Never Thirsty: A Week in Chicago with Mick Jenkins
The Chicago-via-Huntsville rapper prides himself on his coded yet deliberate message. With his new project 'Wave[s]', the 24-year-old makes a statement, whether he wants to or not.
Photo by Bryan Allen Lamb
The sun beams through the West-Side Chicago rehearsal studio’s glass-block window, curls under the brim of Mick Jenkins’s black fedora and spreads across his face. The 24-year-old hip-hop artist squints, and for the first time all morning, as he prepares for his Lollapalooza debut with his three-piece band, he adopts a serious tone. When not performing, Jenkins has a way of putting others at ease: He’s casual and laid-back without seeming disinterested. Seconds earlier, I’d asked him if all the chaos currently happening in his life—namely the touring and recording and ample press surrounding his recent accession as one of the hottest hip-hop acts to emerge from his already talent-spewing city—gave him stress. “Absolutely, bro,” Jenkins says. “I could only get deeper by telling you why, but I don’t want to do that. I’m stressed in more ways than most people think,” he acknowledges before falling silent, then smirking as if to acknowledge that yes, he could perhaps further open a window into himself but would rather not. Mick Jenkins would rather have you try and decipher him through his music. To that end, for the next hour or so, curling his six-foot-five frame into a windowsill, face gazing down at his feet, Mick Jenkins raps.
A product of Chicago’s poetry and drama scene, Jenkins leans not surprisingly on his coded lyrics to impart his missive: His thunderous voice, oft waxing poetic on the human condition, cuts through the static. And yet Jenkins’s overarching message often remains obtuse. To hear him tell it, his rise to notoriety—principally on the strength of his jazz-inflected 2013 mixtape Trees and Truths and, most notably, last year’s standout The Water(s)—has only widened the gap between himself and his audience.
“The majority of people hearing the music and knowing the words are missing the message,” the rapper, of booming baritone and soulful production, says. “I can see it: It’s a misunderstanding of lyrics. ‘You skimmed it. You looked at it at the surface level. You didn’t bother to look at it. You didn’t bother to listen to it for real.’” Sure, he grants, many of his fans may understand that when Mick Jenkins screams his mantra “Drink More Water” it’s his way of telling them to bring more light and more life into their own. As for his deeper, more nuanced message? Not only do his fans not understand but, in speaking to him, Jenkins will make you feel as if you don’t either. It’s why as he’s set to release a new, stunning mini-LP, Wave[s], later this week, the rapper remains uneasy at the thought of an enlarged fanbase and public profile.
“To increase the numbers of people listening only means more people are missing it,” he offers. “We want the message to get out to more people. But I’m not out here trying to get listeners.”
Two days later, wearing Tommy Hilfiger sweat-shorts and a bright green baseball hat, Mick Jenkins steps to the front of the stage at Lollapalooza. It’s at the tail end of a raucous 45-minute set that kicks off the festival’s second day, and suddenly he adopts a professorial tone. For a brief minute, after performing his murky track “Martyrs,” during which he raps “niggas ain’t really listening/let me break it down for you,” Jenkins tells the crowd a story about a man named James Broadnax: The convicted murderer is featured in the “Martyrs” video, and is most notable perhaps for quoting a Lil Wayne lyric when asked why he killed two men in cold blood. For Jenkins, this speech is both a rehearsed one and a means by which he can better articulate to his audience exactly how black men used to be dying for a cause but are now dying by participating in and replicating violence in a senseless fashion. He’s uneasy about its impact.
Sometime soon, he says seconds after stepping offstage, “there will be something to say after every song. It will be rehearsed and it will be practiced I can’t just be up there saying whatever’s on the top of my head. I have to be specific with what I’m trying to say. It’s that important.”
Photo by Bryan Allen Lamb
Jenkins always felt it natural to be out in front of others, but the form and means by which he did so was a gradual evolution. Raised in the northern-Alabama town of Huntsville by a journalist mother (his father has been in and out of his life), Jenkins (born Jayson Jenkins) relocated to Chicago at nine-years-old when mother was diagnosed with lupus in order be closer to her extended family. It was a drastic change as his new, segregated South Side-Chicago neighborhood of Burnside was a far cry from his previous racially-integrated Alabama past. At his mother’s urging, by age 13, Jenkins made sure to fully explore the city: “She said, ‘You need to know where you’re going. You need to what’s going on.’ So that’s what I was doing.”
Despite early trouble adjusting to his new surroundings, not to mention catching flack for his Southern accent, Jenkins eventually found a safe haven in Chicago’s performing arts community. In high school he joined a drama group called Controversy, often spending his evenings trying to get into the city’s 21-and-over live-performance clubs like the Green Mill, the Mercury Café, and Jokes and Notes. “Since grade school I’ve just been finding ways to perform,” he notes, citing both his drama group and later a community of writers and performers at local nonprofit Young Chicago Authors as examples. He also got involved with mock trials though his dream of being a lawyer quickly died. (“I realized how much your average lawyer doesn’t go to trial,” he says of a summer internship at a federal courthouse. “I thought, this isn’t like TV. This is probably not what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life.”)
A turn towards his pursuit of hip-hop however didn’t arrive until he returned to Alabama. After graduating high school, Jenkins enrolled at Oakwood University, a small private school in his native Huntsville affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, of which his family was devout members. (Many of his religious family members, in fact, still don’t accept his rap career: “It’s kind of awkward for me to approach some of my aunts and uncles about it because they don’t approve.”). In his sophomore year at Oakwood, Jenkins entered a rap competition called “Got Bars.” “Before that I was just rapping sometimes,” he says. “But [my friends in my poetry group] were recording music and taking it so serious so that made me start taking it serious. I was like “ I can do this!” So I just went off and made my own little seven-track joint. It was good for rap’s sake. But my content was completely different. It was bullshit.”
Jenkins released five mixtapes over the next few years, including 2012’s The Pursuit of HappyNess: The Story of MickalasCage. His MCing remained a work in progress, however. “Everything before Trees and Truths is on the same level. Five tapes: No growth at all,” he says. In late-2012, Jenkins dropped out of college, returned to Chicago but got sidetracked by an arrest back in Alabama for marijuana possession. He spent a month in jail after which re-focused his energy on rapping. “I was getting serious about the music,” he said. “And because of that I had to get serious about the content. I couldn’t be seriously making music about nothing.”
The jazzy Trees and Truths, released in April 2013, and which Jenkins calls his debut mixtape, was met with critical acclaim. But it was his next year spent working on The Water(s) that transformed Jenkins into his current, thought-provoking rapper self. “I made sure that The Water(s) had a concise sound and at least all the music sounds similar: trying to make it sound like you’re under water, make sure there’s catchy choruses,” Jenkins says. Shortly before dropping the project, he’d also signed with hip-hop tastemaker and independent label head Jonny Shipes’s Cinematic Music Group. Shipes, who discovered Nipsey Hussle, Big K.R.I.T. and Joey Bada$$, won over Jenkins by agreeing to work with him for free on a six-month trial basis. “It’s more important to build a working relationship with someone rather then rush into paperwork based on inorganic buzz,” Shipes explains of his frequent methodology. “I like to make sure both sides are on the same page.”
Photo by Bryan Allen Lamb
Once back in the studio this year putting together Wave[s], Jenkins says he drew inspiration from his love of neo-soul music to concoct a more broad-reaching work. The album, which features him singing on many of its hooks, and has his most radio-friendly song to date in the Kaytranda-produced “Your Love,” displays him “definitely experimenting with things: using more melodies” and writing “words to stick in people’s heads.” There’s also a plethora of live instrumentation in the mix. “The knowledge to do that and to change comes from paying attention to other people’s music and being super-critical of my own,” he says, citing friend and collaborator Chance the Rapper as well as Kendrick Lamar.
At nearly half the length of The Water(s), Jenkins’s new nine-track release is his most immediately impactful: It’s every bit as emotive (“40 Below”) and direct (“Slumber’) as its much-heralded predecessor but trims away the fat; instead his production team (which includes ThemPeople) dial in on more buoyant beats and splashy melodies. And while he may not be aiming for it, “Your Love” may find a comfortable home on rhythmic radio. Suggest this to Jenkins and he’ll acknowledge some of his longtime fans “who just wants bars are going to have a problem” with the track. His take? “I don’t care. I don’t let it affect the music.”
“He’s very opinionated and right to the point with what he believes and feels,” Shipes offers of one of his most vocal clients. “That’s something me and Mick have understood about each other. I let him do him. “
Back in the rehearsal room, Jenkins is getting fired up, explaining what he expects Wave[s] will do for his career. According to him, when he really stops and thinks, his whole career-arc means nothing. “I always expect each project to do way more than it does,” Jenkins concedes in a rare moment of sheer transparency. “Every time, I have full confidence in my work.” It doesn’t always play out as expected though. As Jenkins sees it, raw talent—of which he has plenty—can only do an artist so much good. “This shit ain’t based off skill,” he says of an artist’s potential for commercial success. “It’s mostly timing and luck. Talent matters. But as far as the hype machine goes, this is the best time to be an average nigga. For real.”
Nonetheless, he stays busy working on his eventual forthcoming debut album, The Healing Component. “The shit’s growing, man,” he admits. “It’s watching organic growth every fucking week.”
Jenkins is happy. Because even if he doesn’t “blow up,” as the hip-hop blogeratti would have it, he’s already achieved enough for himself: “Whatever comes my way that does not require me to compromise myself I welcome it. I’m sustained off music right now. I can live off this. That’s the ultimate goal. I wake up every morning and do what I love. I’m already there.”
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.