“Even though Wave[s] is something different, this is very much still me,” Mick Jenkins declares in his gravelly voice. “A lot of people gonna be mad at me for switching my sound….People don’t take the time to understand that it is also me. I don’t really care about that type of approach to somebody’s opinion on music.”
Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins’s latest offering, Wave[s], is certainly different from his 2014 project The Water[s]. An EP that is self-identifiably less serious and more spirited than its predecessor, a shift in Wave[s] can be detected throughout, but particularly with cuts like “Your Love” and “40 Below.” Overall, Jenkins’s output sticks to its usual lane, but these tracks — backed by uptempo rhythms and playful beats — reveal more of the 24-year-old’s musical adroitness.
While Jenkins didn’t grow up performing or making music, he did begin writing when he was a kid, something he deems to have been natural selection. “I wasn’t a big fan of math. I liked words,” he recalls. He spent his early childhood in Huntsville, Alabama, but when his parents divorced, he moved to Chicago with his mother, who, as a journalist, was a huge influence on him. The developmental stages of his adolescence were in Chicago; for him, Chicago affected him more than anything.
Jenkins moved back to Huntsville when he enrolled in college, which was where he began rapping. After three years, he dropped out, and with five mixtapes under his belt, he returned to Chicago. That’s when he became involved with Young Chicago Authors, a performance and creative-writing organization that has been an innovative hub for many of Chicago’s rappers, including Vic Mensa, Saba, and Chance the Rapper.
“[YCA] is definitely the single most influential thing that affected me in Chicago. It’s where I saw a mesh of cultures, different types of people with different types of mediums. It’s kind of like all jamming out and supporting each other. It’s just a lot of love in the place from a lot of different sides and people in the city.”
In Chicago, he also witnessed the burgeoning creativity coming out of his city. He realized that his previous projects — save for Trees and Truths, which he views as his real debut — weren’t good enough. “I just made a decision to, like, rap better. Do it better,” he says. “You gotta be honest with yourself.”
And from that, a certain type of honesty was also bred in his music, which led to The Water[s], a project motivated by truth. His recurring theme of water — which is the entire driving force of The Water[s] and continues to appear in pieces throughout Wave[s] — is a metaphor for truth, allowing him to draw out different meanings within it, whether it be through rain, tears, or waves. More than that, The Water[s] became Jenkins’s public consideration of what it means to be a black man at this moment in time, underpinned by examinations of life and death, the self, temptation, sin, and the soul. Themes that were imposed upon the listener on The Water[s] are more nuanced on his new EP, where he takes a broadened and borderline lighthearted approach to making music.
While you wouldn’t expect Jenkins to be somber or humorless, his laughter is unexpected. He chuckles while describing his relationship with the term “conscious rapper,” which he views as reductive but something that comes with the territory. “They’re not gonna stop. It doesn’t really matter — as long as my content is what it is, I’m not going to change anything.”
Wave[s] isn’t so much Jenkins shying away from the conscious-rapper label — more a musical exploration that is wholly organic. “[Wave[s] was] how I was feeling,” he explains. “Those records are exactly how I was feeling in the studio. ‘Your Love’ and ‘40 Below’ were inspired by real life situations. ‘Piano,’ I just came in there and wanted to chill. We made music based off how we feel with real life stories in there — didn’t change it and doctor it to fit a concept. We didn’t do that, we just left it however we made it. That’s why it exists.”
Tracks like “Your Love” and “40 Below” can’t be written off so quickly: Even with these songs, Jenkins is still highlighting the honesty and modesty that often appears in his music. He aims to make everything about his musical endeavors as natural as possible, and much of it is homegrown. The EP’s production was largely handled by Chicago-based musicians Stefan Ponce, Mulatto Beats, and the collective ThemPeople; the rapper’s tour merch was designed by Chicago streetwear mogul Joe Freshgoods; and the artwork for the EP’s singles was created by Kansas City artist Hayveyah McGowan.
Message is clearly important to Jenkins — he strives to create a personal connection between himself, his music, and his listeners — but he believes that that message is often lost. On his current tour, his meet-and-greets are more than just his fans standing in line to say hi, take a picture, and leave. Instead, they’re given the chance to hang out with Jenkins for an hour, have the opportunity to see him as a person and ask him questions about the things they don’t understand.
As far as his sound goes, it all follows his same line of thinking — the path is just not as linear as some of his listeners might prefer. “You can’t get a person’s sound in one project. The epitome of who he is in a project, ‘Oh, he makes this kind of music’ — nah.”