words by Eamon Whalen
photos by Bryan Allen Lamb
The first thing you see when you walk into Mick Jenkins’ apartment is water. A lot of water. More specifically, a Costco-aisle sized stack of eight ounce water bottles sit in his entryway with a few skateboards stacked on top. The fluid is the 25-year-old rapper’s leftover tour merch and each bottle is adorned with a download link and the tracklist from The Water(s), Jenkins’ 2014 mixtape that used hydration as an allegory-turned-mantra for waking up to the world’s ugly truths.
I take a seat on his sectional couch and Jenkins asks if I need anything. “Some water?” I gesture towards the corner, prompting a laugh from both of us. Jenkins just re-signed the lease on the apartment, a neat two bedroom on a quiet block in Pilsen, the historically Mexican neighborhood southwest of downtown Chicago. “It’s definitely a stain,” he says of the bargain on rent. Five vibrant art-deco style paintings by St. Louis artist Hayveyah McGowan that accompanied Jenkins last release, Wave(s), line the wall above the couch. Next to me is a furry scratching post for Jenkins’ cat Shikamaru, named after a character from the Japanese TV series “Naruto.”
It’s mid-morning on a Saturday in May, but Jenkins has already finished a studio session recording feature verses for a few unnamed artists. With his workday complete, he’s lounging playing a game of NBA 2K16 on Xbox with his touring DJ, greenSLLIME. Jenkins’ Instagram page resembles a clean-cut menswear lookbook, a mix of thrift-shop chic and high fashion. And so even his house clothes –– charcoal grey jogging pants, and a checkered short sleeve shirt buttoned to the top –– are expectedly sharp.
On records Jenkins is a stern wordsmith with literary flair and a self-proclaimed “save the world complex.” But in person he’s disarmingly affable and prone to expressive outbursts of laughter. As he takes a sizeable lead with the Houston Rockets on 2K, he playfully taunts greenSLLIME. “My offense is so fluid right now.” Jenkins stands at six feet five inches with an athletic frame, but the three foot basketball trophy behind the couch belongs to his cousin and roommate Denzel, who walks in and promptly begins rolling a blunt. Victorious, Jenkins passes the controller and heads to the kitchen as 2K is switched out for Mortal Kombat.
Chicago is in the midst of a rap renaissance that’s already produced several national stars, and most close onlookers point to Mick as next in line. Since releasing The Water(s), he has headlined tours in both the U.S and Europe. Several of his music videos top a million views. A recent song, “The Artful Dodger,” broke a million plays on Soundcloud in less than a month. Weeks before our interview Mick was onstage in South Africa at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, one of many festivals he’ll play before he releases his proper debut album this fall, The Healing Component.
While he’s in the familiar position of the rising rapper awaiting the release of the album that just might catapult them into ubiquity, Jenkins still feels underestimated. “Niggas really be talking to me like I don't have the juice right now,” he says, returning to the living room with a croissant, tub of organic spring mix lettuce and bottle of ranch dressing (Jenkins is a lifelong vegetarian, a product of being raised 7th Day Adventist). He continues, dressing the greens and mixing them around with his fork, “people who don't have that fifteen minutes of fame song, it always takes 'em longer to get respect.”
Rappers like Jenkins, who emphasize social accountability and a more traditional style of lyricism, often have a slower climb to fame. Without a viral single or a cosign from a major artist, it’s a plodding road to get respect in an in-flux industry that beckons to the whims of what’s trending. Yet, those same rappers whose subject matter and stylistic choices go against the grain of the mainstream can attain fanbases that long outlast the artists with the “fifteen minutes of fame” song. It’s a group –– led by Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole –– that the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica calls hip hop’s “Silent Majority.” While Jenkins sees himself in this trajectory, he feels spurned by those who can’t yet see the bigger picture.
“Best believe there have been people who didn’t fuck with us purely off the amount of pull that we don't have yet,” says Jenkins between bites of salad. “But I know I make great music, so we’ll get there.” The Water(s), a mixtape that plays more like an album, is an examination of both the joy and tumult of Black life in 21st century America. Jenkins spoke to a generation traumatized by gun violence, excluded from mainstream institutions, brutalized by police and misled by popular music and mass media to think the gold was more important than the water, to paraphrase the title track. “We been ready to take off for like 400 years now, but we’re blinded by our ears now,” he raps on “Who Else.”
On Water(s), Jenkins subverted cliche rapper tropes and created a world of his own. To drink water was to defy the negative influence of the status quo. To have clear piss was to have a clear head. Double cups and champagne flutes were filled with water and ginger-ale, and his blunts were laced with truth. On said title track, he explains that unlike most in his vocation, he doesn’t want to fuck your girl, because he has way too much on his mind, closing the verse with, “Y’all niggas don’t tell enough of the truth in the booth and it’s proof you ain’t fucking with mine. Sip.”
Jenkins moralistic approach comes from an upbringing in the church. He was born Jayson Jenkins in Huntsville, Alabama. His parents, Rhonda and Derrick, met at Oakwood University, a historically Black 7th Day Adventist college in Huntsville that Mick tells me is “like the mecca” for their denomination.
When Jenkins was ten, Rhonda’s lupus became so severe that she, Mick, and his sister Londen moved to Chicago so they could be under the care of extended family. They lived on 91st and Laney, on the south side, for most of his Jenkins’ childhood, and Rhonda encouraged Jenkins to wander around the city at a young age. The country boy quickly grew to love the big city bustle. “He was that kid that just laughed a lot,” remembers Rhonda over the phone from her home in Atlanta, where she’s lived since 2010, in good health. “And he was very intelligent,” she says. “When he started school in kindergarten he was already reading on a third grade level.”
Jenkins attended Hirsch Metropolitan High School on 79th Avenue, an area he says was “concentrated” with gang activity. So Rhonda made sure that Mick stayed close to home, and that any extra-curricular activities were church-based. “The friends that were most influential, I wanted to be from church and not from school. He was in the church drama club, and that's where his core friends were,” she says. Mick obeyed without typical teenage rebelliousness, hanging around home with his cousins and attending worship up to four days a week. “I wasn't like ‘Mom what?!’” says Mick laughing. “I peeped what was up, like ‘I'm straight bro. I'm heading to the crib.’”
Still, a proximity to, but an ability to rise above the temptation of the street is a constant in Jenkins’ music. This is illustrated in songs like “Shipwrecked,” “On the corner hanging, never banging, but I knew them g’s,” and “I Know” — a song by labelmate Kirk Knight — “Have you ever had to cool a nigga head when he had a fucking burner in his hand? I know..shit like that is normal.”
At the house his mother played secular music, neo-soul like Sade, Maxwell, Bilal and Jill Scott. Unsurprisingly, the first rappers Jenkins gravitated toward were those affiliated with his mother’s music — Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli and Phonte from Little Brother. “And then of course Kanye once he came out,” says Mick. “I would just listen to the same stuff over and over.”
Jenkins dabbled with poetry at Hirsch, but discovered a knack for mock trials, excelling at the performance of the cross-examination. “I thought he was going to be an attorney,” remembers Rhonda. Jenkins was was so good that he earned a courthouse internship downtown, where he sat in on the federal corruption trial of then Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who famously attempted to sell President Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. The experience contributed to Jenkins’ own political cynicism, and his no-nonsense persona.
After Jenkins saw that being lawyer wasn’t what “Law and Order” made it seem, he set his eyes on fashion (he still has aspirations, mentioning a refurbished sewing machine sitting in his bedroom). But with a bit of parental pressure, he returned to Huntsville to attend Oakwood with discounted tuition because his father worked there. It was then, with the I-can-be-anyone spirit of the incoming college freshman he was, that Jayson became Mick. “It was before I was rapping or anything,” recalls Jenkins. “I was going to be Mick or Scottie. That’s just where I was at,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders that turns into a now familiar full-body laugh.
At Oakwood — where he coincidentally shared campus housing with the Nigerian pop star Davido — Jenkins majored in Public Relations and joined a student poetry collective called “Art and Soul.” He began to perform spoken word around campus, making an impression on a basketball player turned physical therapy student named Jon-Pierre Louis, originally from Montreal. “You could tell there was something natural to him, he was way more talented than the other poets,” remembers Jon-Pierre, who has been Mick’s manager since the summer of 2012. “Making that transition to a rapper wasn't hard for him because he was already a really ill writer.”
By chance or fate, that transition happened soon after Jon-Pierre and Jenkins met. There was a rap competition in Huntsville called “Who Got Bars,” and the then-brand-new Beats By Dre headphones were the prize. Jenkins didn’t end up winning, but was inspired enough by the crowd’s reaction to what were some of the first verses he ever rapped. He was also impressed with four other Oakwood students who had entered the competition. They linked up, calling themselves the Free Nation Rebel Soldiers, or FreeNation, as Jenkins namedrops in his songs.
Jenkins quickly began recording songs and releasing them online. One project, called The Pursuit of HappyNess: The Story of MickalasCage is still available on Bandcamp. Lacking the urgency and polish of future releases, it’s mostly concerned with college student shit: wake and bakes, casual courtships, and having the freshest outfit at the party. But at the beginning of the 2012 school year, a breakup left Jenkins without a home, and his father no longer worked at Oakwood, inflating his tuition. What’s more, he saw a rap scene in his hometown just beginning to blossom. “I told him, ‘don't be afraid to go home,’” says jSTOCK, a member of FreeNation from Columbus, Ohio. “You never know what could happen.”
A week later, Jenkins was back in Chicago, but Rhonda had predictable reservations. “I was not happy about it,” she says. “I told him that he could be a rapper, but he still needed to go back to school. Because, you know, what if it didn't work out?”
Despite his mother’s misgivings, it turned out to be the right choice. On one of Jenkins’ first weekends home he met another young Chicago rapper named Saba at an open mic. Soon, he became exposed to the nascent network that was forming out of the spaces provided by organizations like Young Chicago Authors and YOUmedia, where artists like Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa and Noname found their voices and built a vibrant community. “What was happening back then was really the seed for all this shit happening right now,” says Jenkins. “In the truest way.”
At that point, Chicago rappers like Chief Keef and King L had kicked in the door of the music industry with a highly-influential, destitute subgenre called Drill. Their emergence helped pull back the curtains on the strife and violence in Chicago brought on by decades of government sponsored segregation and neglect, something Jenkins was again, face-to-face with living on the south side. “He went back to a home where you have 11 murders in a weekend and that's normal,” says jSTOCK. “When I visited him in Chicago, I heard the gunshots going off all night. Being in the heart of it, his music really shifted to the social side of things.”
While Drill had brought national attention to his city, Jenkins feared that the music was encouraging a fatalistic lifestyle. The frustration inspired him to write “Martyrs,” a song that’s both a diatribe and a rallying cry. “You can’t deny that music really shapes the youth and the culture,” says Jenkins. “And right now, the youth — like twelve and thirteen-year olds — look crazy. Martyrs’ was a call to recognize that.” With a stingingly sarcastic chorus, “I’ma get all this money, I’ma buy all this shit, I’ma fuck so many hoes, nigga I’ma fuck yo bitch. I’m just with my niggas hangin,” and concise, forceful rapping, “Martyrs” was impossible to ignore.
Jenkins shot the video for “Martyrs” in Montreal, a spoof of Chief Keef’s hit “I Don’t Like.” In Mick’s version, masked, shirtless young men flex for the camera with nooses around their necks, a nod to the sample of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit,” and a chilling interpretation of “hangin.” Jenkins and Jon-Pierre thought the video had a good chance of reaching 10,000 views on Youtube. As of this writing it has 2.6 million. At Jenkins’ shows, greenSLLIME cuts the track off, and the crowd raps the entire first verse themselves. The famed super-producer Timbaland personally reached out to give Jenkins props. Drill artists didn’t take offense –– some actually reached out to work on music with Jenkins.
After the blow-up of “Martyrs,” Mick and Jon-Pierre took meetings with major labels, including Island Records and Shady Records. “The labels would say, ‘Hey, these records are great, but where's the radio single?’” says Jon-Pierre. “And that’s not what we were trying to do.”
Another record executive who was taken by “Martyrs” was Jonny Shipes, CEO of independent label Cinematic Music Group. “It had such a message, and he was such a dope emcee. And that visual is just so crazy that it made me wanna see what else is there,” says Shipes. “I like to try to find career artists, and Mick Jenkins will be around a long time.”
In the summer of 2014, Jenkins officially signed with Cinematic after working for six months on a free trial handshake deal. “Our goal was to stay independent. It’s extremely important for Mick to have one hundred percent creative control, and that’s something Jonny gives all his artists,” says Jon-Pierre. Soon after signing, Jenkins released The Water(s) and began a nearly nonstop touring schedule where he witnessed a rapidly growing fan base. “Fans would be stalking him and asking for pictures while he was trying to eat,” remembers Jon-Pierre. “It was a crazy transition to see.”
The Water(s) established Jenkins as a rapper’s rapper. Contemporaries like Earl Sweatshirt offered gushing praise on Twitter, and the longtime underground virtuoso Busdriver wrote a rare album review dissecting Jenkins’ technical prowess. But touring the project triggered a creative gear-shift. “There were a couple songs where people were just standing there,” says Jenkins. “I tried to listen to my music as if I wasn’t me. I know I can rap really well, but I wanted something that people can continuously move and bob their head to while they're listening to these complicated verses.”
Jenkins’ follow up to The Water(s), Wave(s) was a lighthearted release intended to tide fans over until The Healing Component. It also gave Jenkins space to experiment with new sounds. On the EP Jenkins worked primarily with Chicago production team THEMpeople (who are executive producing The Healing Component), focusing on songcraft, melody and stretching out his vocal range, something that came accidentally. “I was waiting on singers, so I would just try to do it myself,” says Jenkins. “I realized... I don’t sound bad,” he adds with a laugh.
Wave(s)’ lead single, “Your Love” is a dance-floor ready disco-rap song produced by Montreal’s Kaytranada — a star producer who began to send Mick beats after a chance encounter with Jon-Pierre in their hometown. Wave(s) made it to number 9 on the Billboard Rap Album Charts, a strong showing for Jenkins’ first retail release. Comparatively, Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, the last release before his own proper debut album, peaked at number 13. Some fans, though, didn’t know how to react to the departure from the sound of Water(s). “One thing I know about Mick is he never wanted to be put into a box sonically,” says jSTOCK. “He’s always been a real melodic guy. He's just at the point where he wants to keep pushing the boundaries of what you know him as.”
Despite a barrage of shit-talk from Jenkins and Denzel, greenSLLIME can’t seem to lose on Mortal Kombat, and sits back with a satisfied, stoned smirk. After a brief discussion of the Roots remake and what it might do for T.I’s acting career (“I’m not saying he’s bad, but this will be the test,” posits Jenkins), Jenkins hits play on an unfinished version of The Healing Component from his phone. One of the opening tracks, “Spread Love” is autobiographical, recounting the open mic days with slickly stacked syllables and a refrain of “love is all you need” over lush production from Seattle producer Sango. Another, called “Drowning,” will surely catch listeners off-guard. Over a sparse bass and drum stab from Toronto Jazz trio BadBadNotGood, Mick sings “I can’t breathe,” in a smoky Chicago blues-like drawl.
In December of 2014 Mick released the song “11,” named for the eleven times Eric Garner, a Black man, told NYPD officers “I can’t breathe,” before dying from their chokehold. The entire exchange was captured on camera, and Garner’s last words were extrapolated as a metaphor for the Black American experience. On “11,” Jenkins raps like a man at his emotional breaking point, critiquing the wide gap between the value of Black cultural contribution and Black life.“It's crazy we the culture, pride of fucking lions, yet we trudge around the jungle pickin' crumbs up after vultures. They know that we the commerce.”
The Water(s) was released just a few days before the killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing uprising in Ferguson catalyzed the nation into a new era of Black resistance, and a new era of Black liberation music. Jenkins grew up alongside many who are now activists and organizers on the front lines of racial equity movements in Chicago. “I know directly that [my music] inspires them. I don’t try to, I'm moved how I'm moved,” says Jenkins, who clearly values his role but speaks of it matter-of-factly. “They inspire me, so I just keep doing what I'm doing,” he says. “They tell me that [my music], it’s enough, but it's not enough for me.”
Over a span of 72 hours in early July, a month after I meet Jenkins, horrifying video footage of police officers killing two Black men — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and Philando Castile just outside of St. Paul, MN — ignited massive protests nationwide. During the week, Jenkins wrote a simple message on his Facebook page: “If music helps you cope at all..” with a link to “Sunkissed,” a song he had just released in partnership with 1800 Tequila. Jenkins impressively subverts the corporate backing with a song of Black empowerment. Similar to “11,” Jenkins questions the confounding obsession with Black culture “You love my style, you love my skin, that melanin, that melanin, that melanin,” and scapegoating of, Blackness, “They’ll take the world, they’ll break the world, then look at us like we did it,” he raps.
“I think a lot of people fail to realize, just how fucked up a situation we’re in,” Jenkins says, taking repeated drags as a second blunt circles the room. “The biggest thing about it, is when you're faced with the overwhelming truth about certain things, you have to re-adjust everything.” Jenkins sees that overwhelming truth as something more personal than, yet inextricably tied to systemic injustice. “It’s admitting that you may not love yourself,” he says calmly. “Admitting that you may have let the world dictate who you are up to the point that you really don't even know who you are. That’s a hard thing to admit.” That’s why Jenkins’ goal for The Healing Component is as simple as it is grandiose: to help people see through what prevents them from loving themselves, and loving each other.
During our interview, Jenkins mentions that the last book he read was James Baldwin’s 1963 classic The Fire Next Time. In it, Baldwin writes of love:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word "love" here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
This expansion beyond a superficial conception of love is Jenkins aim. “There’s so much we don't know about love,” he says. “People romanticize love automatically, but it’s so much more than that. Like, what does love look like in the streets?” I offer the Cornel West quote that “justice is what love looks like in public,” prompting Jenkins to slap his palms together and nod. “And that right there would be hard for a lot of people to understand,” he says.
If Water(s) made Jenkins a rapper’s rapper, prodding others to quench a spiritual thirst, maybe The Healing Component will make him the people’s rapper, inspiring listeners to peel off the masks the world has forced on them so they too, can begin to heal. But Jenkins doesn’t stop at the music to spread his truth, he wants to meet you too.
In today’s industry, artists can select when, where, and how, if ever, they’ll communicate with their fans. In Jenkins’ eyes, otherwise robotic, transactional artist-fan meet and greets are invaluable. On nearly every tour stop, he orders pizza and invites around twenty-five fans backstage, inviting any and all discussion. “I really be talking to fans and trying to understand what my peers are thinking and feeling about things,” says Jenkins. Despite the repeated calls in his music for self-reflection, he found out his fans weren’t always on the same wavelength, and his music wasn’t having the intended impact. “I realized, niggas don’t be getting it,” he says with a nervous laugh. “I got self-righteous,” he says. “I thought I was changing all eight hundred people that came in that room. Like they was right there with me.”
One of the examples Jenkins points to is the way many male fans interact with him. “Other men can't even compliment me without saying ‘no homo,’” says Jenkins. “People have made them feel like they can’t talk to one of their favorite artists without saying that. That’s insane! That shows you don't have a complete sense of self,” he says.
The mask of machismo that governs so many men and is still the status quo in rap is something Jenkins makes a concerted effort to disrupt. Rarely is he contentious of women, and his love songs usually feature a female perspective, a choice Jenkins makes to provide balance. “There’s a reason and intent behind whatever I'm doing,” he says. “I speak about women in a very respectful way in my music, because that's something that's absolutely needed.”
When you talk to Jenkins about touring, he speaks most passionately about the “facetime” he gets to have with his fans. Sometimes he’ll pick a few fans out of the line to hang out before the show. Afterwards, he’ll sign autographs and take pictures until there’s no one left standing outside the venue with him. It’s a dynamic that’s rare in an industry that’s notorious for being inauthentic and exploitative. “From me, to Jon, to the band, we're just not like most people in the industry,” says Jenkins. “Like, I’m trying to open people's minds, change people's views and change people's hearts.” I ask if that means that he sees himself as a role model. “I’m just human!” he shoots back. “That’s all I’m trying to show.”
I return to Jenkins’ apartment on Sunday in the late afternoon. He and his girlfriend of nearly two years, Kendra, have been running errands all day for a vacation in the Bahamas before Jenkins starts his summer festival run. “Buying swimsuits, clothes, other stuff,” he mutters from the living room closet. While Kendra goes to the back porch with the hope of making S’mores on the grill, Jenkins plops on the couch as an unidentifiable Russell Crowe movie plays at low volume in the background.
We start to talk about the financial reality of being an independent musician in the digital age, where visibility doesn’t always translate to economic stability. The music business has come with a learning curve, but Jenkins’ only source of stress is misperception. “I make a living off my art, but I know people think I make more than I do,” he says. “I find myself having to defend or explain myself a lot to friends and family. I worry most about people that are close to me thinking that I don’t want to help them or that I’m not thinking about them.”
After all, there’s no tutorial to being a budding rap star. “People close to me speak to me and expect me to know what I’m doing, like this is not the first time I’ve done all of this. I’m new to this too!” explains Jenkins. Surely, Jenkins and his peers share advice on how to navigate fame, but, “there’s nothing Chance or Saba will be able to tell me about perceptions being incorrect about how I’m living. We’re going to say the same shit. So I just keep an open mind,” says Jenkins. “And I pray a lot.”
The night before I arrived in Chicago, Chance The Rapper released Coloring Book, a project steeped in the soundscape and spirit of gospel and the Black church. The day it’s released, a song from the recording sessions called “Grown Ass Kid,” featuring a verse from Jenkins, was leaked. A line from Chance’s verse goes “Everybody can finally say it out loud, my favorite rapper’s a Christian rapper.” From Chance to Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, the past two years has seen marquee, forwardly Christian rappers playing with the borders of secular music.
“Christianity is the foundation of my beliefs,” says Jenkins. “Just like Chance, there’s no way I’m going to be able to not talk about it if I’m talking about my life.” Some of Jenkins’ family members, including his father, still don’t accept his music because it’s secular. “He also hasn’t really been in the latter half of my life, so it doesn’t matter,” says Jenkins.
On “Grenade Theory,” a song released earlier this year, Mick vocalizes his frustration with Christianity, “Granny know I’m rapping say my life is full of sinning. Like hers ain’t. Like yours ain’t.”
“When I got on my own, I started to look at people in the church like, ‘y’all are just a bunch of hypocrites,’” remembers Jenkins. “The church today makes you feel like if you don’t got your shit together, don’t come in here.” Jenkins conception of faith is far less rigid. “I’ve stepped away from that,” he says. “Before worrying about all these doctrines, I’m actively trying to be a better person every day,” he says.
Kendra walks back into the living room looking defeated. “I can’t light it. I’m just going to wait for you,” she says to Jenkins. We walk to the back porch and Jenkins flips the grill open. “She was trying to light it with no coals bro,” he says, shaking his head endearingly. He grabs a bag of charcoal and dumps the remains into the grill. “A big part of my religious process is that I believe we’re here to demonstrate, show, and spread god’s love,” he says squirting lighter fluid onto the briquettes. I ask how that translates to music, especially in a time as tumultuous as the one we’re living in. “Music be the soundtrack to an era,” he answers. “As far as me as a Black man, I look to music for inspiration, endurance and healing. Music is crazy powerful. That’s why I take it so seriously.”
Jenkins gets a small spark started, and sticks his head back inside. “My love! Kendra!” he shouts. “It’s lit.” As flames engulf the coals, Jenkins continues. “I’m trying to help people. When I talk to people I look at them in their eyes a little bit longer. I don’t have to say I love you, I’m trying to show you. I’m trying to be different than what you’re used to, and hopefully from that, you can see my light.” For the first time in an unusually cold and gloomy weekend for May, a warm slice of sun sneaks out from behind a cloud and shines down on us. “Show them your light,” says Jenkins. “That’s what I be trying to do.”