I want you to be able to tell by every album I make, how I was feeling at the time, what my mind was doing,” says Ajani Jones.
When you listen to Dragonfly, Jones’s 2019 debut album, you can tell he has a lot on his mind.
“In the last year, I’ve experienced so many things. I felt like dancing and going to nightclubs. I felt like there’s nothing I can do, because there’s still people dying in my city. I felt aggressive and angry, and I felt this sense of peace. Meditative balance. I just wanted to put that all together.”
Dragonfly, in turn, takes on the entire modern rap landscape. On the album’s sharpest cuts, Jones doubles down in intensity, rapping triplets over detuned synths (“Dragons”) or dusty “Canal St.” chops (“Lucid”). But the album is generous, packed with verses to dance to and hooks to sing along to. There’s spry hip-house (“Black Power Ranger”), hushed chillwave (“Sea”), even big-tent EDM (“Quicksilver”). At thirteen tracks, it’s half the length of, say, a mid-2000s Roc-a-Fella tracklist—but there’s the same sense of sprawl, the same exploration and exhaustion of ideas.
“A lot of people would say I don’t have a sound, because of that. But I disagree. Your sound is not necessarily sonic—it’s what you bring to [the] sound. When you hear Ajani Jones on a song, you know it’s me.”
And anyway, the impression that Jones makes on Dragonfly has less to do with his lyrical versatility and more to do with the scale of the story he wants to tell. His lyrics are timestamped by memories, mapped out between Stony Island, Loomis, and Ashland.
When Jones sat down for an interview with the Weekly, he described Dragonfly as the culmination of his childhood growing up around the South Side, his college years finding his way in Iowa, and his day job working up in Rogers Park. To hear him tell it, his art couldn’t have happened any other way—“because it’s literally like, look: either you’re going to make it happen, or you’re just going to let life happen to you.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Who’s speaking in the monologue at the start of Dragonfly?
So, that’s my little brother. His name is Ajani.
I don’t know if many people know this, but Ajani isn’t my real name. It’s his, I took it. When he came of age, I talked to my parents and him about taking his name on, because he symbolizes what our family means. In Yoruba, which is a Nigerian language, Ajani means “He who conquers the struggle.” My parents hammered that home for a long time, because we did struggle when I was younger. My mom’s been living check to check for a quarter century, just trying to keep her head above water with four kids. So [my brother] means a lot, you know what I’m saying—since he was born, he was the sunshine. And I realized that made more sense to me than anything.
I asked to take his name on, and a lot of what I’m doing is for him. Having him on there, I wanted the world to hear his voice.
Where did the concept for this album come from?
It started with me going to the lake one day. I was in a state of depression, trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I wanted to take it to the next level. I was there for hours, freestyling to the beats that I had, just trying to figure out where I wanted to go. And I saw a dragonfly, just hovering above me. I used to be afraid of them, as a kid. I was just like: why was I afraid of them? They don’t do anything, they just live freely.
I then looked it up, and [something] said that a dragonfly symbolizes change. Movement, freedom. And that resonated with me, because that’s how I wanted to feel. This set the stage for me being like: OK, what am I? I’m an artist in the city [who] not many people know. So I need to start somewhere: cocoon. And I wanted to bring it more full circle with the metamorphosis… That was kind of just the overall theme. Growing. Evolution.
How did you construct Dragonfly?
Honestly, it was really free-form. Like I said, I think of the concept and then I fill it in. There were days I’d be sitting with Iris Temple, we’d just be sitting there, they’d put down an idea, a year later I’d come back to it and [think ]: this is going on the album. And I didn’t care how it sounded—I just cared that it was a good sound, [a sound] that makes you feel something.
“Lucid” was one of those for me. I listened to it 100 times the first night I made it, back to back. I was at work for eight hours, I listened to it the entire day. That’s how I knew it would be special, for me. You just know in those moments.
What’s it like to see people responding to those moments?
It’s been a lot that people actually like the album. You know, I came into this deal with Closed Sessions and I put pressure on myself, because I wanted to deliver for a label I always wanted to work with. But at the end of the day, I [needed] to make sure that I liked the album. This album wasn’t for them—it’s for me, and for anyone that would relate with what Dragonfly symbolizes, change and growth.
Tell me about the shoot for the “Black Power Ranger” music video.
It was so fun! I’ve never been on a set with that many people. At first, I was a little weirded out—because these people are here to work with me, and I don’t really know them…And they’re just looking at me, like all right! Let’s do this … It means a lot to me that I had [people] who really believed in the song. You know, ‘cause to work on a [music] video, you have to listen to it a million times. And they’d tell me that they kept playing it, they were singing the words… like, that’s how I knew they liked it.
“Pluto” feels like one of the most personal songs on the album. Where did the name come from?
One day my little brother was doing his homework, and he told me they had said that Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore. [And] he was like: “Well, I wonder if that place is better than here.” When he said that, it kind of fucked me up. It made me think of [his] perspective… how a young kid can see the messed-up part of the world at such a young age, and want to be somewhere else already. And he hadn’t experienced it really.
That’s why the chorus is like: “let it flow up to the sky…” Just getting away. But also, from a different perspective, getting on your purpose—so that maybe, maybe this place isn’t right for you, but maybe there’s another place out there, far away…. My mom ended up talking to him about that, and kinda just let him know that there isn’t all evil in this world. And he needs to understand that, because you don’t want to approach life as a cynic. It’s not the way it should be approached.
What keeps you from being a cynic?
To be honest with you man, I’m a spiritual guy. I believe my ancestors have played a pivotal role in my life. Those that have come before me are still here with me as my guardian angels, man. My hunch, that wrench in your gut telling you what to do and when to do it…. You ever feel like you never knew how to get out of a situation, but it just worked out? And it continues to happen that way? It’s more than just manifestation, it’s divine help. I give that to my ancestors. They look out for me. I’d be dead, know what I’m saying, if it wasn’t for them—would’ve made the wrong decisions, I’d be homeless.
There are so many things that contribute to me being alive and breathing with a ceiling over me and food always in my stomach. So why be a cynic? With all the blessings we have…I realize we take a lot of it for granted. And that’s why we become cynics—because we want what we want. We don’t want what we need, we want what we want.
And I learned that a long time ago. The things you feel like you really really want—you’ll get there if you take care of what you need first. And what I’ve always needed was family love, a place to lay my head, and a platform. And a voice.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Specifically, rappers that influenced me a lot—Lupe (Fiasco), Common, Kanye of course. Definitely people like Chance the Rapper. But I would also say just the city itself. Growing up the way I grew up, I felt like there was no place like Chicago. I’ve been to L.A., I’ve been to New York. I’ve been to Florida, I’ve been to Texas—and there’s no place like Chicago. I just want people to get that. I feel like everybody says you gotta go to L.A. to make it happen. Why? I mean, all the labels are out there, sure—but I’m here. Come to me.
I want people to feel that this is a place where we can have a hub, we can have success here. Maybe I’m naive. But I know that I will be the one to spark change in someone’s mind, to help the next generation. So Chicago is the place I’m going to do it. That’s the base behind my music. Helping people understand that it’s not about chasing other people, it’s about chasing the best version of you.
Jones’s latest single, “Manifest,” dropped on February 3 on all streaming platforms.
Christopher Good is a senior editor for the Weekly. He last wrote for the Weekly in 2018 about rapper Matt Muse.