Mick Jenkins, Chicago’s Conscious Rapper, ‘I don’t really listen to music’

At 6’5, with a deeply masculine voice and purposeful delivery, Mick Jenkins is a distinctive figure in Chicago’s rap scene. He “towers above most of the city’s newcomers, literally and figuratively,” unique in part because of his potent (often venomous), socially conscious lyrics teeming with subtleties and metaphor. Jenkins is pushing through a crowded city, Chicago’s witnessed the rise of newcomers Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and King Louie as of late, and competition is fierce. It’s not easy to make an impact, especially when you’re a conscious rapper constantly straining against the massive shadow Kendrick Lamar cast in 2012 with good kid, m.A.A.d. city. It’s doubly as challenging when you’re an artist pushing to break out of the internet realm where “there’s so much to choose from”, and so many artists all fighting for the same spots of “shine.”

Jenkins latest project, his The Waters mixtape, a sequel to 2013’s Trees and Truths, offers a focused revival of the concept record. It’s unique form has garnered national attention, piquing the interest of several music tastemakers, and landing him a spot on this year’s Smoker’s Club Tour (which kicks off next week) alongside Method Man and Redman. FDRMX spoke to Jenkins in late September, to map out his place in music.

To start, we asked Mick to explain the metaphor behind The Waters for those unfamiliar with the album and music videos. Put “very simply, water is synonymous with truth.” A light liquid, but a heavy metaphor, it’s a confident rhetorical push for truth, and a pointed step away from an infatuation with money, hoes, drugs, anything superficial. “I thought about what the healing component is, and water is such a general topic, so I just took advantage of that.” On whether he’ll continue making concept records, Mick predicts “I will forever be doing concept records…will it be one thing, will it be another, a culmination, I don’t know. This next record will be a culmination of a couple things, not just like one… like water or trees or truth.’’

Water isn’t the only recurring theme on his mixtape. If you pay attention, you’ll hear Jenkins mention ginger ale more than a few times on the album.  As it turns out, it’s neither a cryptic reference to sobriety nor a marketing ploy: “It’s really a lot more innocent than a lot of people tend to believe, it’s just a real affinity to ginger ale. At this point I’ve just branded myself, you know, people are buying ginger ale just because I speak about it. People remember it.”

Jenkins’ affinity for metaphor bleeds into his music videos as well. His video for ‘Martyrs’ is a pointed antidote to Chief Keef’s ‘I Don’t Like (ft. Lil Reese)’ video, in which he holds a noose, spitting scorn at this generation (“all the little niggas got guns now / and they shoot to the f—ing beat.”) over a rework of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’. “That was the only thing we started with….Yea, I guess it was a kind of response, not directly at [Chief Keef], but he was the face of the movement at the time so I just thought it would garner a lot of attention if we did something as a response to that song. And it did – it kinda jump-started everything we’re doing now.”

And although Jenkins is best known for poetic verses, he’s also prone to using certain slang. We asked about his most recent favorite, and he responded: “Tweakin. Just like trippin. [laughs] I say that all the time. Cause that what people out here are doing.” A cool coincidence – tweakin also happens to be the name of this Vic Mensa track off his INNANETAPE mixtape in 2013.

As for keeping an eye on competition, Jenkins says ”I don’t really listen to music,” but “if I hear enough about them, I’ll check them out. I was hearing so much about Raury so I decided to check it out…I was actually about to check out Goldlink this morning. What the hype is about, who’s a potential competition or collaborator. It’s pretty inconsistently, just whenever I get around to it. I can’t listen to that shit all the time so I most of the time I’m focused on my own… Even to the point where I won’t listen to Kendrick, really a favorite artist of mine, but I will find myself rapping like him…so I can’t listen to that shit all the time.

Which brings us to the constant comparisons drawn between Lamar and Jenkins. When prompted, Jenkins is first thoughtful: “It’s something that people are going to do. You know when you describe someone’s music to someone else, you need a reference point something to say “it’s like this….” But ultimately, it’s not what he wants to hear, even from fans: “I’m not Kendrick.. I don’t feel like I really sound Kendrick. I think we both just have socially aware topics and that’s where it stops. I definitely get a lot of inspiration from him. Especially his live performances… Him and a lot of other dope artists, it’s good to watch and mold your own stuff.”

Still, Jenkins claims “I literally have 99 songs on my phone.” It seems strange for someone shaping their career around music, but Jenkins explains “I don’t want songs that I’ll have to skip. Some of my favorite albums are Q-Tip’s The Renaissance, Jill Scott on Who is Jill Scott 2000. Even from those, I got two songs from Jill, two songs from Q-tip, a couple of joints from Nas, I just only want my favorite songs. I wanna be able to press play and not have to worry about anything else after that. I’m really selective about what I put in my ear, and what I listen to on a daily basis.”

It’s easy to spot flaws in the modern music industry, particularly in an era where we grab most of our music on the internet. “Not to say that that realm of music is inherently wrong, but…as far as who get shine and why… The way music is presented to the people, the internet has kinda killed that and it’s really hard to find a consistent way to find good music. There’s just so much to choose from and so many ways to get to it.”

If you’ve been even marginally interested in finding music on the internet, you’ve no doubt heard of rising producer Kaytranda. It came as a small shock when Jenkins’s collaboration Kaytranada – the pizzicato beat bouncing behind ‘Rain,’ – didn’t appear on The Waters. “Of course I wanted that song on the tape…Kaytra’s management – from my understanding – weren’t OK with going, and then later they were, and really it was just a miscommunication.”  Jenkins says he’s “always open to working with “new talent,” but it’s unlikely you’ll see him doing features with other male rappers. “I actually prefer to rap with female rappers and singers, because I don’t really want male features.” So we asked about female rappers: “I got some shit in the works with Little Simz.. I continue to work with No Name [Gypsy] all the time.”

It’s near impossible to ignore Jenkins’s rise from Chicago’s crowd of newcomers. Among his counterparts his lyricism is purposeful and often serious-minded, especially considered in the context of Chicago’s South Side. Yet, he’s adamant that the city’s violence is too often misconstrued.  “It’s not as dangerous as people think. I mean it’s dangerous but not if you know where to go. If you do live in an area that’s more dangerous or impoverished…like most of those areas I know how to move so that I don’t cause problems for myself, you feel me? The biggest shock value about Chicago that is false or misconceived is that the violence is coming from such young people, like 13, 14, 15, 16 years old. And I think that is really appalling and that’s the shock factor for people who are not from Chicago. I feel the same way I feel walking past Marcy in New York that I do on the South Side [laughs] You know what I’m saying? It’s just you know where to go, what to avoid, what neighborhoods, etc.”

The Smokers Club Tour starts next week in Rhode Island, and Jenkins will be performing among Methodman and Redman.  He remains humble, “just being able to perform in front of that amount of people, a large percentage of who probably won’t know my music is definitely exciting.” Although he says “I didn’t really grow up with Method Man and Red Man… I can definitely appreciate it more now… It’s Meth and Red, I’m sure I’ll be able to get some gems from them.”

As for the future, he predicts: “A lot of visuals, working on album, the tour,” and a brand new scheme for merchandising.  “I’m about to do much differently than a lot of people have done before. It’s gonna start off with a couple capsule collections, and hopefully grow into a full blown line.”

You can peep the The Smoker’s Club tour dates here. We highly recommend listening to The Waters in full on Soundcloud. It’s also available on iTunes.