Chicago-by-way-of-Hunstville MC Mick Jenkins is a rapper who requires your undivided attention. His newest mixtape The Water(s), released yesterday, is the sort of record that is not a passive listen: it demands to be wrestled with, on nearly every level. Jenkins lyrics are tangled, thorny affairs, finding the rapper engaging in the sort of multisyllabic acrobatics one might expect from a Big Pun disciple. You get the sense that he could keep up with the sort of relentless formalists hyped by those who fly the flag of true-school hip-hop. But what separates Jenkins from your run-of-the-mill types like Jon Connor or Joey Bada$$ (who actually shows up on The Water(s)’ final track “Jerome,” displaying a heretofore-unseen personality and—gasp!—flashes of originality), Jenkins prays to no gods other than the supreme deity of originality. He displays stylistic similarities to his fellow Chicagoans Chance the Rapper and Alex Wiley, but where Chance’s and Wiley’s charms lie partially in their raggedy, lilting voices, Jenkins raps in a honeyed baritone that doesn’t drop a syllable when he raps and doesn’t miss a note when he sings. Meanwhile, the beats on The Water(s) recall the jazzy haze of vintage Soulquarians, as filtered through the futurist sensibilities of producers such as Four Tet, Darkstar, or latter-day Caribou. His raps are grave affairs, often concerned with the state of humanity—couched here in metaphors about water—but just as often simply worried about getting high and kicking it with girls. It’s one of the most accomplished projects of the year, doubly-impressive when you consider it’s coming from a relative neophyte—the 23-year-old Jenkins has only been rapping since college—who, despite his considerable talents and proximity to a white-hot Chicago scene, has developed so far outside the lens of the rap media.
Though Jenkins is a grave, urgent force on record, in person he’s open and jovial. Sitting on the roof of a Bushwick studio a couple months ago, Jenkins and I spent the better part of an hour discussing his life and music as he was putting the finishing touches on The Water(s). Wearing overalls and a porkpie hat, Jenkins looked something like a man out of time, or maybe a man on the bleeding edge of fashion—before rap, he interned at a clothing boutique, and he cites Mos Def as his fashion icon. He’s liberal with his tastes and perspectives, finding room for both the gangbangers and hippies, the Big L’s and Chief Keefs. Though The Water(s) is certainly an accomplished listen, one that may very well catapult him into the upper-echelon of indie-rap acclaim, he’s not particularly focused on himself. We spent the majority of our conversation discussing Chicago’s thorny reputation as a city, the state of hip-hop, and his position in it.
Noisey: You live in Chicago now, but you’re from Alabama originally.
Mick Jenkins: I was born in Alabama. My mother has lupus and when she got diagnosed in 2000, we had to move the family. Most of my family is from Chicago.
Tell me about moving.
It was really different. I remember we came on the Greyhound and I was looking up at all the buildings and shit. I had never seen that before. Chicago is an interesting city. It’s super-segregated and I think that has a big part to play in how I developed as a person. My mom encouraged me to go out and explore the city when I was like 13, 14 on my own. I used to go downtown and get lost. Wicker Park and Hyde Park were areas that developed who I was and how I think; just seeing a mesh of people and the way they got along and acted, noticing social norms and different things that 15-16 year olds don’t normally pay attention to.
What neighborhood in Chicago were you living in?
Burnside off 91st and 90, right off Cottage Grove. I guess it would be considered the hood. I didn’t think it was that bad.
How did splitting your childhood in two very different places affect you?
It was a shock though coming to Chicago. Huntsville is just different. It’s mixed. There are a lot more white people. I went to school with a very integrated system, man. Coming to Chicago where it was just all black people and most of these black people are coming from impoverished neighborhoods was a shocker for me. I talked different. I dressed different. It was something that was always pointed out but I never really cared. I was one of those people that was blessed with an innate sense of, “I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do.” I didn’t have a lot of male friends growing up just because guys were always into more negative things. I wasn’t and it definitely affected me that way. But I mean like, it just gave me perspective on the world. I’ve always felt the difference between a sheltered mind and an open mind is just the ability to have seen different things. To experience other people and different cultures and different ways of doing things than what you may be used to in your habitat, it’s just cultivated a really open mindset for me.
At what point did you start rapping?
I was in college doing poetry and I actually started because I wanted some Beats by Dre. That was the prize for this competition called “Who Got Bars” at Alabama. I was only in it for the Beats, but everyone else in the competition was taking it so seriously, so I decided I should too. From there it spawned from being a student to finding out what it takes to make a good song; what aspects of my music can make a great show. Even all the way to being involved with the production rather than just getting sent a beat, all of that. The appreciation for that, it grew from the Who Got Bars competition; the actual decision to rap came from [that]. I was in my third year, second semester and my father worked at the school. I was paying like $2,000 a semester. Then he got fired and I was paying $10,000 a semester and that shit was not doable for me, so a breakup sent me back to Chicago. When I got back to Chicago I was like “Fuck it, let’s do this.”
Where did you go to college?
Oakwood University. It’s like seven minutes from Alabama A&M. It’s a Christian school.
One thing I appreciate about your music is that when you make songs about women, you often feature a woman also on the track who then responds to you.
I like collaboration a lot. I want to work with a woman when I’m talking about a woman and let them voice their side of it. It’s necessary. It makes for better music.
It seems to me that your video for “Martyrs” is a very conscious response to Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like” video.
Absolutely. The entire premise behind it was that we used to be dying for something as black people. That was when we were martyrs. These days we’re dying for senseless crimes, fighting over property that isn’t ours; just silly shit. And I felt like the music, that drill sound, influences people to continue that. I don’t think those artists are so much to blame, but the powers that be and where the exposure is coming from and who is giving this platform for those artists to be shown, as opposed to, say, a Chance the Rapper. I hung myself in the video as well because I’m a victim of a lot of the things that I’m talking about. I’ve done all that shit. It’s just different when people allow it. For example, James Broadnax in the “Martyrs” video, when he was asked if there’s anything he wants to say to the families of the people he killed, he quotes Lil Wayne. He says, “Fuck em, fuck em, fuck em, even if they celibate. I know the game is crazy; it’s more crazy than it’s ever been. I’m married to that crazy bitch; call me Kevin Federlin.” I’ll tell everybody I don’t think Lil Wayne was the reason why he made those crimes, but when he’s asked, “Do you have anything else to say?” That’s who he quoted.
With something like that, I feel like the sentiment is there inside of someone, and Lil Wayne is the person who provides text that allows him to verbalize that sentiment.
I feel like it’s always there. Music draws emotions out of people. But if you’re already in a negative situation and you’re listening to this kind of music, it’s only going to reinforce your ideas. But I feel like those stories still deserve to be told. I feel like it’s really up to who deserves to give it the right to a platform to be seen by the rest of the world.
Chicago is under this microscope, in terms of like media covering both the music and the violence there in a way that it hasn’t been in a while.
I think the marriage of them both happening at the same time, as far as the violence and the music.
It makes for compelling media?
Exactly. They can go hand in hand with each other, because one is a scapegoat for the other. There’s Chief Keef, there’s all this violence in Chicago, like it hasn’t been this way since before Chief Keef. That year was Chief Keef’s year and that year we did have more deaths in Chicago than Iraq. It makes for compelling news like you said, but Chicago in general, the two sides of hip hop is an interesting story in itself.
How do you feel about being an artist in the midst of all this greater context?
I’m right in the middle of it. I know guys like Keef; I lived around the corner from where they’re repping. I went to a terrible school, that’s the precise reason I didn’t have a lot of male friends because I didn’t want to get involved with that shit. I didn’t turn out like that. Niggas didn’t think I was cool. I got beat up; I’ve been robbed at gunpoint. It’s the same shit. I’ve robbed niggas; I’ve beat up people. I was young and silly and that was the environment that I grew up in, but that’s not how I turned out and I want to represent that. There’s tons of other people who grew up right next to me in those impoverished areas and that’s just not how they turned out. I want to represent that Chicago. I like the fact that it’s two sides because even when Chance reaches out and shouts out Chief Keef it’s because we know those people, and if I don’t know Cheef Keef, I know too many people like that; who look like him, who act like him. It’s all Chicago. I don’t think there’s any jaded feelings across the board. It’s interesting how it’s perceived from the outside, but I think it makes everything better.
Are there any other major misconceptions you think the media has presented about Chicago?
Number one, it’s that this shit is coming in the wake of drill music, as if it hasn’t been this way for a long time, and that it’s just so violent that you can’t walk down the street. I feel like in every situation, the media will blow shit out of proportion, always. It never fails. When I talk to people and ask them what their perception of Chicago is, it’s always terrible, like “Are you OK? Is your family safe?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” It’s just like every other metropolitan city. You know where not to go in New York; you know where not to go in Houston, Miami. You know what you shouldn’t do. You know how you shouldn’t act. You know where to find trouble if you want trouble, and that’s what it is in Chicago. I think the biggest thing, why the Chicago is so heinous, is because the violence is coming from people who are so young. There’s a lot of young kids, 13 or 14-year-old girls and guys, shooting and killing people. I think that is what’s really alarming, but the level of violence that’s portrayed, and how often it’s happening, how safe Chicago dwellers are or aren’t, is definitely not accurately portrayed throughout the media at all.
Talk about your new tape, The Water(s).
Water is truth. Water is necessary is necessary for our life, our world, every facet of what we do. In my ultimate goal of getting to heaven, truth is the same way. That’s what that concept is and I use colloquialisms like thirsty, wavy, anything associated to water to try to pull the double meanings out of it throughout the tape, to send a consistent message and shit. It’s synthy, it’s trappy, it has trap sounds in it, but I think people are going to be surprised.
If there was one trend in rap that you put an end to, what would it be?
People’s content. Man, I don’t understand. I cannot fathom why people are sheep to the radio. It is the exact same shit over and over and over and over and over again. Not only are labels and artists putting out the same type of music over and over and over, but the radio plays 18 songs all day. Even artists like Chief Keef, people want to hear your story. That turn up shit is cool, but people will still love Chief Keef if he tells his story. So many of his niggas have died! Start talking about that shit. Make the same type of music, make the same type of beats, rap the same way, all you gotta do is change the words. “Martyrs” is a hard ass song; it’s just different words. People want to hear your story.
You mentioned that you were into poetry before rapping?
Yeah, I’m still into all meanings of art, but I can’t write poetry because I don’t want it to sound like a rap and that’s all it’ll sound like these days. I try to write poetry and I just start rapping. Poetry didn’t sound like rap before and it sounds like rap now. Rap is still poetry, but I haven’t written what I would call a poem in a long time.
Back to that rap competition—did you win the Beats?
I did not. I came in second place.
Do you remember the verse you spat?
Nah, I don’t remember it. I know what it is. It was a song, but I know what song it was. I don’t even know if it exists any more. The dude who won didn’t win because he was a better rapper. His name was A.C. Green. I’ll give him a little shine. He won because he was flamboyant. He was a crowd favorite. I’m not gonna take that from him.
Drew Millard is the Features Editor at Noisey. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard