Rapper Mick Jenkins is tall, 6’5 to be exact. His colossal stature is accentuated by his baritone voice, which when delivering quick witted lyrics, captures listeners instantly. Jenkins’s calm demeanor was also on full display when he greeted a handful of fans who recognized him during our interview. It became obvious that day that the 23-year-old emcee is no longer “Chicago’s best kept secret,” as dubbed by Complex Magazine, but rather an increasingly recognizable talent on the scene today.
Amidst a shower of critical praise and nods from the streets for his sophomore mixtape The Water[S], Jenkins’s honest lyrics expose pieces of a man who still remains a mystery to the public. Musical comparisons have echoed throughout the chambers of critique, comparing Jenkins to everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Chance the Rapper. But no critic has gotten it quite right. Sonically, Jenkins shows flashes of innovation and remains palatable to his generation. In terms of Jenkins’s personal life and its parallel, an unlikely icon comes to mind, Marvin Gaye.
As our interview concluded, we embraced, gave each other dap and walked in opposite directions. It then dawned on me that to an extent, Jenkins is navigating a similar familial scenario which indirectly claimed Gaye’s life. I’m speaking of the internal battle with brilliance, the ability to connect with a generation, fame, vices, and staunchly religious parents who oppose all of the above.
Between The Water[S] and this interview, it seems that Jenkins is ready to embrace all that is good and is working to figure out just what that is.
Here’s what was said:
A lot of people perceive you as somewhat of a lone wolf coming out of Chicago, but you were telling me it’s really not like that.
Mick Jenkins: It’s not like that, but I understand why it’s perceived that way. No, it’s not like that at all. When I first returned to Chicago from school in Alabama, Saba and Jean Deaux were the first people I worked with in the studio — and that was just off of seeing me at an open-mic and being like, “Yo, you’re dope, lets work.” That’s the attitude of mostly everybody here. Everybody, from Chance [the Rapper] to Vic Mensa. I mean, outside of the drill expression — but I haven’t reached out to them either, so it’s like whatever. DGainz hit me up — he has great quality videos, but I was just shaky about that shit, so I didn’t even respond.
Are you tired of being asked about ‘Chiraq’?
MJ: No. I’m sure I’ll get to a point where I am, but every time someone asks, I feel the need to explain what’s actually going on in Chicago. It irritates me sometimes, but it depends on the ignorance of the person who is asking the question — as far as how bothered I get about it. I don’t know, I feel like perceptions of Chicago are unreasonable (laughs). I understand having a lack of knowledge about a place you haven’t spent time in, but it’s like, just think a little bit more, research a little bit more.
Chicago is like every other metropolitan city; you know where not to go, you know where the real danger is. We’re talking about people shooting and killing each other, drug violence, drug wars and gang violence. You know where that is. Most people know where the hotbeds for those things are in a major metropolitan city. Most people know how to stay away from them, and the people that have to move to them, know how to move through them.
When we’re talking about the people that are involved with that world — while I have been at the nose of a gun, and while I have almost been stabbed, and while I have been in hot situations, I couldn’t say that some of that wasn’t my own fault, as far as who I was with and who I was around. Chicago is not the murder capital of the US. I don’t think we have been for the last three years. Across the country, there are 13 or 14 years olds picking up guns and shooting each other. I think those things are super appalling and coupled with this new drill sound that Chicago has been credited for, it’s easy to try to put the blame there. In reality, poverty and an overall violent society is to blame.
What role do you play in your family?
MJ: I guess I would be a black sheep. I was raised Christian, Seventh Day Adventist. Rapping is not necessarily aligned with their beliefs. My father was gone for a lot of my life. He was there for the better part of the beginning, until I was 7, but he was absent a lot, so, his opinion is taken with a grain of salt. His attitude towards rap is, “You know you’re wrong, I don’t have to explain to you why rapping is not accepted.”
Does your father have a problem with the profanity?
MJ: Profanity, but there’s an air of braggadociousness to what I do. They think it’s easy for me to get distracted and they worry about what I’m into personally. My father feels a way about the fact that I smoke weed, so does my mother. They feel like — there’s a lot of negative things that can come from rap.
Some of my immediate family’s Christian beliefs are based on the era they’re stuck in. My father is still in a place where it’s just like, “Bruh, how can you really say anything to me about values and morals, and walking in the right path.” Everybody is gonna be in the wrong path, everybody is a sinner. Nobody is supposed to perfect, as far as the true values of Christianity are concerned.
Do you see yourself making a Gospel album?
MJ: No, no. I am a spiritual person, and because I’m honest you’ll hear the spiritual influence. But no, nothing that I would call a Gospel album. (Laughs).
God ruins peoples careers sometimes. Unless you’re Kanye (laughs).
MJ: I don’t think it’s necessary for me to make a Gospel album, you know what I’m saying? Like I said, my content is gonna speak for itself no matter. What I call my music is not what people call my music anyway.
Mick Jenkins photo: Lawrence Agyei
What do you call your music?
MJ: My music. (Laughs). It’s my music, it’s my art. I don’t really feel, I used to, but I don’t feel the need to categorize it anymore, or put a name or label on it. I know the music that I’m making right now is different from The Water[S]. Trees and Truths [Jenkins’s previous mixtape] was different from The Water[S]. My upcoming projects are not going to be The Water[S], they’re not going to sound like The Water[S], but The Water[S] is what people base their opinions on what to call my sound. But that happens.
As for The Water[S], what inspired you to create a conceptual album based on water?
MJ: Albums are probably always gonna be conceptual for me.
MJ: Well yeah, I mean, even that I don’t know. I’m starting to rethink what that even means — a mixtape versus an album. My idea of an album has always been that there’s going be all original production, but that’s not true anymore so…(laughs). For me, an album says something about the time and effort I put into it, versus a mixtape. But I don’t know, I’m still figuring that out. “The Healing Component” was the name that I chose for the mixtape initially, and that’s not something that I came up with. The person who did come up with it was upset with me, so I had to change it and I started thinking about what is the healing component? And uh, God and water were the only things that I could think of so, I chose water (laughs). There’s so many different ways that I could play with it and phrase it. Words having to do with water made sense to me, it made perfect sense. It’s synonymous with truth, and that’s the gist of it — throughout the tape, water is synonymous with truth. Just as truth is essential to our salvation, which is my ultimate goal, water is the same for life.
What did you differently with this mixtape that you didn’t do with your last?
MJ: All of the music before Trees and Truths was really not up to par in my opinion. Even though the words may have been great, the music wasn’t really there. Trees and Truths was the first tape, by my opinion, where the music was up to par. On a side note, somebody asked me, “Can I get help marketing my music, how do I get my music out there?” Well, first you gotta know that you got something (laughs). People don’t know I have six mixtapes. Six because the first four were terrible and I didn’t know how to market them. I look at Trees and Truths a lot as far as progression goes, and now The Water[S] since it’s done. For Trees and Truths, production was all over the place. There was boom-bap, there was jazz, there was trap, it was soulful. I couldn’t perform all of the music; I didn’t want to perform all of the music. It’s not what I wanted people to receive from my show.
It was just a bit too introverted. For different reasons, some songs were too slow, some songs were too introverted and heavy. And I care, so I didn’t want to perform music solely because the small amount of fans I had at the time liked the music. Ok cool, but that’s not what I wanted. The Water[S] is more concise as far as a sound. The challenge was creating and finding “water-like” instrumentals. I articulated that to the producers, I told them I wanted the music to sound like water and we came up with something that was right.
Who are you making your music for?
MJ: I was just thinking about this yesterday. I know there is going to be a point where I’m going to want to specifically make music for white people. At some point, there’s gonna be all white people at my shows, so I’ll have something to say to them (laughs). There’s definitely gonna be a tape or EP, a series of songs that are specifically for white people, even though you wouldn’t hear it and think, “This is meant for a white person.” (Laughs). But in the space I’m in right now, I just make music for people. I’m sharing my experiences and trying to pull lessons from them that we all can learn from. I often have to show people what I learned. For example, I was talking to somebody about race and color-blindness, and that wasn’t the initial point, but they had to learn that being color-blind is not real. That’s not what we want. I don’t want you to be color-blind.
Do you feel it’s the responsibility of oppressed people to teach oppressors not to oppress?
MJ: It’s not our responsibility but, how else are they gonna learn? (Laughs). I don’t feel it should be my responsibility at all to teach the oppressor that he shouldn’t be oppressing. It should be the responsibility of the people who follow the oppressor. Like on his side. Like, even with Hitler there were a significant amount of Germans who did not fuck with what he was doing, but they were silent out of fear. It’s their job. It’s their responsibility. For us I mean, are we gonna actively fight the oppressor? The way to effectively do that, to get what we want, sometimes you gotta teach ‘em. (Laughs).
What do you want to be remembered for?
MJ: When I think about dying, I think about things that I know I shouldn’t be doing. I struggle with my vices all the time. I flip-flop on how often I pray and keeping up the aspects of my religion that I know I should. There are some aspects and doctrines of the church and things that are man-made. I just started picking back up paying my tithes like a month ago. I fought on and off with those things all the time, and when I think about death, I think about that. Like, damn, am I in the right place? There’s things I need to get together. That’s all I worry about. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d like to be remembered as somebody that was helping people, through whatever. Music is not the only platform I want to help people through, but that’s just where I’m at right now.
VIDEO PREMIERE: “Treat Me Caucasian”
“Treat Me (Caucasian)” was produced by Supa BWE and Mulatto Beats and appears on the Hurt Everybody EP.