At the Jordan-hyped age of 23, MICK JENKINS has already defined himself as an innovative MC from the Midwest because he knows what he wants to say and does so with emphasis. His baritone aside, the Chicago rhymesayer is committed to honesty and originality, much like Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa – two counterparts he’s already shared a track with – and less like the Lil Herbs and Fredo Santanas that still place one hand on the Book of Drill.
It’s evident Jenkins reps a different section of Chi-town’s stylistic uprising, but the credit goes to his upbringing. He was guided through gospel, neo-soul, and the Mr. West era of ’00s hip-hop, and they merged to help him assemble The Water[s] – a mixtape overflowing with unconventional depth and sounds from DJ Dahi, Statik Selektah, and Ongaud (the trio of SolarFive, BES, and JBG). To provide a platform for his story, we caught up with Jenkins on the weekend to air out his background and discuss everything from his love for André 3000 to his growth as a lyricist.
This is random but I have to ask, what’s the deal with your ginger ale references?
It’s nothing overly serious, just that I like ginger ale and I’m trying to like brand it to myself. It’s something I want people to think about when they think about my music. And people have started buying ginger ale now. If I manage it without too much overkill it could open up opportunities down the road. So for now I’ll just continue to use it.
You are going on the road with Method Man and Redman later this fall as you’ll be on The Smokers Club’s “World Wide Rollers” tour. What are you looking forward to the most?
I’m looking forward to meeting Method and Redman – learning from them, getting some jewels, and receiving advice about this world and how to move to it and things of that nature. As far as the live performance… a lot of times at a show, people don’t know who I am. I know this is going to happen on this tour as well. It’s refreshing to see people’s reactions to my music when I first start to perform. Tracks like “Martyrs” or “Treat Me Caucasian”, you know, no one really knows who I am. Their arms are folded and they’re waiting for the headliner and then three songs in, everyone’s warmed up, phones are out, and their hands are in the air. I always like to see that.
Were there any artists you grew up wanting to emulate?
I grew up wanting to emulate Kanye… I don’t anymore (laughs). But when I was growing up that was the artist that was instrumental in securing my affinity for hip-hop. Just because, like a lot of artists at my age, Kanye West’s College Dropout was that album, you know what I’m saying? Common was another great influence, but everyone influences me to make music, in all types of situations and all types of settings. I grab influences from literally everywhere. I people watch a lot, just to have little extra details to incorporate in my music. The biggest musical influence for me was the gospel and neo-soul that my mother and father listened to when I was growing up.
At one point you were studying public relations at Oakwood University in Alabama; what made you get into that particular area of study? And why did you decide to leave?
My mother was a journalist and I was trying to see what was a good fit and I just kind of fell into PR. I was actually doing copywriting and community management when I first got back to Chicago before I was rapping full-time. I’ve always been a creative writer and copywriting gave me the freedom to do that on a different platform, but I liked it the same. I decided to leave initially because of money. My father worked at the school and I got a discount, but then he got fired so that instantly made it tough for me to pay for school on my own.
I managed to get it done during first semester but when second semester came around there was no way I was going to be able to make $10,000 appear out of nowhere. So I was just kind of floating, trying to see what I was going to do next. A pretty big personal situation happened as well. When it did, that confirmed that Alabama wasn’t the place for me and that I was going to head back to Chicago.
When did you decide that a career as a rap artist was what you truly wanted to pursue?
I’m not sure when I made that decision. I don’t remember like actually saying, “Alright this is what I want to do”. I just know that “Negro League” was a song off Trees And Truths and that was when I knew that I could do it, at a level that it needed to be done. When I was looking at Chicago, from the outside, as far as the music scene I knew I wasn’t ready. When I was working at the PR firm, it was getting to a point where I needed to decide if I was going to work 9 to 5 or if I was going to rap because I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t be in the studio and be working that grind.
How did your debut Trees And Truths influence your recent mixtape The Water[s] ? And is there a connection at all between the two projects?
There is a forced connection. There are two separate ideas on both albums that I tried to make work together. It didn’t necessarily come across so successfully as far as how they are intertwined with one another. Trees And Truths was when I was really trying to figure it out, where I was showing myself that I could make music on this level. It doesn’t really influence The Water[s]; there was just a lot of things that I learned from that album. There was a lot more music on Trees And Truths that I felt I couldn’t perform because the production was all over the place.
There were all sorts of instrumentals and a strange mix of genres on the album because these were the first fifteen songs that I had ever written. As soon as I was done with the last song, I was done with the tape and we put it out a month later. That’s not the way I work anymore. I’ve taken a year and a few months with The Water[s], and I am taking a lot more time to ensure that my music is more appealing and that a greater percentage of the songs off my new album can be performed. Same goes with lyricism. At first, I felt like at times I was rapping for rapping’s sake and I couldn’t necessarily get my point across. I have stopped doing that and have started to pay more attention to a lot of different areas – like the choruses and bridges – and I have tried to make everything flow better as a whole.
Can you provide some insight into the “water” motif and why you chose to place such a heavy emphasis on this theme throughout your latest mixtape?
I felt like “water” could be manipulated to be metaphorical for a lot of different things. Initially, I went with water as a concept because I felt like I could do a lot with it. Water is just as essential as air and so is the truth – so is the truth about the nature of things. Beauty, success, and happiness; those simple ideas that I feel like a lot people have the wrong idea about how to acquire them. What makes you successful, what makes you happy, and what is beautiful and what is beauty… I feel like people have the wrong notions about what they truly mean. They need “water”. They need the truth and to be open to the actual state of things. That’s what the general metaphor is, so throughout the tape I try to drive it home. Some people may say it was overkill, but I think repetition is definitely helpful.
Is there anyone you’re dying to collaborate with in the future?
Andre 3000. And because it’s fucking André 3000! I love André and I love Outkast, but I love André on his own. I think he’s an amazing artist and an amazing writer. I look up to his style and how he raps in run-on sentences because there’s no real structure to his flow. He has this ability to tell a story in such a unique way and I really fuck with it and his aesthetic. I am sure he has a lot to do with the instrumentation too. Like in order to do a song like “Hey Ya” as a rapper… that’s mind-blowing to me. He’s one of my favourite artists, if not my favourite rapper.
What’s one area or genre you would love to explore and is there one you’ll never touch?
Country. I will never touch country. I do think neo-soul is something I’m exploring; I am working on a couple joints now that are taking on more of a soulful vibe. I think people are going to be taken aback when I release this EP, I just don’t know if it’s going to come out before the album or not. But this EP is going to be straight chill and have really neo-soul-ish vibes. I want to get into that arena more. But I will never do country in my life (laughs).
Going back to your tape, not only do the lyrics in your single “Martyrs” examine the social stigma of the “slave mentality” that is still apparent in society today but the video drives that point home. What made you want to speak so loudly about this issue?
I heard the beat and I just knew what I wanted to do (laughs). Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” was the original song that we sampled and when Billy played the beat, those first six or seven bars all the way up to when I say “Shame you could see the fucking cherry stems hanging in the street” – it all came immediately. Then I just went home and figured out the rest of the song. I was really inspired by the actual lyrics of the sample and how I could make that relatable today by using that metaphor. It’s real and it was necessary. As for the concept for the video, I don’t know where it came from but from the beginning we were like, “We have to imitate “I Don’t Like”, we have to!”. We built on that idea and it has really jump-started everything that I’m doing right now.
What characteristics do you see in yourself as an artist that separates you from the rest?
I’m not sure because I don’t know everyone else. I think in my music, you can hear what separates me from the rest. I am more thoughtful. I am going to give you some meat, something to actually think about, something to ponder. But, I think I just take a student’s approach to music in general as there a lot of things that I am trying to learn about. It’s things like certain aspects of songs, shows, and creation that a lot of people don’t take into consideration and don’t necessarily feel is important when cultivating. It’s like studying a course of what’s hot.
For example, there are some songs that you like or that you hear and you know the lyrics to because it’s on the radio all day and it’s catchy. And then there are other songs that you know all day and they’re catchy but they stick with you more because it’s a sentiment that you identify with and it’s something that you like to say and it’s something that you want to say. As opposed to something that gets stuck in your head because it’s playing all day.
I try to go that deep with figuring out why people like certain things and why certain songs are catchy. I try to incorporate that into my music and have little bits like the “ginger ale” reference because it’s something people will continue to say even when it’s no longer in my music. I pay attention to the details, all the little aspects that prove to work out on a larger scale with a project like The Water[s]. I’ve noticed that a lot of other rappers don’t really get that deep into how their music is created. Some do but not the majority and I think that’s what sets me apart.