Visionary J challenges norms with new album ‘Jalen’


Patrick Murphy

Visionary J performing at An Evening for Black Lives

By Jacob Baker

Jalen Smith, senior art illustration major, also known as “Visionary J,” dropped his second independent album “Jalen” Feb. 29 that deals with topics relevant to issues in the world right now. He performed some songs from the album at the Evening for Black Lives on Aug. 21. 

“Jalen” was made with the goal of being sonically pleasing through boombap and trap styles of rap as a cohesive experience, Smith said. The album has plenty of upbeat and high energy tracks like “Validation” and “Heated,” but Smith makes sure to provide many deep cuts throughout the album that deal with themes like mental health, worries of being a Black man in America and the current issues within society on tracks like “Jalen / New Jalen” and “Sad Baggage.” 

“Validation” and “Art Major” are the more upbeat tracks at the beginning of the track list, Smith said. Both deal with the outside pressures of family, fans and societal norms that contradict following dreams and picking a major in college or career path that’s considered safe. 

“It’s about doing what you want to do with your life,” Smith said. “Ultimately not becoming another soulless husk working and turning the gears in a rat race to get to the top.” 

Smith said he started writing “Jalen” during his first year of college in 2018. At that point in his life, he said he was struggling with depression, how his family perceived his mental health and the realities and dangers of living in Chicago. All of these experiences inspired Smith to make his sophomore album a telltale of how he felt and how it could help others. 

One of the most powerful things about the creation of art is how it can help others, Smith said. Being transparent and honest about the feelings Smith was going through while making this album made Smith realize the impact of understanding one another through his album.

A major focus on “Jalen” was looking at the hypocrisy within America and society in general. Songs like “Sad Baggage,” featuring Nicholas Stroud, audio engineer of “Jalen,”  also known as “Nick Fine$$e,” call out society for not giving proper labels to white terrorists, who act like ISIS but won’t be called terrorists. 

“We were trying to make something that could become timeless,” Stroud said. “Taking what we experienced in society and what we’re going through on the inside, we wanted to put that into a tangible piece of art to try and impact society.” 

Throughout the album, Smith details moments when he and others were treated unfairly by people and police just because they’re Black. 

“With situations like racism and being untreated fairly by the police, it just shows me the hypocrisy of America and how Black people have been treated for 400 years,” Smith said. “For me to use my platform to say something when I have everything to lose, that should be a wakeup call to people.”  

Smith explores more heartfelt moments on the album with songs like “Mary Louise” — a song about his grandmother who passed. Smith wrote “Mary Lousie” after finding old cassettes that allowed him to connect with his grandmother by communicating with her while she wasn’t there, he said.  

“I played it for my great auntie, and she thought it was an amazing tribute to my grandmother,” Smith said. 

Smith said some of his biggest influences were Kanye West, before the “Yeezus” era and later, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. These influences are extremely apparent on the outro track “Visionary” an upbeat closer to the album that resembles a classic Kanye West track off of  “College Dropout” and “Late Registration.” When Smith heard the outro beat, he said he knew he had to put his best foot forward in terms of lyrics. 

“Jalen has always been what his name ensues, a visionary,” Stroud said. “He’s always been profound and articulate as a lyricist and as a musician.”

Smith said he wants “Jalen” to stand the test of time and for people to use his album for help or to inspire them. “Jalen” is available on all streaming platforms, such as Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube. Smith recommends listening to the album in order. He can be found on social media on Twitter and Instagram.