A conversation with Mick Jenkins.
Prior to the release of his 2018 album Pieces Of A Man, Mick Jenkins declared himself to be hip-hop's first overall draft pick. A bold claim to be sure, but the statistics measure up. Few are as nice with the pen as the Chicago writer, pairing poetically-rendered imagery with an athlete's formidable swagger. His vision most recently manifested with The Circus, an appetizer to a greater vision scored by music from Hit-Boy, Black Milk, Da-P, Beat Butcha and more. At once socially relevant and darkly comedic, Mick's latest finds him at his most artistically confident. And this is only the novel's prelude.
On January 27th, I had the chance to speak with Mick over the phone. Never one to pull punches, Mick remains refreshingly blunt in his world-view, keeping it real about the current state of the game, the album as an art form, and why he had to temper his competitive spirit. At once eloquent, affable, and inclined toward gallows humor, his unflinching style of commentary remains essential in today's mad climate -- perhaps now more than ever.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Gonzales Photo/Flemming Bo Jense/PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Hey, Mick, how are you doing man?
Chillin, bro. How you doing?
It’s kinda somber over here with the news of Kobe. I don’t know if you were a big fan of his.
Yeah, it’s pretty shitty.
Are you a basketball fan?
I’m just a basketball fan. I wasn’t really a Kobe fan. It wasn’t like I didn’t like Kobe, I just wasn’t a huge Kobe fan. But it’s Kobe.
Pretty much. On a lighter note, congrats on The Circus. It’s great. What can you tell me about the title, what The Circus means to you as a concept? When you hear “The Circus,” there are many different connotations and images that come to mind.
I think it’s a representation of what the world is right now. What my life is like right now. I see a lot of allegories. People performing dangerous feats for half-interested audiences. Having a ringmaster over an animal, person, or entity that can really defeat the powers-that-be, but not realize it cause of the system that’s happening. Cause of the whip, in a sense. Sideshows and people’s uniqueness being taken as energy. It’s really not that deep at all. It’s real. [Laughs] It’s a shitshow out here! With Trump in office, head clown.
It was just that. A loose take on society and where I am right now. A direct prelude to the album that should be coming.
Do you see any dark humor there? Sometimes all you can do is laugh.
For me, yeah! I don’t know if people do, but I do. [Laughs] I be laughing at shit Trump do. Shit is funny. It’s not but at the same time it’s so crazy. I think that in itself is a darker humor. A lot of people don’t think that shit is funny.
I keep thinking about the album cover, which is very bright and colorful, suggesting something lighthearted. But then when you listen to the tracks, you’re speaking on darker themes. There’s a cool juxtaposition there, between the darker elements and the comedic elements.
That’s actually why I liked the red. It’s darker at the bottom of the image and then it gets lighter. I just liked that. I feel like it’s bringing an element of moodiness to it. If you’re looking at it not knowing what you’re about to experience.
Definitely. Did you have that album artwork done before you started working on the music?
Nah, after the music was done. After we already chose the seven tracks.
Was there an inciting incident that led you to go: You know what, this is the story I need to tell right now. Make this particular commentary.
It’s a culmination of ideas. Speaking on the topics that I am is always going to happen. It was in The Water[s] at a very surface level. It was in Pieces Of A Man. It’s my life. It’s really what I rap about. The experience on “Carefree” is a real experience. That shit happened to me. That’s what I rap about. That will always be in my music.
As far as a defining moment, it’s really just a culmination of two years of work. Finally reaching a place where I know what I’m going to do and every move can be streamlined. I can draw a line between everything I can do for the next two years. Building up music and content to be able to move like that. This is the beginning of the story I’m trying to tell. The EP is a direct preface to the album that should be out this summer. I’m excited. I feel like I’ve been low key for a while, but I’m coming back out with all my ducks in a row.
I’m looking forward to it. It’s interesting you say that -- you mention “Carefree” as being something that actually happened to you, such a frustrating experience. But then it turns into art that then gives other people joy. It’s this weird cycle of pain to joy that speaks to the themes of The Circus. The relation between artist and fan on a deeper level. And lyrically, you’re able to touch on many different topics at once.
That’s spot on bro. I appreciate that. That’s just where I’m at, artistically. As far as what you’re saying lyrically, my biggest thing about a song like that is how can I speak to this and still make it a vibe. I think everybody, myself included...it can get heavy to listen to some shit, you know what I’m saying? For it to be another protest-esque, complaining-ass song...it’s valid to do that, but I don’t want to run that back! [Laughs]
When I did this joint called “Eleven,” that’s not a song I listen to a lot. As powerful as it is may be. I don’t put “Drowning” on when I want to vibe out. Being able to create that vibe for “Carefree” is something I was really excited for when we clicked like that in the studio.
Definitely. Given the meaning behind your lyrics, how long does it take you to write a full song? Are there many drafts?
Some songs. Right now I’m working on this joint from Rascal that I’ve been racking my brain over for two weeks. “Carefree” I did that shit in an hour and a half. Certain things, like the intro, I did that shit in thirty-minutes. It’s about what’s going on, where I’m at, what I’m prepared to do. When I did “Carefree” and the Hit-Boy joint, that was three weeks in L.A. where I only came there to work. It wasn’t taking me long to do shit at all.
I tell people all the time, if I go into the studio and knock out five joints solid, that didn’t happen today. That happened over the last three months. It just came out today. I don’t ever try to make it seem like I’m pumping shit out like that. I be thinking about these concepts and ideas for a very long time. So when I go lock in, it gets done quick most of the time. There’s a space like now where I’m not locked in, I’m on the road, I got a lot of shit distracting me. Now, I’m fuckin’ taking two weeks to finish this song from Rascal.
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Compared to back in the days with The Water[s] and Trees & Truths, did you always have that confidence to know when something was done?
Yeah, I’ve always had that confidence. I’ve actually changed that approach. A lot of times now I sit with shit. It’s what I’ve been able to do holding on to so much music for so long. In comparison to what I used to do, which was drop it immediately. Holding a song or project for a year or two isn’t crazy to me. Cause what are you doing in that meantime? Listening to it. Checking. Going back and making sure I’m singing melodies that compliment. I’m revising over and over. The album I’m working on now will be my best album because of that type of effort. As opposed to the first fifteen joints being like this is it. I have a direction.
But yeah, I’ve always had that confidence. [Hearty laugh] The first fifteen songs was like ‘yep! That’s it!’ That’s how I did The Water[s]. It’s reasons like that I have conflicting feelings when people be like ‘that’s your best work.’ It’s like, damn yo, we put loops and we put the first fifteen songs and didn’t revise. We just put that shit out. But that’s how we did shit, I always had that confidence.
I can imagine. Last time we spoke was before Pieces Of A Man, when you had just dropped “Bruce Banner.” You said “can’t nobody come for me except Kendrick.”
On some rap shit, people aren’t rapping like me. For real. Top five in the game with the pen. Right now. For sure. Go argue with your mom. That’s how I feel.
I wouldn’t argue with that.You delivered it well on this project. “Carefree” is the perfect example. You hooked them in with a banger. By the time you start rapping, they’re in.
Listen hard if you want to, or vibe out if you want to.
Yeah, exactly. On that note, one of my favorites tracks is “The Fit.” You alternate nicely between melody and spitting bars. How do you decide when you’re writing a song if you want to go in a more melodic direction or spit? On a song like that, you could have gone either way and it would have been dope.
That’s what I’m working on. When I went with Waves and The Healing Component I was melody-based, and I saw how it was received and how it sounded. When I did that, I think I needed to find a better balance. And I’ve been finding a better balance. Melodies are crucial to replay value in songs. As a rapper, especially one that can bar up the way I can, it’s not always necessary and definitely not always absolutely necessary. Finding the right balance will make a song go crazier.
This is my opinion, but some of my favorite Mach Hommy songs have a little something like that. When it’s just machine-gun shit, it’s hard for me to vibe cause I’m intently listening to the bars. I think people feel like that a lot. Some rappers don’t care about that and they don’t have to cause of their ability. But if you care about that, which I do, I’ve been trying to find a better balance. I won’t say that I’m there. When you say how, it’s like shit, sometimes I be hoping that shit comes out! [Laughs] Sometimes it’s the reaction that lets me know.
Do you feel like certain themes are more effectively expressed through melody?
I think both are necessary. I was somebody who only rapped. I did that already. Melodies are crucial for replay value. There’s only so much I can do, so many people I can reach with only bars. It’s a limiting thing. They’re equally as important if you learn what to do with them, but not one over the other. I’m a rapper, so if I was an R&B artist I’d absolutely say that. But I’m a rapper, so nah. Not one more than the other.
Are there any artists you’ve been particularly influenced by these days?
Lately, this guy Serpentwithfeet. I think he’s an amazing writer. Amazing singer. Brent Fayaiz new shit was fire. I fucked with that. Mach Hommy I guess. I’ve been rocking that shit for a while. As far as having inspiration from artists, those three.
You’ve been developing some great creative chemistry with EarthGang. Can you tell me about the sessions that led to “The Light?”
That was a while ago. I think it was the same sessions as “House,” like three years ago. I fucked with them at their crib in Atlanta. We did multiple joints. There’s some other shit we got and I chose one for the tape.
How did you guys meet?
I don’t even remember. It was a hook up, I wanted to fuck with them and I think my manager might have reached out to the right person. They gave me an address and I pulled up and that was it. [Laughs]
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Between the three of you, there’s a lot of love for language. A lot of poetry. I think that’s what makes you guys such a good team. When you’re working with other artists, do you consider yourself to be a competitive person?
Yeah, I do! But I had to temper that shit. Muthafuckers don’t do that shit no more. I definitely do but people don’t operate like that for real. Not outwardly. People keep that shit to themselves and get offended when you have that energy in music these days. I ain’t just talking about mainstream people, even the people I know. There’s a very small circle of people I can operate like that with. Cause muthafuckers be getting butthurt! No disrespect, I mean you valid, but damn. I remember a time when muthafuckers could really be at each other about that shit and it was just competition. It wasn’t nothing personal.
There was a taste of that last year when Tory Lanez basically challenged everybody--
Nah, nah, that shit was weak. In that regard, like, everybody? Who?
Everybody who wanted it, I guess.
Who for real though? Who was a real spitter that got at Tory Lanez? You could say Joyner Lucas, but that’s not what he showed us when he battled him. [Laughs] All the people he really got into it with just teased and tweeted on Twitter cause nobody really want to get into that for real. N***as not like that anymore.
I remember J.I.D. seemed to want in, that would have been dope. But cooler heads prevailed on that one.
I mean, cause it’s too much. Essentially, and what’s crazy to me, is that n*****s be thinking about what’s the risk? What if Tory Lanez do get at me? But so what!? It’s like certain n****s at certain levels ain’t willing to risk that shit, you feel me? The culture’s not really like that anymore. N****s don’t jump out and keep it competitive. Like if Tory Lanez or JID or somebody would say the wrong shit, now the whole Dreamville run and disses him. I could see a lot of different ways that shit wouldn’t be the best. Because of how shit is, you feel me? Cause of the way social media is.
Back then, I’m thinking the early-two thousands, the nineties. When people were getting at each other they had to actually run into each other to see the consequences.
[Hearty laugh] Facts! Now people can temper both sides on social media without muthafuckas even saying shit to each other. That aspect comes and changes it.
It’s part of The Circus I guess. Have you become desensitized to social media at this point? Like if you saw something written about you, would you feel the need to respond to it?
It depends on what it is. I’ve definitely got at muthafuckas already. Sayin’ shit the wrong way about what I said in an interview. My main concern was how people were going to react to it. Cause muthafuckas is crazy. I do that shit in my raps. Word have meaning and they come off certain ways. So if you misquote me on a serious topic it’s like you’re putting me at risk for real. The way these n****as act on the internet. [Laugh] I’ve done that already. I guess my answer is yeah. But it depends -- there’s a lot of shit I wouldn’t give a care in the world about. But there’s certain shit I’d try to get on as fast as possible. People will take shit and run with it.
For sure. Switching gears back to music. When you’re speaking with fellow artists, maybe those in your circle, what’s the climate toward album construction? I feel like you’re an artist that values that -- and a lot of artists are still making albums as linear stories -- but a lot aren’t doing that. At all. Are artists still into that?
I don’t know. I am. I know I am. I don’t listen to a lot of people’s music anymore. I check out albums sparsely. It’s not that I don’t. I’m not an authority to be able to answer that question based off my knowledge of what people are out here doing. But Saba, Noname, JID, Smino, all the people that’s around me, close to me, they value that. It’s not always what we do every time. We value it. Think like that, seek to create something like that.
I would assume that if those people are there, there are other people that are too. We’re reacting to fans, to consumers. We’re not going to sit up here and act like anybody wants a fucking double-disc right now. [Laughs] With fourteen songs on each side. You can do that if you’re Drake. You can do that if you’re Chris Brown. But nobody wanted forty-five songs from that man.
That’s not how people are consuming music. Recognizing and hearing that from your label or distribution or whatever, it definitely goes into consideration. When you see Tierra Whack put out a seventeen-minute album, shit is different. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, but it definitely influences what people are doing for sure.
Was it a deliberate decision to keep songs on The Circus pretty short?
Well, yeah. My mind was to not overdo anything with this joint. It’s about the album. I didn’t want to over-conceptualize. I wanted it to be what it was. It’s a prelude. We gon’ get into the good shit momentarily.
If The Circus is part of a deeper narrative, is the next project going to be picking up where it left off thematically? A prologue to the same novel.
Yep. They’re all the same book. I don’t know if it’ll pick up right where it left off. I don’t know how people receive what I’m saying but it’s not really a story. It’s an idea of shit being a circus. In that sense I guess it picks up where it left off. The exploration of that idea.
How does one make the distinction between being an entertainer and entertainment? Almost like the difference being laughing at or laughed with. To walk a fine line between entertaining such a big group of people, but some people are entertained for the right reasons.
I don’t even think about that, bro. I can’t control that. I hope for the best. I try to change people’s minds about that one on one when I have the opportunity, not that I seek it out necessarily. Other than that, I don’t try to rack my brain over that too much. I can’t control it at all.
It crosses my mind but just as quickly I’m on to the next thing. Especially with how heavy an idea like that can be, I’m only trying to focus on shit like that if I can affect it.
You touch on it with songs like “Flaunt.” Rapping about how “They want to see you stunt.” People become so enamored with these hip-hop stereotypes of riches and wealth. It’s like, is that real, is that genuine? I don’t know. That’s why the album works so deeply on a thematic level, it’s making me think about all this shit!
I mean, yeah! I feel you, but to me, not to other people or to you, but to me that shit’s not that deep. It’s so surface level. That’s how muthafuckas get down in our faces. Especially cause of social media. You could believe all that shit back in the day, but now we know how this shit works. Now we know muthafuckas be using fake money when they put that shit to they ear. Everybody know. How do we know? Cause the muthafuckas who sell it tell us! [Laughs] You feel me? Not these days, shit’s not that deep. It’s literally what’s happening. Donald Trump is the president. It’s a circus. A shit show. It’s wild.
It’s some Death Of The Author type shit. You write something, you put it out there. It becomes whatever people want it to be basically. All it takes is a couple of bloggers to write think pieces about the themes and then people might start parroting that. The cycle will continue. And then it becomes so far away from what you were inspired by when you were creating it.
That’s what happened with The Water[s.] That’s what’s going to happen with a good concept. And this is some whole other shit, this is my own thoughts. I feel like by-and-large, at the heart of it, when there’s a good concept that cracks pop culture, I think a lot of people want to identify with that without having to be that. Especially if it’s supple. Something you can apply to your own perspective.
Not necessarily what the person meant but it sounds good cause it’s something that can be applied to different ideals and perspectives, it gives more space for you to take it and make it your own. And now you’ve got thirty-seven different meanings of one thing, that were never really what the person intended. Those are the ideas that will catch on like wildfire. Those are the feelings that people can identify with. More than being able to identify with it, I can tweak it and still keep it within the bounds of what it’s supposed to sound and look like.
And that’s how n***as front! [Hearty Laugh] So to take it from a conceptual level, that’s what muthafuckas do! Muthafuckas want to look like they’re successful or sound like they’re successful or smell like they’re successful even without the success. As long as the space I left thinks that’s who I am, I’m good.