on that. There’s a lot of positive things from my childhood and a lot of negative things. You know, things that I tend to not talk about unless it’s on record.
I was a huge fan of what Saba did on Chance’s Acid Rap and Coloring Book. He’s an extremely dope lyricist. I was talking about losing a loved one and going through the pain but still seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Sadly enough, Saba lost his cousin. He was able to relate to me and talk about his loss and the things that were bothering him.
Set Me Free
I wanted to end the album with “Set Me Free” because I was feeling some resentment (maybe more disappointment) toward the people who supported me and then abandoned me. It was me hoping that through my trials and tribulations I could find redemption or something that would set me free overall. I hope that everything that I’ve done and everything that I am doing isn’t in vain. I hope to get to see what I’m putting forth come to fruition. If that isn’t the case, I’d rather die.
I chose [my dad’s] place because [“Set Me Free”] was the end of the album but that home was legit my beginnings. This was my home before my home [on New Jersey Ave and Blake Ave]. I just thought it’d be good to bring everything around full circle.
A lot of people [in my neighborhood] show love. They’re just happy to see me in this position and have the opportunities that I have. My main goal is just to not fuck it up. I want to put my best foot forward and release the best possible music.
For more music features check out our chat with rising musical talent Khalid here.
- Writer: Eric Diep