INTERVIEW: Mick Jenkins explains why "nobody can come for him except Kendrick," talks "Pieces Of A Man," and breaks down the value of personal growth.
Thank God for The Waters remarked Mick Jenkins, on his iconic project of the same name. Largely regarded as an essential in the mixtape canon, Mick's acclaimed tape put the Chicago lyricist on many a radar. That was in the summer of 2014, on the heels of his transitory mixtape Trees And Truths. Mick himself was an artist in transition, cultivating dual followings in his hometown of Chicago and his home away from home in Montreal. I vividly remember the first time I heard Mick's music; he won me over with his early single "Negro League." Mick's literary sensibilities were immediately evident, as he dexterously weaved cultural references, double entendres, and a sarcastic sense of observational humor. The Water[s] arrived shortly thereafter, and thus, solidified him as a formidable presence.
Now, Mick's upcoming studio album Pieces Of A Man is set to arrive on Friday, October 26th. In the interim, his fanbase has grown, as has the scope of his catalog. Having had a chance to live with an advance stream of Mick's album, it's evident that he's sitting on something truly powerful. Evocative and challenging, Mick approaches writing unlike a large majority of his peers. There's a literary quality to his pen, and as such, he's able to reflect himself with a refreshing dose of eloquence and self-analysis. Pieces Of A Man is no different; rest assured there is plenty to unpack on this go-around.
I had a chance to parlay with Mick Jenkins over the phone. Speaking with a confident, slightly-world weary baritone, Mick broke down the process behind crafting his latest body of work. Read our conversation below.
HNHH: Hey, this is Mitch from HNHH. How you doing man?
Mick: What’s going on?
Not too much. Congratulations on the new album.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your writing. I find it very unique in hip-hop. You’ve got lots of cultural references. You’ll throw in a reference to Pai Mei from Kill Bill. Wordplay. Abstract imagery. Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process and where you draw inspiration?
I draw inspiration from everywhere. I think I’ve been blessed in that regard. I was a writer before. I was doing poetry. Something that I liked to do. Poetry gave me a way to express myself through that writing and then rap gave me another. I think all of that influence kind of ties itself together in what I’m championing right now which is cleary rap, but I’ve got a lot of reading under my belt because of my interest in that coming up.
I retained a lot of that knowledge. I pay attention to things in a different way but I definitely have no problem using everything around me as inspiration, a source for metaphors, things like that. I think that’s why it comes out that way.
I wanted to ask a little more about your creative process when you’re working on albums. It’s clear to me that your projects are coherent voyages. They don’t feel like you’re throwing a bunch of songs at the wall. It seems like you put a lot of thought into the arrangements and structure. When you know you’re about to start a new record, what’s the process there?
Nothing. I’m living. It’s really about my intentionality behind what I’m doing. When I’m in album mode, then all the music that is being created has the potential to go for the album. And it’s just what we end up choosing. It’s a real mental space for me. Sometimes I’ll remove myself. For this album, I was in Chicago and LA, and at one point I was like, I gotta get out of Chicago.
But, even the music that we made in LA, I don’t think, most of those songs are not the ones that went on the album. That was just the space I was in. I need to get out of here so I can get back to the space that I wanted to be in. So, I think it kind of varies. I’m definitely able to create in a lot of different pressures and environments. I’m cooking while I’m living. Especially because my life is the number one thing that I’m pulling inspiration and experiences from.
Just like The Healing Component, just like The Water[s], my albums are usually accompanied by a life change. The Water[s] was leaving college and coming into the real world on your own. The Healing Component was a relationship and breakups and then getting back with that person. Pieces Of A Man is now a direct reaction to the growth from those two projects. The growth and maturity. Becoming a businessman, becoming an artist, and really owning it in a way that I have in the last two years, where subsequently, you haven’t heard from me. Those were the things that I was focusing on. Getting my business in order, getting my time management in order. Now I’m coming back as a man and giving you pieces of how I got here.
Nice. On that note, the preconceived notions of “traditional masculinity," so to speak, are changing seemingly every day. What do you feel like it means to be a man in 2018? Are those themes reflected in your songwriting at all?
They’re reflected in what it means to be a black man from Chicago. I think that a lot of things can be readily identified with if you are a black man, or even a man in general, but I wouldn’t say, this is what it is to be a man in 2018. I wouldn’t go that far. I think that’s something that can be defined in different kinds of ways for different kinds of people. It’s more the climate for the man that we can talk about.
I think it’s time for men to start dealing with their emotions a lot better. I speak to that on songs like “Stress Fracture.” I think the confusion around consent in 2018 is insane. Which is why something like “Consensual Seduction” exists, because somebody like me understands both sides of where some of the confusion can come from. And then I see the other side, where some of that shit is absolutely unacceptable. I think that those are some of the issues that I’m speaking to in ways that you just really hear addressed. Especially from hip-hop artists.
That’s a big part of something that I want people to take from Pieces Of A Man. The pieces part. It’s pieces. With most interactions and especially with artists, you don’t really know me. You’re getting snapshots of my life and who I am. That’s what we’re usually getting from people. It’s another angle that I want people to think about that shit from as they digest the music for sure.
You mentioned how you had to get out of Chicago. Can you elaborate on that?
I mean, you want to be able to focus and when you have the regular shit that nugs and tugs at you everyday, you can’t focus like you want to. I had a band, a crew of people. I didn’t want them to be bothered by their girlfriends or their kids or what’s going on on Thursday. No, we need to all be away from that and be thinking about the music twenty-four hours of the day. And we were.
There were three different setups at the crib and I remember more than one day, coming and stopping at the set up in the kitchen and cooking something. Stopping at the set up at the pool and laying something down or stopping at the set up by the garage and finishing a song. You can’t do that at home when you have all the regular things, the mundane things of home in your face. We had to dip.
So you hit up Los Angeles.
Yeah. Well, like I said, most of the songs we did in LA are not even on the album but it was a break from that home shit. So when I got back home, I was able to go even harder, which is why that’s the music we ended up keeping. But it was absolutely and necessary true for that process to get flushed out.
For sure. I wanted to talk a little bit about Chicago hip-hop. It seems like every other day Chicago artists are making headlines for a variety of different reasons. I’m wondering what are your thoughts on the general Chicago landscape right now.
I think it’s great. Yeah. I think it’s great. I think it’s going to continue to be great and I think it’s great right now.
I mean, a lot of good music is being put out.
Mick Jenkins - "Bruce Banner"
So, I wanted to talk about your something you said on “Bruce Banner.” “Ain’t no one can come for me except Kendrick.” Lyrically, you’re definitely in the conversation. So does that mean it’s safe to say that you think Kendrick is kind of the benchmark? The first overall pick?
No. I think I’m the first overall pick.
Fair enough. But what made you draw that comparison?
He’s it. If you want to look at the game, if you’re gonna be honest, who else? I don’t think that Drake’s music has the same power. Drake’s most touching music ain’t for me, I’ma say that. I think that for a lot of people in the Hip Hop sphere even if they respect, like I do, how great of a rapper he is. So when I’m looking at the number one spot, I see Kendrick there. Even though I feel like I could catch that man, I do feel like if I had to rap against somebody tomorrow, I would only be worried if it was Kendrick.
I don’t really see it as a benchmark, he just holds the number one spot. Most people are going to say he’s the best rapper of this day right now. You know, your Black Thoughts, all the legends, I’m not really including them. Kendrick is legendary but he’s very much still in this shit. He’s number one. If they were like, ‘yo you gotta bring your best verse against this person tomorrow,’ I probably would only be worried if it was Kendrick Lamar.
I respect that. It’s very clear you have the ability to go in on a track when you feel inclined--
And that’s where that came from! I would hear stuff like, I would read shit like, ‘oh he can’t do it again.’ Man, I can do that type of shit whenever I want to, like you just said, but it’s just like, I also feel ways about that. What if I did that thirteen times and that was the album? Like that’s cool, but it would definitely be lacking in some of the areas that I like to focus on in trying to create a whole message for people. Like trying to create a complete thought that you can receive something from start to end. It’s like damn he talked about this, this and this.
That shit is kind of just going off, kinda flexing. I feel like that’s kind of like, the guy that can dunk really well. Everyone is watching him throw the ball up to himself and do crazy little gathers and shit and he’s out there dunking them. It’s like alright cool, but let’s get the rest out here, let’s hoop. And he’s not that great of a basketball player. I think that’s equated with being able to rap like that but then not being able to deliver a message with a cool chorus and poignant raps as well.
Oh, you’re just a rappity rapper. You’re not able to touch me. You’re not able to Good Kid Maad City it. You’re not able to Waters it. You’re not able to, it’s like oh okay, there’s the limitation on what you do. And The Healing Of Component was an attempt to do something different and it was almost like I couldn’t do that anymore. So, specifically, to be like look, I can do this whenever I want to. Look at how well I just did this.
You gotta have that replay value. When I’m listening to an album, there are the immediate tracks that stand out on the first listen. Later on when I revisit it, other tracks start to gain new meanings and new life. I think that with your project, different things are going to connect at different times, so it’s very well structured in that sense.
I noticed that you make a lot of references to Montreal in your music. What is it about Montreal that draws you there?
I mean it’s cool. My manager is from Montreal. That’s why I was going out there in the first place. We were trying to build my fanbase in our homes. So it was between Chicago and Montreal when everything was starting off. At this point, I’ve got friends and family out there and I love the city. It’s pretty cool. I’m brushing up on my French all the time. I’ve fostered relationships with creatives. It’s the top three markets that I do well in. I’m always going to have a connection to the city.
For sure. In some ways you put out a definitive Montreal hip-hop anthem with “514,” and you’re claiming Chicago. Man, I always found that kind of funny, you know?
Yeah, man! Like I said, that’s my brother and that’s where he’s from. I was out there a lot. That’s my second home.
I was actually first introduced to your music through the homies in 5 Pound Media, when they were shooting some of your early videos.
Yeah exactly. They shot “Martyrs.” They shot the video that got everything going. I was out there for a long time before that. People don’t realize that. It’s not just an affinity. I was out there for months at a time.
I love “Lack”, man. That video was great. That was probably the song that made me really put you on my radar. It was just a clever video. Good performances.
Mick Jenkins - "Lack"
You’ve come a long way since the days of Trees and Truths, which is when I think maybe a lot of fans would’ve first started to get into your music. Looking back on those days, what kind of guidance would you tell your younger self, looking back on the things you’ve learned.
To not let people stop me from doing what I want to do. Despite where I am, I definitely let people stop me from doing what I wanted. It’s always simple shit like that, but it means so much when you think about what you could’ve done.
Do you feel like you’re at a point now where you can kind of move the way you want to in terms of music?
I will. Whether I feel like I am or not. I will.
Anything you want to share with the people?
Pieces Of A Man, October 26th.
I’ll let you get back to your day. Thanks for your time, and of course the music.