Mick Jenkins is in his creative prime. In 2014, he splashed into Hip-Hop's collective consciousness with his debut album The Water (S), which was like both a baptism and an awakening. Drawing from jazz influences and lyrics that have never been simple — or too heavy-handed — the vibe is like honest conversations in a smoke-lit room, with someone dedicated to advancing the culture that also knows how to give you (the listener) space to be your whole self, no matter where you're at. Mick's flow makes complicated sound easy, with a sense of cool that's just timeless. It's a heavy vibe that reaches across generations. In 2016, he released his sophomore album The Healing Component, which went deeper into matters of the heart, and in late October of this year, he released the third full-length, Pieces of a Man. We connected via FaceTime to talk about a few topics from his latest work, ranging from honest relationships to practicing good consent, a bit of the process that went into making the album, as well as some history of the Young Chicago Authors writing program where a young Mick Jenkins first linked up with some of the brightest Chicago artists today — including Noname, Chance The Rapper, Jamila Woods, Saba, and more.
Mick Jenkins will be performing at Neumos in Seattle on Sunday, January 6th. You can find more of his upcoming dates across the US, Canada, and Europe here.
KEXP: First of all, much much respect to you for Pieces of a Man; it's one of my favorite albums of the last year. My first question is about the title actually. Is it a direct tribute to Gil Scott-Heron?
Mick Jenkins: Yeah, a tribute. I guess that's a good word. For me, we were doing a lot of things for inspiration during the writing process for the album, and listening to some of his speeches was definitely a frequent thing. It wasn't directly from his Pieces of a Man album, but when I saw he had an album called Pieces of a Man it just kinda set my mind thinking about what that meant to me, and the different ways I could take that and make that mean something. I felt like homage was owed.
It definitely feels like a lot of growth on this record. All your projects feel like different pieces of your journey and this one definitely feels like stepping into manhood. One of my favorite songs was "Ghost"...
Absolutely... and I had a question about one of the lyrics. In the chorus, you said, "I'm working on my penmanship and my relationships." I feel like relationships are a really important piece of this project and I wanted to ask about that. How important are your relationships to your art?
Well... I think that my sanity is the most important thing to my art, and I feel that my relationships are the most important thing to my sanity. My relationship with God, my relationship with my girlfriend, my relationships with the people that are close to me, you know? The people that keep me grounded. And if you focus on all of the many things that you could be focused on to advance your career, while you could be "successful", I've watched people close to me suffer before I was successful, because of that, and that was something I was not going to do. But like I say, it's hard work. Because it's such a self-centered thing, it's easier to do the other shit, honestly... even though that shit's hard too. But making sure that you foster, and cater to, and water those relationships, and keep them strong. I think that people are only able to keep you in check if they're at a certain level with you. If that level starts to fade, then their ability to do that becomes less strong, and I need people to do that for me. So like I say, you gotta water that, it's a plant. You gotta keep it growing. It's something to be spoken about, it's definitely something that I do a lot of. It's not an easy thing to break up the environment and put focus into growing your communication and your perspective with the people that are close to you. It takes a lot of work.
Absolutely, it's felt. Another song that's kind of in that same vein — and one of my favorite songs on the album — is "Consensual Seduction." I feel like that's an important song, just for our time. I've never heard a love song that was so squarely focused on consent. On healthy consent, and what that means. If you want to talk about that song and that process...
I had an interesting conversation about consent that birthed that song, with one of my homies, and I was coming from the stance of a lot of women really, really, really not understanding what's so hard about yes and no, and not getting consent at all, and non-verbal... I don't think it's that hard, personally. I was coming from the experience of even when it seemed like a yes, I usually would take the L if I just really didn't know. So I'm talking to one of my homies about that, and he has a completely different perspective, and not only does he have a different perspective, but it's backed up by traumatic things that happened to him at a young age, and it didn't make sense to me how the misunderstanding, like what we're talking about, could be reasonable on the person who's misunderstanding so it's just like, dang... We don't ever talk about the things that shape somebodies perception to believe that certain things are OK. It's always just misogyny like that's the only thing that influences why a person thinks certain things. And that's just not true when you really get down and think about it. Now I know that the other aspects of it are not the majority, but like I said that conversation got me thinking I could definitely make a song about this, and I've never heard it either. And I think that it's high time that we push ourselves creatively to address social issues in song. I would never want my addressing of a social issue to sound cheesy, and I don't think "Consensual Seduction" does... [laughter]
No, that's what's so ill about it! Is that it's not preachy, it could be classified as a sexy time song, you know what I mean? But it's got an important message in it that people need to hear and embody. And also you got Corinne Bailey Rae on it which is a huge look. How did that collaboration happen?
She was in Chicago one time and we linked. I've been a fan for a long time, been inspired for a long time, and we got to make a lot of shit that week, so there's more Corinne Bailey Rae music coming. I love her, she's super cool, she fucks with the Chicago movement... I didn't know what to call it, I don't know if that's what it's called... [laughter]
Legit, that's one of my next questions though. So that's a perfect segue! [laughter] You know it's easy for us as people who consume music whether we're doing it consciously or not, we understand artists in relationship to other artists, you know? Context is everything. And that Chicago movement - I don't know what to call it either - but it seems like it's a strong movement of y'all. Thinking of you, Noname, Saba, Jamila Woods, Chance the Rapper... y'all all work together I know in different ways. For people that may not know about those relationships and how you all kind of linked up...
Well, all of the people you named — which is the crazier thing — came from Young Chicago Authors. A great youth writing program on the North Side of Chicago. I'm never bored by, or it never ceases to amaze me, the fact that they have fostered so many great writers with so many different styles. It's those people you named, there's book writers, there's directors on HBO right now, there's just a lot of talented writers coming from under the tutelage and the staff of Young Chicago Authors.
Who is the staff and who are those mentors?
Well for... [long pause] how old am I now, 27? so since I was 17... For the past 10 years, there's been a lot of different mentors. They all are poets or writers or authors, but consistently? Kevin Coval, who is a poet and author from Chicago is involved all the time, he's been there the whole 10 years. And there's younger people: Britteney Kapri, Adam Levine — not the famous one [laughter] — yeah man, some pretty consistent youthful people who are always around, bringing in more young people and relating to them the way somebody like Kevin did. And then there's a rotating staff that's been a bunch of different people over the years.
Are you working with younger artists right now yourself, as a teacher or in any other capacity?
I don't have much of a capacity to work with youth as a teacher. I do have a space called Wespace Chicago, that I rent free to a lot of artists. We curate different shows: art shows, listening parties, listening sessions, video shit, we've hosted House DJ's... it's a pretty cool space. Wespace, the idea is that it's built on collaboration so whenever we are curating or having an artist ourselves, we try to make sure we focus on servicing them and giving them a platform the way Young Chicago Authors gave me a platform.
You've got some really dope producers on this album. You've got Black Milk. You've got Kaytranada — who you've worked with before — and I was reading somewhere that you still look for producers on Soundcloud to this day. Is that true?
There's fire out there. Can't be waiting for n****s to email you beats! [laughter] If there's another way for me to look, I'm a look.
[Laughter] So who are the producers on this record that you may have discovered on Soundcloud or what have you?
This guy named Ahwlee produced "Reginald." [Long pause] I don't even know... I gotta look at this shit.
[Laughter] It's too much music, huh.
"Barcelona" was produced by this guy named Nissim. Literally snatched him up off Soundcloud. [Long pause] "Pull Up," that's my DJ, GreenSllime, you could say I found him on Soundcloud, too.
That's so dope.
Yeah but, even more than that, it's what didn't go. There was a lot of shit from those kinds of artists that we found, had them come in, did shit, that just didn't end up going for the album. I'm not opposed to that in the process of looking for beats is all I'm saying.
I was at your show in Seattle, it might have been the last time you were here, for The Healing Component tour. You had the whole crowd chanting "drink more water." I feel like all your lyrics have multiple meanings and hearing a crowd chant that in a bar, kind of felt like a message to sober up. Was that intentional?
Nah. I don't care if you're sober or not. Not as far as alcohol goes. "Drink more water" means "seek more truth." That's what the metaphor will consistently mean for me. It gives the opportunity to consistently speak about it because that's something that's never gonna go anywhere. That's it. I'm not gonna tell you to stop drinking rum — I smoke too much. [Laughter]
[Laughter] I had to ask that for me. What's next? You've got the tour coming up, anything else you want the people to know about?
A ton of music.
Dope. Looking forward to seeing you at Neumos, January 6th.
Appreciate it. Thanks, man, I'll see you soon.
Gabriel Teodros is on the air Saturday mornings from 1-6 AM. Pieces of a Man is out now via Free Nation and Cinematic Music Group.
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