Rare is the element of modern life that can be counted as both an awesome force of nature and an inalienable right. Although we behave as if our beloved, all-powerful internet belongs in this category, biological realities remind us that water tops the list of life’s most vital ingredients.
A familiar device in metaphor, water is a reliable choice for illustrating aspects of the subconscious, for referring to dreams or otherwise indulging in the imagery of haziness. In rap, water as metaphor is used generously for likening thirst to horniness, water to alcohol, flow to voice, or what have you. But rarely is it presented as a stand-in for the human condition or rapped about as being threatened. As if those realities haven’t yet encountered rap’s hungriest minds. As if thousands of families weren’t robbed of their water over the last few months in Detroit due to dated water infrastructure and a bureaucracy all too eager to demonize the poor. As if water is a given. As if our basic rights are a given. On The Water[s], his second mixtape, the 23-year-old Chicago MC’s narrative broadens water’s role in black living as he sees it, on the South Side of Chicago and far beyond.
Mick’s first verse on opener “Shipwrecked” displays the gravity of his message almost perfectly. A detailed account of a New Year’s Eve drive-by alert on the South Side dovetails into him outlining the unrelenting struggle facing him and his. Uncertainty, danger, self-examination and the slowly churning, dirty drums beneath his voice all become an invite into his particular set of values. After a washy, ambient, palette-cleansing break, the second verse acts as emotion foil. Drawing off of his previous closing line, “holding onto this boat until we are shipwrecked,” Jenkins launches into a series of open-ended questions (“But I’m staring at the sky like ‘Why panic?’/Don’t you know who I pray to? We’ve been lookin’ like prey…”) until a blazing lyrical phoenix erupts with such redemptive bravado that it makes that “king of the world!” moment from Titanic feel downright subdued.
That heightened urgency is at the core of Mick Jenkins’ art. His concern with enlightening his peoples, and his insistence throughout the tape that they drink more water, suggest a perspective rooted in a modern duality: being of the hood dynamic, while also lambasting its conventions and pratfalls. Mick’s thought-economy has idealism holding hands with grounded realities, giving his meditations an appealingly laid-back, populist shine.
Musically, the wide range of dynamic and melodic beats aid in his appeal, but they never do more than provide a milieu from which he can launch his assaults on the status quo. And those assaults are always verbose and filled with what could be viewed as damning rap qualifiers. But a key to his allure is how he begins most songs with plain couplets and common tongue, before delivering the payload repeatedly with bar after bar of pure rap gold right before his buttery hooks cajole your addled mind, soothing you and instilling virtue where hedonism should be. For example, on the title track he begins his verse atop airy drum pads, mounting in momentum until he delivers the infectious hook “water more important than gold.” Seriously, the timelessness of his gravitas solidifies a standard for excellence in rap. Rather than feeling the need to kowtow to the seasonal capriciousness of rap tastes in order to “get” Jenkins, you can absorb his instrument sans context.
The song that follows the title track, “Healer” (featuring Jean Deaux) helped me personally quantify the Jenkins effect. I first heard the beat, by OnGuard and Dream Koala, on “No Police,” by LA figurehead Doja Cat (available on her debut EP Whirr). On her local cult hit, the rap novice is all charm and swag surf foam. All the sonic qualifiers are in place and her pouty-lipped “come hither” is at its most effective. Seeing this song performed to packed rooms of adoring scene fixtures has cemented this drowsy jam as a legitimate “hit” in my head. And after hearing Jenkins’ “Healer,” and feeling that drowsiness undercut with another cache of ideas and performances, it made me realize something: Mick Jenkins is more vulnerable in passing than most rappers have been in general for the last 10 years.
The rhythmic groove he slips into mid-second verse on this song may be my favorite innovation in rap this year. It’s subtle but nothing less than brilliant. At 1:29, he starts a line that reads, “Just throw it all in one bag/break it down there/rolling it all in one joint/take a puff and blow it all in one drag/we gone with the wind.” Now, I’m reluctant to delve too deep into rap mechanics, but the virtuosity at play here is blinding. He employs one of his best tools, which I shall henceforth refer to as “Jenkins Lag,” in which he falls out of time with the music ever so slightly. His ability to lag behind the beat successfully is one thing, but then to be able to go on a staccato run with the kind of imagery and rhymes at play here is mind-boggling. And it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t add to the honest account of life getting “a nigga stressed out.” This honesty, paired with a stellar guest spot from Jean Deaux (who kind of nullifies Doja Cat’s whole point of view with a tsunami of dopamine-laced tidbits dealing with a cherished lover sprinkled throughout her chorus and verse), kind of made it clear to me: a bowl of aesthetic touchstones can’t dwarf the power of the Jenkins songbook.
Comparing him to Andre 3000 or Kendrick Lamar or some other introspective Rap Great seems to be the casual bystander’s method for grasping MJ’s otherness, but that minimizes some of his most unique qualities, all of which he wears like badges. Out of the gate, the recurring themes in Jenkins’ repertoire struck me as gloriously uncommon, while still persuading us into sympathy with whatever he champions. One of the strongest images other than water is “ginger ale.” He frequently restates, in various iterations, “ginger ale for you hoes, I don’t need their souls,” stressing his preference that women be on an equal footing on the intellectual battlefield, needing neither condescension nor empty chivalry. Taking shots at the hyper-sexualized female archetype is brave enough, but Jenkins subverts the predatory sexual instinct simply with a need for an exchange of ideas. It manages to be both mature as fuck and to play like the byproduct of a militia leader’s hustle ethic.
All I can ask for, is that his world gets larger.