Mick Jenkins Talks Growing Up in Chicago, Jill Scott's Influence & the Project He's Working on w/ Kaytranada [INTERVIEW]
Mick Jenkins talked about the making of his new album, what it’s like getting a verse from Ghostface Killah, and why he doesn’t feel the need to speak out against R. Kelly at this moment.
In 1971, poet Gil Scott Heron released his sophomore album Pieces of a Man. The album, produced by long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson, was a devastating examination of the societal rot Heron saw in New York City. Upon its release, Pieces of a Man only had a cult following, but it has grown in stature over time. It is now considered to be one of the defining albums of the last 40 years.
It’s under this massive shadow that Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins dropped his sophomore album. Released in October 2018, Mick Jenkins’ Pieces of a Man came out amongst a slew of major label rap releases. Featuring production from the likes of Black Milk, Kaytranada, and BadBadNotGood, the album might not have gotten the hype of other releases, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve it; Jenkins’ lowkey sophomore was one of the best rap releases to come out last year.
The cues to Heron are obvious. The intro is titled “Heron Flow,” and features Mick using a spoken word flow that Heron often utilized (Most notably on his debut Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.) Jenkins content is focused on various societal ills, including racism, class, police brutality. And, like Heron, Jenkins looks inward to talk about the issues around him, like in the stunner “Consensual Seduction,” a song about making sure he has a women’s explicit consent before trying to have relations.
With Pieces of a Man, Mick Jenkins is trying to create music that challenges society and ignites conversation. He’s also rapping his ass off. A good portion of the album is him reminding people he isn’t a slouch on the mic, like on “Padded Locks,” where he more than holds his own with an energized Ghostface Killah. Pieces of a Man is a detour from his debut album, The Healing Component, and his breakout mixtape, The Water[s], which were projects with a centralized theme.
Jenkins is currently in the middle of his Pieces of a Man tour. Before his LA stop at the El Rey Theatre, we were able to sit down with the young Chicago rapper; he talked about the making of his latest album, what it’s like working with Kaytranada, and why he doesn’t feel the need to speak out against R. Kelly at this moment.
How has your sound evolved since The Healing Component?
I’m just in a different space mentally. [I’m] somebody who creates based off what I’m going through. Honestly, every project will change because…I’m growing. I’m learning. With The Healing Component, I was definitely more focused on the message I was trying to say and unwilling to sacrifice what it should sound like or what people thought it should sound like for the sake of the message. I let the stronghold on that perspective go for [Pieces of a Man] and let what I felt was the most comfortable parts of myself to tell.
Bring us back to the early days in Chicago growing up. What were you seeing, what were you observing?
When I was growing up in Chicago, I was heavily encouraged to go out on my own. I was on the train a lot. Just being able to people watch while you sat there waiting. I definitely noticed very quickly status and cultural and ethnic changes when I was in different neighborhoods. Chicago is super segregated. If you paid attention, that’s not something that’s hard to notice if you’re moving throughout the city. Finding different pockets of cultural things I connected to was something I was experiencing at an early age moving around Chicago, until I found a melting pot which I could consistently visit. That was Wicker Park. But, specifically, it was Young Chicago Authors, which I frequently talk about. It’s a writing non-profit in Chicago that I talk about a lot because that’s what I found. They were super instrumental in developing that mindset for me.
At what point did you pivot all of that into hip-hop?
I actually didn’t start writing raps until I went to Alabama. I went to college in Huntsville, Alabama. Beats By Dre headphones were the prize of a rap competition that I joined. I lost, but that’s how I started rapping. I felt like, “I could do that.” So I did.
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On Pieces of a Man, you touch on everything from police brutality to social justice to consent. Why is it so important for you to bring these topics into your music?
I was specifically thinking about things that men had to deal with — that I had to deal with. Pieces of a Man. I wanted to speak to the man, but with experiences that were my own. There’s a lot of thoughts that men need to reverse. When it comes to consent and just women in general, there’s a lot of issues with the way that men collectively think. I’ve had those own struggles. I’ve had to unlearn things. I’ve had to learn how to properly respect, properly love, properly address certain things with women, with my sister, with my mother, with my girlfriend. Those things being a part of this project were a necessity.
Have you been vocal about the R. Kelly accusations?
I’m always confused about that. Have I made comments about not fucking with R. Kelly before? Yeah. Is that what I think people mean when ask have I been vocal about it? No. People mean “have you been talking about it while everybody’s talking about it?” No, I’m not. I’ve already distanced myself from R. Kelly. I already knew he was guilty. I didn’t really need all of this to think he was guilty, but it deserves as much attention as it’s getting. It deserves the ability to convince whoever’s not convinced, or give new truth to the ignorant. Or put him in jail. I think any victims, any survivors, anybody that has to suffer through anything like that, deserves their justice.
Talk about putting together a body of work 17 tracks deep.
Well 15 with two interludes, but nobody’s counting for real. For me, nine or 10-track albums are kind of limiting. And if you do that, I hope they’re all fire, because it’s really short. The way I make music and the way I listen to music dictates how I release it. A lot of the music that I listen to, still listen to, and have been listening to for ten years is 21 tracks, 16 tracks plus — and there’s meat. There’s things to discover, things that I’m still finding out. There’s things that I’m still discovering about the Renaissance album by Q-Tip, Who is Jill Scott?, or [Kanye West’s] Late Registration, which had 23 tracks.
That kind of storytelling and display of ideas through music is important. It gives you more time. It gives you a soundscape. It gives you a ride. It gives you somewhere to take you. Albums with shorter amounts of songs speak to a different type of intention with what you’re trying to say. We put a lot of intention behind what I was trying to say. A lot of research, a lot of speeches. [There were] other songs and ideas that we had conversations about before we ever started recording. For me, putting that much thought behind something like The Water[s], The Healing Component, or Pieces of a Man – it’s gonna be 15 songs or more.
How has someone like Jill Scott influenced your sound?
In every way. As my sound has become more musical and less focused on just rapping really well, I pull inspiration from her. Huge inspiration. I can’t sing very well, so a lot of the things that I do sing are things that I’ve been singing for years. Especially in my new music, people don’t realize how much of it is just repurposed riffs from songs that they may already know.
What element or situation do you need to write a good 16?
Inspiration. That’s it. I just need some inspiration. That’s a lot of what we do. A lot of times on this album, we worked 6 am to 1 pm. Most days, it would spill over ‘til 3 pm. I like to work early. First two hours are looking for inspiration: videos, documentaries of other people’s music or something funny. Other rappers… If I hear Saba on [The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon] going crazy, the next day I’ma be like “I need to get out my notepad.”
What was it like working with Kaytranada?
Amazing. It’s always good working with Kaytra. We’ve never actually made anything from scratch in the studio together. I love telling people that because I feel like our music so good. We have a lot of songs, but the only times I’ve ever been in the studio with him, he’s just playing me beats. We got a project coming out. I’m super excited about our opportunities to get in there and really cook from the ground up. I constantly say that he’s our Pharrell. I know for a fact that people don’t know his range, because people haven’t heard the shit that he doesn’t have out. His range and what he’s able to do, you would be like “damn, Kaytra made this?” And the many people that he’s servicing and providing beats and sounds for, this nigga is amazing. Every opportunity I have to work with him always turns out to be pretty good music. I always look forward to linking with him.
Shay Lia says the same thing. It’s never in the studio.
You can’t do that with everybody. A big part about him is just we grew up on a lot of the same shit. We like a lot of the same shit, influenced by a lot of the same shit musically. When he’s digging into his world, I already fuck with that world. So whatever comes from it, I usually can do something with it.
I remember listening to “Understood” and thinking, “Oh yeah, this is a Kaytranada beat.”
Some of my best songs are Kaytra produced.
Can you talk about bringing the record to life?
I like to put a lot of thought into it. I like to put a story into it. Usually when we have a good treatment, I then put my input into it. I’ve had not the chance to work with some great people just because they didn’t want as much as my input as I wanted. Which is fine, that’s someone’s art. They don’t want your input, I get it. But that’s just not the way I work with my visuals. Usually, you can tell that a lot of me is in it, whether it’s an idea, input on set, or just approval of having the same direction or vision. I just really wanted to focus on that male relationship — experience that isn’t really talked about. That’s actually often underrepresented because it’s stereotypical that we don’t even have fathers. It was really cool when the writer came with the idea to show three different generations, and we just ran with that. Shit was pretty dope.
Talk about getting Ghostface Killah on “Padded Locks.”
I was so scared that we wasn’t gonna get the verse actually. I was waiting for it for a while. I really felt like because my verse was on there, for him to even accept was a blessing. Like “ OK, I could fuck with you young guy.” The day I actually got the verse back was like “bet, he really fuck with this shit.”
How tight was the window before the album had to be turned in?
A week. [laughs]
It’s crazy, you hear people pushing their album dates for features.
Yeah, I hate to do that. But if you don’t do that, people will take even longer. “Oh, I didn’t know you needed it. You shoulda told me.” Bro, I called you 50 times. [Laughs]
What was the biggest takeaway from working with a rap veteran?
The biggest takeaway was he thought it [was] worth it. Well, it was worth the bread. But still though. [Laughs]
What is it that you want fans to get from your story?
I really want people to focus on the “Pieces” aspect. It’s real hot right now to guilt somebody to death. A lot of the perspectives that people champion me for speaking on, addressing, expounding on, explaining, or giving the light, I had to learn a lot. I had to learn the hard way. I had to make mistakes. I had to grow from a certain point. If you caught me before then, you would think different of me. You would have a right to, but I would also have a right to grow from it, like I did.
What are some goals for yourself as an artist at this point in your career?
I’m big on independence. I’m setting up myself, and my life. Trying to hold on to this money while I’m making it. I have a creative space that I just opened in Chicago; we try to service underserviced artists. We do exhibits, video releases, listening parties, all types of stuff. We converted the space. I have two studios and a gallery space. Whenever we do stuff for artists that we put on, it’s usually free. They can sell their work, we don’t want a percentage. Just about giving people a platform the same way that YCA gave me a platform when I was younger. That’s where I want to move into after music, is curating events and art. This is a good way for me to practice and get my feet into it, actually give back to people that be around in the art community in Chicago.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing music?
Ultimately, I’m gonna go back to school to teach, honestly. Probably art or literature.