Rhyme or Reason
The art of lyricism has always been a priority for Joyner Lucas, a respected MC who receives praise from veteran rappers with the same passion. Now, he’s showcasing his way with words on a new album and the big screen.
Interview: Luke Fox
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Spring 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
An element of irony is at play when Joyner Lucas pops up on a Zoom screen. The rapper-actor-aspiring real estate mogul is sitting in a parked car in the greater Boston area to chop it up with XXL, yet his career is speeding 100 miles an hour. The 34-year-old Worcester, Mass., native is preparing for the release of his cinematic new LP, Not Now, I’m Busy, due later this year. The album will follow his 2020 gold-certified ADHD, the mixtape maestro’s first studio album. That project earned him a No. 10 spot on the Billboard 200. Lucas is also ramping up for his appearances in not one but two major motion pictures. Both are action-comedies in
which he’s cutting his acting teeth in a pair of supporting roles: The Family Plan, starring Mark Wahlberg, and Bad Boys 4, starring Will Smith. It pays to have famous friends, and Lucas does not take his connects for granted.
But rhyming comes first for the MC. And so naturally that he can spit verses forward or “backwords,” as the Nas fan memorably did during a freestyle for an impressed Funkmaster Flex last September. Joyner Lucas has also held his own on tracks with rap titans Eminem (“Lucky You”), Lil Baby (“Ramen & OJ”), J. Cole (“Your Heart”), Lil Durk (“Rambo”) and Young Thug (“The War”).
Fiercely independent, Lucas has flirted with the majors like Atlantic Records, but prefers his independence these days, likening the corporate-label artist to a member of BestBuy’s Geek Squad: they flex the skills while their bosses cash the bills. He’s currently working on some “top secret” features for his upcoming full-length project that he’s excited for his fans to hear. While juggling three high-profile creative projects and exploring property investment, the Grammy-nominated lyricist is also trying to be the best dad he can be to his 7-year-old son, Joyner Messiah Lucas.
Decked out in a patterned durag covered by a forest-green hoodie and a black leather coat on a March afternoon, Joyner Lucas is as thoughtful and calculated with his responses as he is with his art. Joyner speaks on what to expect from his new album, receiving praise from Eminem, taking aim at political commentator Candace Owens in his music, landing roles in both Will and Mark’s movies and more.
XXL: You put a lot of effort into your video concepts. Why is that such a priority?
Joyner Lucas: I feel like music videos are important. I grew up in the era of Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott. Music visuals are just captivating, and that’s what used to have me glued to the TV, just watching the creativity. It kind of gives you a closer look at the artist’s mind. It’s the visual representation of their art and how they express themselves. So, it tells a lot about the person.
I really took pride and learned to become a director. I’m sitting there editing my own videos, directing them. When you have that skill set, you know exactly what you want. It’s almost like crafting the music videos to fit the records perfectly. Artists that don’t really have that capability are depending on somebody else’s vision to bring to life their song.
In your “Devil’s Work 2” video, you use specific props: the Bible, a bottle of Hennessy and a gun. What’s the symbolism of those?
A lot of deaths happen due to the gun. And the Bible, that’s the portal in which I’m speaking to God. And the Hennessy is kind of like an excuse for me saying all these crazy things. It’s like I’m drunk. I’m not in my right mind. I’m questioning God, but it’s almost excusable because I’m under the influence. But then even at the end of the record, it goes back to me acknowledging the fact that it’s not God doing this, it’s the Devil.
Why did you come at Candace Owens on that track?
I just don’t like Candace Owens. I think she’s on the money with some of the things she says, but a lot of the stuff that she says, I don’t agree with. I don’t like how she conveys her message, especially regarding the George Floyd thing. She comes off very disrespectful. Mind you, she’s a very educated woman. But she’s also very disrespectful. And I just don’t like how she painted this picture of Floyd and made it seem like he… everybody’s seen the video [of George Floyd’s death].
This guy [Derek Chauvin] has got his knee all over Floyd’s neck and killed him. And then the autopsy results come back and says exactly what it was, which is asphyxiation. But then to listen to this woman say that’s not why he died and start going into details about his past and all this s**t, she just reminds me of a Black Karen, bro.
What can people expect from your new album you’ve been working on?
Not Now, I’m Busy is like a movie. It’s like an audio movie. It’s an experience, and when you pop it in, you feel like you’re watching a movie. I really wanted to bring that to life, and that’s something I’ve been doing since Along Came Joyner [his breakthrough mixtape from 2015]. It’s a whole theatrical production, a whole movie. You feel like you’re literally listening to a movie. Movies is my thing. If I can create my own movie, what kind of movie would I create? What would it look like? What would it sound like? What actors would be in it? That’s what this album is.
What’s the significance of the title and the cover art?
There’s a few things you can take away from it. The car represents my brain. When you push things off, because you’re so busy that you’re making things wait and you’re pushing things off and you’re like, “Not now, I’m busy,” eventually it all blows up in your face. So, the car represents my brain and me just watching everything just blow up in my face. That’s my life. My life has been, “Not now, I’m busy” for a long time. It affects everybody. It affects my children sometimes. It affects my family.
Give an example of something you’ve pushed off that you regretted later.
The only thing I wish I could balance better is being a father and climbing to the top. Something is always getting in the way. If I gotta go to shoot a movie or I gotta go over to Atlanta for two months, I can’t bring my son with me. He gotta go to school. These are things I can’t control. He’s calling me while I’m literally in the middle of shooting a movie, right? He’s telling me about his day. I’m on a $200-million set. I can’t sit there and have a lengthy conversation with him while we’re about to shoot. “Not now, I’m busy.”
But that affects me as well because I understand that affects him. That’s just one example of what I mean. Things that I cannot control that I wish I could. “Mark? Hey, no, I can’t shoot this movie. My son….” And if I don’t shoot the movie, and if I don’t do these things, and I can’t climb to the top, and I can’t make the money I need to make sure that I sustain generational wealth for him…. So, it’s a sacrifice. Something is getting sacrificed, right?
When did you first catch wind that Eminem was a big fan of yours? And how did that feel?
It felt amazing. He dropped my name in an interview as an artist that was coming up that he really liked. They asked him who his favorite up-and-coming artist was, and he dropped my name. And I was like, “Holy s**t!” And then from there, I know Royce [5’9”] has a relationship with him. Before I dropped “I’m Not Racist,” I actually sent it to Royce, because I had mentioned Eminem’s name in there. And I wanted to make sure that it was OK, that he wasn’t going to feel disrespected when it came out. I don’t want to disrespect.
So, he sent it to him, and Marshall was like, “Wow, no, I don’t feel any type of way. This is genius.” Boom. Record comes out, does its thing. Then Marshall mentioned me again and says that record should’ve been nominated for a Grammy. After he says that, it got nominated for a Grammy, which is amazing. And then we dropped “Lucky You,” our record together. And that was amazing. He’s a great guy. Great dude. Somebody I’ve always wanted to work with, and I’m happy that I get to be a part of his legacy.
Will Smith is one of your heroes. What did you think when you saw him slap Chris Rock at the Oscars?
I stayed up watching that, just because I wanted to see Will get his first Oscar. And as I was falling asleep, and I’m trying to stay up because it was dragging, I wanted to see him get the Oscar, so I can congratulate him. And when it happened, I hopped out of my bed in disbelief. For a split second, I didn’t know if it was a part of the show. But when [the camera] zoomed in on his face and he was upset, I knew it wasn’t part of the show. Because I know Will. He’s a very positive guy. His demeanor isn’t that. So, for him to get there, I knew he was very upset.
He worked his whole life to get an Oscar. And then in the same token, that moment was taken away from him. I couldn’t believe that it happened, to be honest with you. But then I started thinking: What would I do? What would I do if I was in that situation? Would I have done the same thing? Because it’s one thing to say what you would do until you actually feel disrespected.
Do you talk to Will regularly? What’s your relationship like?
Absolutely, yeah. Will is a mentor of mine. He’s always been a hero to me. And he’s always been somebody that I’ve looked up to since I was a kid. He’s human. And just because he made a mistake doesn’t mean that he’s no longer my hero or he can no longer be my mentor. The fact that he acknowledged his mistakes and he’s tried to make right only makes me idolize him even more.
Did you watch Chris Rock’s Netflix special, Selective Outrage?
I did. I seen it.
Do you have a thought on his last bit, where he goes in on Will?
He’s hurt. But what he doesn’t realize is that, I think Chris had to get his rocks off, man. I think he waited too long. But I also thought it was disrespectful. I felt like he got super disrespectful with it. I’m a bit biased because Will [is my friend].
So, it’s a touchy subject because of that. Because I also empathize with Will. It’s definitely a touchy subject, but I do feel like above all, Chris Rock is hurt, and he’s on a mission right now. Will understands that. I get it. He’s a comedian. He had to tell his side of the story, and he had to make jokes to go with it.
Your career path is kind of mirroring Will’s. You’re getting into movies now. You have a role in an upcoming Mark Wahlberg flick.
Yes. Mark is another one of my really great friends. And nobody wants to see me win more than that guy. He’s doing what he can to put me in movies. I got a really good role in our upcoming movie called The Family Plan, which is really dope. It’s my first time ever being on set. Because of my relationship with Mark and just me naturally being an actor in my music videos, they just cast me. Even with Will, I’m gonna play a role in Bad Boys 4, which is fire.
What are your roles in these movies?
I play a villain [in the Wahlberg film]. What’s dope is that a lot of actors start from the independent movie thing, and then they do these [blockbusters]. But my very first movies were like $200-[million], $300-million movies. My very first movies were with two of the biggest [stars] in the world, which is amazing for me to be blessed enough to be a part of their legacy, to be a part of Will’s legacy, to be a part of Mark’s legacy.
I’ve been a part of some really dope legacies of a lot of dope people that I’ve always admired. I’ve been a part of Will Smith’s legacy. I’ve been a part of Mark’s legacy. I’ve been a part of Eminem’s legacy. I’ve been a part of Chris Brown’s legacy.
What are you most proud of that you’ve accomplished so far?
Going top 10 Billboard, independently. Being nominated for two Grammys, independently. Being in two high-profile, big movies with two of my favorite actors. It’s crazy, when I mentioned Mark Wahlberg in 2017, I had no relationship with him. Didn’t know him. So that’s pretty fire. And being able to buy houses for my family. Being able to take care of my loved ones and make sure that everybody’s good.
I put that first. Being able to do what I love to do and make a living out of it and move around how I want to move around. Those are really big accomplishments to me, man.
Check out additional interviews in XXL magazine’s spring 2023 issue, including the cover story with Lil Durk, conversations with Coi Leray, Key Glock, Fridayy, Luh Tyler, Lola Brooke, Destroy Lonely, Blxst, Curren$y, Finesse2tymes, Vic Mensa, Toosii, DJ Drama and actor Tyler Lepley, plus a look at how famed hip-hop attorney Bradford Cohen helps clients like Drake and Kodak Black beat their cases, veteran photographer Johnny Nuñez tells the behind-the-scenes stories of 10 of his iconic hip-hop photos, six rappers from six different eras—Melle Mel, MC Shan, RZA, Lupe Fiasco, B.o.B and Cordae—discuss the change in hip-hop over 50 years and a deep dive into the city of Memphis becoming a breeding ground for new rap talent.