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Q&A: Chicago Rapper Mick Jenkins Wants to Spread Love

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 06: Rapper Mick Jenkins performs on stage during 2015 Budweiser Made in America festival at Benjamin Franklin Parkway on September 6, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch)

The diversity of Chicago hip-hop isn’t a secret, but in 2016, it’s been more visible than ever. There’s the religious guidance of Chance the RapperNoname and Jamila Woods‘ soulful debut projects; the South Side reportage from Lil Durk; some guy named Kanye West. And then, there’s Mick Jenkins. An Alabama transplant, Jenkins trades in verses that are easily recognizable, thanks to the Southern drawl that textures his baritone. His words are considered and dichotomous, but it’s the beyond-his-years gravel of his voice that powers songs with extra emotional resonance.

Consider “Drowning,” the BADBADNOTGOOD-assisted highlight from the rapper’s upcoming debut album, The Healing Component. It’s a protest song in which Jenkins spends the track’s six minutes exploring his vocal capabilities within the quartet’s sparse riffs and percussions. He hits falsetto as he invokes Eric Garner’s last words, alludes to Kanye’s “Bound 2” with an vocal stretch befitting of a southern bluesman (“When the real holds you down you’re supposed to drown, riiggghht?”), and references Harriet Tubman while aiming his rage at cultural appropriators and abusive Catholic churches.

But The Healing Component doesn’t only contain protest anthems. Jenkins spends a good amount of time examining interpersonal love, and the idea of reckoning with one’s self before connecting with others. The neo-soul and jazz influences that have defined his breakout works are fashioned into combustible and shifting sonics, with Montreal wunderkind Kaytranada, BADBADNOTGOOD, Chicago outfit THEMpeople, and Seattle’s Sango all contributing instrumentals. Although this crew of producers isn’t officially a collective, they’re all related in how they interpret late-’90s and early-’00s neo-soul and hip-hop with a contemporary sheen. On The Healing Component, Jenkins proves he’s one of the aesthetic’s leading voices.

Jenkins is one of those let-the-music-speak-for-itself kind of artists. When he meets with me for an interview in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, he parries personal questions. The 6-foot-5 MC only vaguely refers to the struggles with fame that have inspired his message of love; the shoot for his recent “Drowning” video (which depicts a slave escape and, of course, involves a river) was apparently so taxing that he declines to talk about it at all. Instead, we discussed how Mick Jenkins intends to bring the masses to the water, as grey rain clouds invade the afternoon’s blue sky.

You’ve been releasing music for a few years, but The Healing Component is your debut studio album. Why is now the time to put that out?
I knew that after [2014 mixtape] The Water[s], my debut album would be the next big concerted effort. I wanted to get into the mode of just dropping albums, really. [2015 mixtape] Wave[s] came just because I knew I wanted to work a little bit more on what I was well versed in—melody. I think the most endearing parts of songs aren’t usually the 16 bars. It’s usually the melody—or a chorus or bridge or some catchy part—and I just wanted to be a little more coherent with that part of making music.

Is it a balancing act for you, between melody and trying to get a message across?
That’s where the creativity comes in play. The fun part is trying to craft something that’s going to affect all of those [senses] for the listener, and still not compromise what it is I’m trying to say. Dancing between what kind of language to use sometimes—even all the way down to “fo’ sho” or “for sure.” That’s just an example, but all the way down to shit like that affects what it’s going to be and how it’s going to be received at the show.

Is it tough refocusing your language and being true to yourself as a writer? SPIN has a predominantly white audience, so it’s a bit of a struggle for me.
I think it’s super-important to be up on that. I definitely talk to people, and keep a few younger people around me just to be aware of how they’re talking, and the language they’ve been using. I’m on the road, I’m in and out of Chicago. I’m not on the ground floor that I used to be and I still need to be connected to that. The Twittersphere and social media keeps you in tune but other than that I’m not paying too much attention.

Was there added pressure releasing The Healing Component this year with Chance the Rapper, Jamila Woods, Kaytranada, and other big projects also dropping?
It’s pressure, for sure. I do wonder about these things, like, “Is my project going to get lost in all this good music coming out?” I find solace in the fact that I do have a die-hard fanbase building, so I think that at the end of the day I’m going to do well.

Do you find kindred spirits in your frequent collaborators, like Kaytranada, BADBADNOTGOOD, theMIND, and THEMpeople?
These are people who I’ve just been able to develop honest relationships with. BADBADNOTGOOD started with the real cool link-up, and I really vibe with the way those dudes create and how easy and effortless it was. Kaytranada, I’ve been in the studio with him, but I’ve never worked on my own shit while we were in the studio together. He’s only played me records that I’ve rapped over. I think it’s even cooler that I’ve gotten beats from him that’s just exactly what I want to fuck with. I think it has a lot to do with being inspired by the same types of music, growing up on neo-soul. When you have a connection with somebody, it’s so much easier to work, and that’s what it is with these artists I continue to work with: We have a real connection, a real friendship, and it just makes working easy.

What took you so long to put together a proper debut album?
Just understanding the concept. I don’t think people understand how much of it was just thinking and carving it out in my mind over the course of three months, and then a song like “Spread Love” comes together in, like, three hours. I was having experiences and learning from them and then applying it to the message I was trying to bring to life. To do three songs in a week is not just because it’s a hot week for me, it’s because I’m arriving at a point of understanding and it’s then coming out of the music. That was a big part of it, just being able to live so that I could have the experiences to pull the meanings out of it.

What were some of those experiences?
A big part of it is the relationship that I’ve had with my girlfriend. I broke up with her, not because of her, but because of my own problems—which is something I couldn’t see right away. And that’s another thing, not just learning how to be a better person in the relationship but learning to deal with my life. My life comes with a lot of stresses and headaches and pressure, that I think people just assume to automatically know how to navigate, and I’m doing this all for the first time. My projects always pretty accurately describe what is going on in my life.

On “Angles,” you say, “If you’ve never been alone how do you know yourself?” Where does that idea come from?
It’s a part of growing up that I think people need to realize is necessary. Eighteen-to-25-year-olds think they’ve got it all together and they know who they are and they’re so sure of themselves. You can’t really find out who you are until you’ve been put in situations where you only have to rely on yourself. You don’t know what you’d do for $100 when you’ve never been in a situation like that before. If you’ve always been under your parents’ roof and never really out here alone trying to fend for yourself, how do you really know who you are? How could you see it clearly? Maybe you can; I’m sure some people can, but a lot of people can’t.

When you come back to the crib, getting off work at, like, 10 p.m., and there’s nobody there but you, it’s like, “Damn, I have my own crib. I have a job. I’m in New York. I’m on my own, What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Do I even love my job or this some shit to help me live?” It’s all because you’re alone.

What made you put the Eric Garner reference in “Drowning”?
Stuff like that is never really hard to write about. To be able to pull metaphorical stories and messages that come from the injustices around us every day and surrounding me my entire life, it’s not hard to do. It’s heavy, for sure. Coming out with that concept for the video was a lot. But just writing the song, and the inception of the idea for the song, is pretty standard for what I see on a daily basis.

And the “Bound 2” reference?
It’s just a play on those two levels of what “hold you down” could mean. If someone’s holding you down and drowning you, is that necessary? You can’t force someone to accept something. You can bring them to the water, but they have to drink it. I feel like most of time people think it’s okay to force people because it’s the truth, but it’s really not. If they’re not fucking with it or hearing you, you got to accept it and pray that that gets to them another way.

There’s a saying that you can’t spread love without self-love.
As long as you understand and love yourself, you can spread it to others. I don’t want to speak too much about personal experiences, but I have seen people project their ideas because of something they’re not secure about in themselves. Knowing yourself and understanding yourself—it’s all a bit more complicated than just that—but you have to be absolutely sure in that before you try to tell somebody else how they should be to you or with you. They may be seeing things that you don’t even see about you. I could be wrong, but that’s my perspective.