Illustration by Grace Schafer-Perry
Mick Jenkins is a Chicago rapper who has been receiving a considerable amount of attention since his early mixtapes, Trees and Truths (2013), and The Water[s] (2014). He emerged with a refreshing production blend of jazz, rap, and current Chicago styles layered with Jenkins’ deep and powerful voice. However, his main attraction, far beyond sonics, was always his blistering word-play and clever, in-the-know references, all delivered in fluent rhyme schemes. His delivery was usually understated and calm, requiring effort on the listener’s part to pick out the importance of his bars. His writing shows inspiration from the likes of Talib Kweli and Mos Def, and at times his writing reflects aspects of Joey Bada$$ or Chance the Rapper’s own pen.
Jenkins subject matter has always been more than superficial, with many of his best tracks reading like a one-on-one conversation with the listener regarding street knowledge, the morals and desperation behind the crime in his neighborhood, and staying true to oneself. His strongest records also tend to be his most focused and themed, where his lyrical ability is attached to furthering his train of thought or painting a picture relating to his message. His less impressive songs usually appear when Jenkins loses himself in his wordplay and begins to chase rhymes and double entendres for their own sake. In those cases he halfheartedly delves into the area of rhymes only meant to sound arrogant and slick.
On Jenkins’ new sophomore album Pieces of a Man, you may find both these strong, focused tracks and more meandering, low effort cuts. The first thing about this new release that caught my attention is the title. It is the same as soul, jazz, and spoken word legend Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 album, which showed a man bearing his soul to a microphone, and to the world, on such a level that has not been reached by man.
By choosing this title, Jenkins clearly shows reverence for his predecessor, and also suggests that his album will somehow reflect Gil Scott-Heron’s own piece. Right off the bat Jenkins opens exactly as Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Ghetto Code” does, with applause and the sonic atmosphere of a smoky lounge, complete with audible murmurs and an echoing mic. He launches into an introduction and spoken word, sometimes of his own, and sometimes quoting or running parallel to that of Gil Scott-Heron’s own piece. He is not stepping around his influence, but rather putting it front and center, and therefore setting himself in comparison to it.
The second track, “Stress Fracture,” contains lyrics regarding vulnerability and baring yourself to the world as you are. His earnest and impressive verses, however, are bogged down by an awkward singing feature and a boring chorus. This same issue is evident on other tracks, like “Reginald,” “Ghost,” and “Plain Clothes.” His insertion of one extra chorus or superfluous vocalizations combined with lackluster instrumentals bury the lyrical gems and purposes of these songs. The highest points of the album come when he dares to trim the fat, like on “Barcelona,” which, although only two and a half minutes, packs more content and a greater punch than many other tracks. There are moments, like on “Gwendolyn’s Apprehension,” where his chorus complements the track thematically and musically, or like on “Understood,” where a swift chorus flows seamlessly with his slick verses, offering only a short break between ideas.
Jenkins lets the word play take a back seat for much of the album, which gives the impression that he is aiming for greater personal content and direct messages. He finds a balance of the two and confronts relevant issues on tracks like “Barcelona,” saying how “Even water can’t save mixin’ dark with the light / Corner the art with the business, no beauty mark, but my point is / These n*ggas runnin’ with scissors and headed straight for the plug,” indicating how artists’ focus on money has tainted their music. However, he can still be found mincing words on many tracks, dancing around his issues, adding filler, and dropping topics before conclusions are reached.
In emulating Gil Scott-Heron’s strength to be hideously honest, and blunt enough to make the audience uncomfortable, Jenkins falls flat. Interpreted by Jenkins, the concept is to lay out the pieces of himself and see him as he truly is, but here, Jenkins seems to be withholding some of the pieces, leaving an incomplete picture.