Show & Prove
Jay Critch took his time building his fan base. Now, the Brooklyn rapper is making moves in his hometown and overseas.
Words: Eric Ducker
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Jay Critch picks up the phone sounding groggy as hell, like he just woke up from a deep sleep or he’s in need of one. It’s 4 p.m. in New York City, the 20-year-old rapper’s hometown and current locality. Tomorrow, he’s set to fly off to Europe for a string of headlining club shows through the latter half of November in places like Cologne, Germany and Milan, Italy. It’ll be his second trip to the continent, a setting that he succinctly describes as “fire” and “different.”

The slender Brooklyn MC with a ballplayer’s build set out on his first Euro tour in the fall of 2017, a guest accompanying Rich The Kid as he opened for Future. But Critch’s own swift upward trajectory began in 2016, as he built a following off tracks like “Adlibs” and “Fashion.” Over the past two years, he’s had the people craving something more substantial from him than singles and loosies. He held off until this past November, when he released Hood Favorite via Rich Forever Music and Interscope Records. As to why he chose not to put out any mixtapes earlier, Critch explains, “I always was going to drop one, but it was just how things happened. I was just worried about dropping new songs, I wasn’t really worried about a project just yet. Then I had a little fan base and they started asking for a tape, but I just didn’t drop one. Then it got to a point where my fan base had a good size and now they really fiendin’ for the mixtape, and I still didn’t drop it. So, the anticipation was crazy.”

Critch rewarded their wait with his Hood Favorite project, a showcase of his charismatic nonchalance. He raps like he can hardly believe that he has to explain that he’s living so well. On “Quicker,” his collab with Offset, he spits disgustedly, “You can’t ball with us, you garbage/Niggas buggin’, copy the wave we started/Straight out the oven, I’m getting paid, they starvin’.”

Though Critch primarily works with up-and-coming beatmakers, early on he caught the attention of Harry Fraud, the veteran producer responsible for crucial breakthrough cuts by French Montana and Action Bronson. Critch hit up Fraud on Instagram about working together; it turned out Fraud was already a fan. “He has the balance of having that young energy and making those songs that get that young energy across,” says Fraud. “But at the same time, in all the songs there were bars.”

Fraud is best known for working with larger-than-life characters, but Critch is more low-key, both in person and on the mic. The pairing resulted in the tracks “Thousand Ways” and “Try It,” a Hood Favorite single featuring Montana and Fabolous, who was one of Critch’s formative influences. Each of their songs together works the classic New York tempo while incorporating more modern sounds. “This is a laid-back guy, that’s who he is,” Fraud says of Critch. “I don’t think it’s a shyness thing, I think it’s probably the opposite. It comes from a confidence level.”

Critch grew up in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood—the now-gentrified blocks where Biggie Smalls once dwelled—and started his rap career in seventh grade by messing around on his friend’s MacBook, making tracks on GarageBand recorded through the laptop’s built-in microphone. He kept at it with other friends but soon realized he was one of the few of them who wasn’t really messing around anymore. “Instead of doing it on some playful shit, I started really writing,” he tells.

After he began high school at The Beacon School, Critch met the producer Laron Wages, a student who was already staying out past curfew for studio sessions. “He had a natural cool about him, and he got a good rapper voice,” Wages says of Critch. “He had to work on his cadence and his flow and his delivery with certain things, but he was super serious about it and he made sure that he got it. He’s developed a style that’s his own and is very comfortable with himself. You don’t see that with a lot of people. He wasn’t trying to rap like anybody else at the time.”

Laron and Jay Critch have remained regular collaborators, teaming up on everything from the minimalist bopper “VVS” to “Brown Hair,” a gleaming cruiser inspired by Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s “Beautiful.” “Him and me, we both don’t just have one sound,” Critch says. “We’re always switching up how it feel, the whole everything.” Laron adds: “Critch always strived to get better. I made sure I would give him points, and he made me get better.”

Critch recorded more and more. Once his neighborhood got behind him (as he rhymes on “Adlibs”: “Got this music shit poppin’ and crackin’/Got my whole block sayin, ‘Nigga keep rappin’”), he started putting his tracks up on SoundCloud and YouTube. They soon amassed 10s of thousands of streams. Around the time 2016’s “Did it Again” hit 60,000 plays (it’s currently at over a million on YouTube), his boy Gramz played it for Rich The Kid. The Atlanta-bred star invited Critch out to Los Angeles to join him in the studio. Critch got on a flight that night and signed to Rich’s label, Rich Forever Music, soon after.

In L.A., Rich had Critch stood side-by-side with him and Famous Dex as he made 2017’s Rich Forever 3 mixtape. The experience eventually exposed Critch to a broader audience but it also opened him up to a new way of recording. He used to put together his rhymes the traditionalist way, writing them all out before stepping to the mic. Working on Rich Forever 3, he saw how Rich and Dex constructed each song line-by-line, reacting quickly to whatever they had just spit. “Once I got out to L.A., we was working fast, going off the top of our heads,” tells Critch. “It kind of worked out for me. I like recording like that, ’cause you get what you’re feeling at that moment. You’re getting the vibe.”

And now, finally, everyone else is getting it, too. Don't sleep.

Rich Forever Music

Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2018 issue including our Migos cover story interview, Vic Mensa talking activism and more.

See Photos of Migos for the XXL Magazine Winter 2018 Issue