It's an early Sunday morning, and Mick Jenkins, still looking bleary-eyed and fresh out of the shower, takes a seat on a couch in his Southside Chicago walkup apartment. The rapper sparks up a joint and gets to talking about one of his favorite topics: love. "If you're going to talk about love and spreading love, and you want to talk about the deeper parts of love and not just romantic love," the 25-year-old says getting ever more passionate, "you have to acknowledge that you're still figuring it out too." Jenkins's roommate, Denzel, sits next to him, and labors intensely over a game of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, his black-and-white tabby cat Shikamaru popping his head up before opting return to sleep. "I'm not coming at anybody to teach you like I know," Jenkins continues. "Rather to just offer this as my experience to say, 'Hey, look at this!'"
These sort of heady, philosophical discussions aren't uncommon for Jenkins. In fact, they're at the fore of his artistic endeavor. He's a rapper, yes, and one of the most promising to emerge in recent years from Chicago, a city overflowing with innovative talent. But from his earliest musical offerings, and most notably, his breakout 2014 mixtape The Water[s], Jenkins has been first and foremost an urgent narrator, an instructor of knowledge learned and questions unanswered. He's utilized his deep baritone, an aggressive and direct instrument, to great effect, by speaking his truth and imploring listeners to "drink more water," or rather, ingest more knowledge, stay spiritual, remain clear-eyed and focused. Even as his music has delved into more colorful territory, as on last year's Wave[s], Jenkins maintains a vigorous drive to push the conversation further. "It's not just the song," he says of his mindset when constructing music. "There's something that's trying to be delivered."
It's why, for several years now, the Alabama-born Jenkins has been thinking about The Healing Component, his debut full-length album, out today. When we met more than a year ago he was already speaking to the project's future impact. "You wanna know about 'The Healing Component'?" he asks his sister at the outset of the album, one of several conversations between the pair thread throughout an album that toggles between fire-and-brimstone sonic brutality and languid looseness. "So many truths go untold / so much proof that something big is about to unfold," he raps minutes later, jazzy piano and a hazy experimental beat underpinning his words. Yes, Jenkins has a way of making you surrender to his message—whether detailing an internal struggle between reality and spirituality (the onerous "Daniel's Bloom") or flipping through a relationship's peaks and valleys on the Kaytranada-produced banger "Communicate."
The same goes when in his presence. To that end, as the joint burns down and his eyes get ever-so glazed, the rapper, wearing a green sleeveless sweatshirt, olive jeans, and pink-and-white Nike kicks, articulates why The Healing Component is simply the start of a long discussion rather than the final word. "At the very least," Jenkins says in an intense dialogue that touches on his bold new project, his ever-evolving faith, and his place in Chicago's hip-hop scene, "I want to start the conversation."
Noisey: How long have you had your finger on the pulse of The Healing Component?
Mick Jenkins: Maybe for the last seven months. I was figuring it out for a while. The Healing Component was actually supposed to be The Water[s]. And when I was confronted about using that name, because that wasn't originally my idea, I decided not to use it and then went with The Water[s]. It forced me to know from that point to think about it more deeply: what is The Healing Component? What does that really mean beside this cool THC acronym?
So it started as simply a clever THC acronym?
It did. It wasn't my idea. I used to do poetry at Oakwood University a lot, and somebody else who was in the group thought of that. And said he was going to make a rap album with that title. But he wasn't a rapper. So after a while, after he didn't do it, I was like "All right, I'm going to do that." And then when I said I was going to do that, he got upset. I was like "All right, well it is your idea, so I'm not going to." Two years later I was like "Man, fuck this!" So yeah, since then I've been trying to pull meaning from it.
In listening to this project, it seems you feel love and spirituality are often viewed through too narrow a prism.
I'm raised Christian, and that's where a lot of my beliefs rest on and lie and center. And as I've grown spiritually that has always influenced my music. On The Water[s] I introduced the idea that there's this truth that you absolutely need. It's as important as water. But I didn't tell people what that was. But even from then, knowing that this was going to by my purpose, I wasn't ready to explain that when I was dropping Wave[s].
So you weren't mature enough or didn't understand enough yet to fully relay what exactly those truths were and where they come from?
Yeah. Absolutely. Where it comes from is the inspiration behind God's message. When God was on Earth, when Jesus was here, he was displaying an unconditional love that we've never seen before. A type of mercy that we never seen before, if you believe that, which I do. That's the purest message to give out. That's what I want to push and center my artistry on. There's all these things I could talk about, all these negative things, all these conspiracies. What am I really saying though? Right now it's just starting that conversation, even with myself.
I can't say I'm a religious person, but one of the things I find fascinating about religion and the message of love is that it's an evolving conversation. It's never so cut and dry.
What I'm wondering then is whether your spirituality and coming to those understandings is something that in recent years has come more to the forefront of your life?
For sure. And as I grow it absolutely will become more and more a part and a focus of my life, you know what I'm saying? It's a mindset. It's very easy to look at things negatively.
Were you always inclined towards spirituality?
Well I was raised in the (Seventh Day Adventist) church. As I've grown older and started to see the reality of things and the reality about church I focus more on spirituality, for sure.
I assume it took you getting older before you fully appreciated religion in terms of its value and not "This is what you can and can't do in your life."
Exactly. It definitely graduated from going through the motions when I was younger just because I was told that this is what I had to do. It definitely took going through experiences and actually having experienced what I feel like was God's blessing or God coming through for me in the clutch and, you know, really honoring what he said he would do. Like to see those things for myself and to experience those things for myself.
They manifest in your life.
Exactly. It definitely created a newfound understanding and appreciation without a doubt.
As I've grown older and started to see the reality of things and the reality about church I focus more on spirituality.
Strictly from a musical perspective, when you look at the evolution from The Water[s] to Wave[s] and now this project as a listener you can feel the creative boundaries being pushed forward. You're singing more, pushing melody harder. Of course the bars are still there.
Yeah, I've always known that I wanted to sing more. Actually the first song I ever recorded was me singing. It just didn't sound good [_laughs_].
At least you recognized that.
It was something that I got away from very fast. But I really like neo-soul music. That's my favorite style of music. That's what I'm inspired by the most. My next album is going to speak to that a lot. But I can do a lot so I just want to do a lot. Period. That's what it comes down to. As I explore sounds, as sounds merge, there's all types of genre-bending going on so there's no reason not to be experimenting right now. I'm all for that. I'm all for figuring out new ways to take what I can do. It's just fun. It's fun to do that shit. Especially when you're doing it well. I wouldn't be doing it if I was legitimately out here like off-key crooning. But I can hold a note.
People are so quick to focus on hip-hop albums having major features. But what I loved about this project is that the artists you chose to work with, like BadBadNotGood ("Drowned") and Kaytranada (Communicate."). Their presences emphasize and accentuate rather than overshadow your skills.
I definitely was conscious of that. Kaytranada is one of the best producers of our generation, for sure. I was saying very early on I wanted this album to be like an Illmatic for me. I had features that I had lined up that I wanted, and stuff fell through. What I resolved was I really could do this by myself. Not by myself, but without that big-name features and these big singles to draw people in. I think at the end of the day the music and what I have to say is going to stand pretty well.
It seems you've been gaining steady buzz and momentum over the past few years. Maybe you have a different perspective but does it feel as if things are moving in the right direction?
I think it's very easy for it to not feel like it's moving in the right direction even if it is. Feeling like things are moving and are things moving are two different things.
Some artists are ego junkies and need to see their name out there.
That shit bothers me. And probably more than people think it does. I do care, but like what the fuck? People take that shit and talk about how great they are and I'm like "Bro, come on like … stop it." But that's just me being competitive. At the end of the day this is not about anybody's name being thrown out. It's about who is showing up to the show. Who's buying the album? And I have fans that are going to do that. But it's just having something to say. I'm trying to deliver it and I have an audience who's trying to understand it. So I'd be able to work with that forever. Like Curren$y's got an audience for the foreseeable future. There's an audience for him to forever make his type of music. When you making a certain level of music you're going to have diehards.
You already see a diehard fanbase? Obviously every artist wants to expand his or her reach.
Well, yeah, I mean, I understand why you would ask me that but I absolutely do, for sure. Because I'm not done. I know for those people who feel what I'm doing it's only going to verified for them more when this album comes out. And there's going to get a lot of other people into it too. Truth be told, I'm ten songs already into my next album. I know, at the very least, if this album doesn't secure 300,000 more fans it'll make the ones I have more than happy. They're not going to be disappointed. So if my fanbase is not built in already it's being built for sure.
Do you feel like Chicago and the city's fellow artists have been supportive of your career? You were recently featured on the Coloring Book outtake "Grown Ass Kid."
It's very hard for me to see how supportive Chicago is because I don't be out here. Before I was always out in the city and doing shit, but as I've been touring I don't be on the ground much. I be gone like all the time. I was gone for two months, then I'm here for a month and then I'm gone for another two months.
What can we do? Well, you can start with yourself and the next man right next to you that you interact with every day. Spread love.
And for the month you're here it's not like you're out trying to promote yourself.
Which I could be. That's just not the person that I am. I'm a lot more lowkey than that, so I can't honestly say I know. I feel like it though. I have all types of friends all over Chicago, and I see the fans out, and fans fuck with me, and the shows are always packed and going crazy from my perspective. So I definitely think that this city is behind me. But I see Chance (the Rapper) and know that it's very different the way that people are behind me versus him. Even when he was at my level. But it's because of the way he was moving and shaking in the streets and the things that he was doing. It's just different. I think it's hella important what Chance is doing and what he's saying because he has a grip on little kids, like youths. Like 14, 15, 16. Even though those ages listen to my music it's not at the same rate. It's not with the same fervor. My audience is older.
What artists do you consider your peers in Chicago?
Obviously you have Chance and then you have people like myself, like Saba, like Noname, doing the same production and the same type of work and quality and a similar message. And at the same time you have King Louie and Dreezy and Tink.
It really is wild how vibrant the scene is right now.
You could look around and see why. That's what happened for me. I looked at Chicago and I was like "Damn, I got to rap a little bit better." And I think four years later, you look at it now, it's like, shit, if you trying to break in the scene here and be like somebody that we talk about outside of Chicago as being from Chicago you got to really be doing some shit. I think for me it also enforced the idea behind the album: There's so much negativity going on to talk about, but we can't fight it straight up. We can't just protest it straight up. We can't just teach the kids something new, change the curriculum, etc. What can we do? Well, you can start with yourself and the next man right next to you that you interact with every day. Spread love.
You mentioned your audience leaning slightly older, I imagine that's largely because you're discussing topics that take maturity not only to understand but also act upon. Still, I imagine there's a distinction between people at your shows just trying to turn up and those listening intently to your lyrics.
That's something we've had to learn to address, and I think that's something I could have missed if I wasn't paying attention to it. But it's a show, and I have to perform. When "Martyrs" comes on and people want to get turnt, I'm turnt. But I'm a very different turnt than you. "Martyrs" is a song where a lot of people expect that we about to all have this bitch rocking and that's not what I want. I would prefer you just stand there and look up. And that's what happens a lot of the time. A lot of people still go crazy. Especially black people. But that's what it's for; it's that shock. But some people are just staring at me. I'm in front of you now. It's not a video. You're not at home with your friends. I'm right in front of you, and I'm big as hell onstage, and I'm looking at you and saying these words, and I'm not jumping up and down.
Does it catch some people by surprise?
I think it gives me an opportunity to connect with people and explain to people and surprise people and let them know what I mean and where I'm coming from in a live performance. In the very same way that "Drink More Water" would permeate through any Mick Jenkins show if "Spread Love" could be that same phrase that people repeat right after the show, even if only for an hour, that's the goal. That transfers into inspiration for action.
Photos by Bryan Allen Lamb, courtesy of Mick Jenkins
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.