Mick Jenkins Looks Deep Into The Water[s], Discusses Reflection Eternal Influence (Food For Thought Interview)

As the infrastructure of Hip-Hop in Chicago, and the excess of young talented artists concocting it continues to swiftly evolve, the eccentric and unflappable twenty-three year old MC, Mick Jenkins, has recently ascended near the top of the budding movement.

Initially hinting at his lyrical aptitude with the 2012 release of The Pursuit of HappyNess: The Story Of Mickalascage, and further insinuating his cleverness and authenticity with his 2013 mixtape, Trees and Truth, Jenkins has wholly confirmed his bolstering relevance and astuteness for reality, earlier this year with the release of his most comprehensive project to date, The Water[s].

Encompassing a successful and alluring combination of imaginative subject matter, persuasive lyrical conviction, and magnetic self-assurance, Mick Jenkins has arrived at a place where the attention of the masses is demanded, and deservingly so.

In a candid sit-down with the Chicago-based MC, Ambrosia For Heads spoke in detail with Jenkins about a multitude of topics, including his childhood, his influences, the ongoing developments within Chicago’s Hip-Hop scene, the hurdles in reaching fans on a wide scale, and the urgency and significance behind the concept of his new mixtape, The Water[s].

Ambrosia For Heads: Mick, for those who aren’t familiar with your background, you were born in Alabama and then moved with your Mother to Chicago, where you spent the majority of your childhood, correct?

Mick Jenkins: Yeah, my parents got divorced when I was seven. My mother got diagnosed with Lupus shortly after in 2001, so we really moved to Chicago because we had family up here, and they would be able to help out in caring for her. I ended up relocating back down to Alabama for college, and then after I was done with school, I decided to move back to Chicago.

Ambrosia For Heads: So you were constantly around family growing up, then. Was music prevalent in your households? When do you remember it first becoming a part of your memories?

Mick Jenkins: Yeah man, my father listened to a lot of Gospel music. Artists like Donnie McClurkin, Fred Hammond, and Kirk Franklin – shit like that. And my mom was big into Neo-Soul music. Stuff like Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu, and Prince. Like, I heard that shit over and over, man. It was a part of me and my childhood. I didn’t really listen to much radio at all, unless it was with friends. So whatever my parents were listening to really became the first memories I have of music.

Ambrosia For Heads: As you began to mature, were there any specific artists or albums that were major influences for you, in regards to beginning to really appreciate Hip-Hop and helping shape you and your ear for the art of it?

Mick Jenkins: Man, Little Brother’s The Minstrel Show was big for me. Common’s Be was, too. When it comes to shaping my own taste for Hip-Hop, those were like the first two albums that I took a real personal interest in. And then of course Kanye’s [The] College Dropout, was big for me as well. Especially living in Chicago and experiencing a lot of the things they were saying in their lyrics, both Be and College Dropout helped foster my love for that specific vocal sound. From there it was definitely Talib Kweli, and more Common, and also The Roots. You know, so I guess looking back on it, even when I got into my own musical preferences, I was always fucking with that Neo-Soul vibe that I was first introduced to as a child.

Ambrosia For Heads: If someone were to search the Internet for reviews of your music and albums, it’s a pretty common theme that compared to other artists who reside in Chicago, a lot of critics and writers label your style of Hip-Hop as “conscious” or “insightful” Rap. While that is definitely intended to be a compliment, do you think that labeling Hip-Hop like that kind of boxes in an artists’ creative efforts?

Mick Jenkins: You know, I don’t think it will box in the artist themselves, but what I think it may box in, is other people’s perception of an artist. Especially if they are unfamiliar with the artist’s music. If someone doesn’t know who I am, and reads a publication that labels me as “conscious rapper,” or describes me in that sort of way, which a lot of them do, then the person reading about me is going to think a certain way about me without ever hearing my music. I don’t think it would ever personally box me in, because I’m always going to have the freedom to do whatever I want to do. But I think when you start to label artists, it can influence someone’s opinion on them and make them think a certain way, and a lot of the times that label can be inaccurate. The hope is that people take the time to listen to the music and form their own opinion of it.

Ambrosia For Heads: Creating such exact labels does draw a line in the sand that is sometimes unfair to artists. Here in Chicago is a good example of that. When you’re looking at the drill scene, and the different movements that are going on, there’s obviously always going to be different skill levels within an artist’s lyrical capacity, but essentially what may be perceived by some as “unintelligent” Rap, should really just be viewed as an alternate form of creative intelligence, right?

Mick Jenkins: Straight up, man. When you’re trying to label something as unintelligent, it’s not only unfair, but a lot of the time it comes back to that inaccuracy. I mean, of course there’s always going to be a point where some music can just be straight plain, but when you get into separating music as intelligent or unintelligent, or referring to artists that way, there will typically be more inaccuracies than there will be accuracies.

Ambrosia For Heads: Speaking on the Chicago Hip-Hop scene, there are a whole lot of young cats with an excess of talent right now. Can you talk a little bit about how diverse and potent this city is from a musical standpoint right now?

Mick Jenkins: I mean it’s crazy, man. It’s really crazy. I was talking about this with someone the other day. I don’t sound like Chance [The Rapper], and Chance doesn’t sound like Saba, and Saba don’t sound like Lucki Eck$. Someone like Alex Wiley is doing something really different with his style. There’s a whole lot of artists doing their thing, but no one is really doing the same thing. It really is crazy. I don’t know what it is. Chicago is a very segregated city, so I don’t really know if that has anything to do with it. But there’s just a lot of different people from different backgrounds in the city, so I feel like that’s inevitably going to result in a whole lot of different sounds. It’s also interesting that a lot of us are from similar areas, and we’re essentially talking about a lot of the same things and occurrences, but that it can all sound so different.

Ambrosia For Heads: Not that Chance is credited with any of the flourishing Chicago emcees success by any means, but what he did with 10 Day and then Acid Rap, really helped opened the blinds on the window that is Chicago Hip-Hop, right?

Mick Jenkins: Yeah man, straight up. We can definitely credit him with bringing a whole lot of attention to this city and opening people’s eyes to the positive things that are going on within the scene here. Especially because it may not be perceived that way in general. He really helped shine some light on the Chicago, which allows other artists from the City a better opportunity to be recognized and heard. There’s no doubt about that. What Chance did with his opportunity is going to impact a lot of other artist’s opportunities.

Ambrosia For Heads: On to the new project, The Water[s]. It’s definitely an album that takes some digesting to really comprehend and really grasp the value in the lyrics. On the surface, just the title in general is stressing the importance of the literal abundance of consuming water. But it obviously holds a more profound meaning as well, right?

Mick Jenkins: For sure. Throughout the tape it’s a direct synonym with truth. That’s definitely home base for the metaphor of The Waters. But I chose that specifically just because it allowed me to manipulate it a lot of different ways, with different meanings throughout each song and things of that nature. I think everyone knows that the literal physical presence of water is important, but I don’t think they really understand how important it is. To the point where most don’t know that there’s people who are trying to privatize water. I mean, I feel like the same thing is really done with truth. People think that the truth about things is readily accessible, and it really isn’t. When it comes to basic ideals of things like what is love, and what is success, what is beauty, all of these fundamental things, a lot of the time people are going to have the wrong assumption of what the truth of those ideals are. So I just equate that with being thirsty for greater purpose, you know what I’m saying? There’s a natural thirst for knowledge, and that becomes a thorough synonym throughout the tape. It represents that in the “Jazz” video, and it will do so in more videos. So that’s the general meaning and metaphor with it. Throughout the tape I just kind of play around with it. I’ve seen some comments of it being overkill, but whatever, [laughs] I think it’s necessary to stress the importance of the concept.

Ambrosia For Heads: Elaborating on greater meaning, I want to highlight a couple different lyrics from The Water[s] that obviously carry purposeful significance, and then have you touch on where you were coming from when writing them.

On your personal favorite track on the mixtape, “Vibe,” you mention– “For the art form and never the hand clap. When that’s clear you can call it Saran Wrap.” It’s compelling, because Talib Kweli has a similar reference from the first Reflection Eternal project with Hi-Tek on the song “Move Something,” that takes the opposite approach to this metaphor. His lyric was, “I call these cats Reynolds cause they plastic wrap.”  Where in contrary, you are taking the approach that when it’s clear a consumer can see the message and heart in your art, it’s refreshingly transparent, correct?

Mick Jenkins: Absolutely, man. You hit that shit right on the head. I don’t even need to say anything else on that. [Laughs] That was it. [Laughs] It’s interesting you bring up [Train Of Thought] though, because Reflection Eternal was really my introduction to Talib Kweli, who as I mentioned earlier is a big influence. I had heard songs before that, but I hadn’t heard a complete project of his. So that was my true introduction to him. At that point  I was too young to be doing research and looking into history and shit, so that was like the freshest shit when I was around the age of 16, so I fucked with that real heavy.

Ambrosia For Heads: Earlier this year Talib had an engaging series of tweets where he was talking about how all of the initial projects he was doing (Reflection Eternal, Black Star) were so dope, and made people feel a certain way at that time, that it limited his fans ability to appreciate the progression of his career, because they are constantly comparing his current work to his early endeavors. It’s insane to think that because of the success of your initial projects, it can almost be damaging to the perception of your future work.

Mick Jenkins: Yeah it’s crazy. That happens a lot, too. You know even with Kendrick [Lamar]. good kid, m.A.A.d city was so good, so now everyone’s waiting to see what his next album is going to sound like and they’ll forever compare his work to that album. I mean I’m even guilty of that. When Kanye dropped [808’s & Heartbreak], I was pissed! [Laughs] You know what I’m saying? Like fans don’t fully understand an artist. Just the way consumerism is, they just look at the product and judge it. They don’t really look at where an artist is at creatively. So when it’s different from an artist’s previous music that made you feel a certain way, people can write that shit off without really thinking about it. I mean now, I love 808’s. But it was so different back then. I was waiting on a certain sound, and then I’m like “What the fuck is this?” It’s crazy, because I fuck with it now, and I’m pretty much the same person I was back then, as far as my core and what kind of music I really enjoy and am inspired by. I didn’t like it then, but I like it now. I just didn’t understand how something can sound so drastically different, but I get it now.  And I’m now in a position where my next tape is not going to sound like The Water[s].

Ambrosia For Heads: It’s alluring that you already know you’re heading in a different creative direction, so quickly after the release of a project you put so much creative effort into.

Mick Jenkins: Yeah, people come to expect a certain thing, and it’s like they want you to stay in your lane. I’m just always thinking, like “What are you even talking about? I don’t have a lane.” You know what I’m saying?

Ambrosia For Heads: On “Canada Dry,” you wrote, “I was playing checkers, this is chess. Never put your faith into a check.” That seems to be a very self-reflective lyric, where maybe you had to learn from a mistake before learning an ultimate lesson?

Mick Jenkins: Earlier in that song I say – “Cancer caught my granny, before I got a chance to check it. What the fuck was I on?” So I was really speaking specifically about that. My grandmother got Stage 3 cancer and we knew she didn’t have a long time to live, but we assumed she had at least a couple months. So I took my time going to see her, man.. and I never got to. I was literally on the way to see her, like ten minutes from the hospital,  and she passed while I was on my way. Yeah, so I was just talking about that. Just talking about being wise about my decisions. “Never put your faith into a check,” was me reflecting on that. Why didn’t I go see her? What was keeping me from doing something that was more important than anything else I was doing? I was really just trying to be in the studio all the time, and do more shows, just because I felt like I had to keep grinding.

Ambrosia For Heads: So that was really a moment that made you realize that sometimes the shit isn’t important as you think it is?

Mick Jenkins:  it’s not as important! You know? Like family should always come first, man. This shit is not that important in the grand scheme of things. I mean, it’s essential to continue to be smart about your movements, and continue to pursue what you need to pursue, but just never lose sight of what is most important. That’s real.

Ambrosia For Heads: One of the most transparent lyrics on the project is the first lines of the “Healer.” You sincerely wrote “My piss ain’t ever been so clear. My pockets never been so empty. My heart ain’t ever been this full. But my stomach is not, so my nigga don’t tempt me.” Very simplistic in nature, but they hold a whole lot of value.  It seems like you’re saying that while monetarily you may not be where you would prefer to be, your cup is full because you’re living life right, and pursuing your goals?

Mick Jenkins: Yeah, man. Sometimes I have a hard time explaining some of the things I write. Especially with that specific lyric. Sometimes the words I write, personify what I best meant, and really do it more justice than any explanation I could ever give. It’s kind of like what you just said, though. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t have a lot of money. [Laughs] I mean, I’m not complaining, because in comparison to where I’ve been before, I’m doing alright. I just know that the way things are perceived are usually different than what they are. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. I’m focusing on my goals and working  on me being a better person regardless of what else is going on.

Ambrosia For Heads: You’re essentially touching on the idea that there’s a greater sense of clarity when you’re going after your dreams, even if strife is present on the way there, as opposed to if you made a good living doing something that wasn’t truly fulfilling your heart at the end of the day. It’s almost like a pleasant struggle?

Mick Jenkins: Yeah, all the time. Especially if it’s something your dearly passionate about. I’m getting to do this and not have to work a job. Like, I’m in this and there’s no looking back. I’m with it no matter what [laughing], you know?

Ambrosia For Heads: In some fashion, a lot of your lyrics have a big confident chip on their shoulder. Like you’re constantly on an assertive mission to prove yourself, and your inflection is sometimes borderline enraged, almost angry. Is their truth to that? Do some of your lyrics stem from frustration, or do you feel like you have a lot of shit to prove?

Mick Jenkins: Not necessarily a lot to prove, but I just have a lot of shit to say. I used to try and rap really cool. I didn’t have a lot of varying inflection or energy. I really wanted it to seem like it just came so easy to me. But as I continued to grow as an artist, I realized that’s not as effective. When I’m personally listening to music, I like when I can like feel the energy, and when it can make me feel a certain way. So when it comes to the way I approach it, I think when I’m on more serious subject matter, my voice tends to be deeper. Or if it’s something that I want you to really understand, I’m going to be louder and stronger. I don’t know, I just try to make you feel it, you know what I’m saying? I just want you to feel what I’m feeling. To accomplish that, sometimes you have to do more than what you normally would, so that it comes across the way you envisioned.

Ambrosia For Heads:  Along with the influx of metaphors and knowledge you drop, you constantly provide a sense of clarity into your own thoughts and ideology , allowing the listener to apply that awareness to their own existence if they choose to. When it’s all said and done, what do you really want a listener to gain and take away from your music after listening to it?

Mick Jenkins: You know, in attempt to be less preachy, I’ve opened up more about myself and my own decisions and how I’ve been both right and wrong. So I’m really just trying to allow you to see how I’m really living. Because at the end of the day, I’m trying to encourage you to do something different with your life. I’m trying to help you think a different way. I’m trying to introduce new ideas to you. And the best way for me to do that, is through my own experiences.

Ambrosia For Heads: You’re dead on, and not to get too deep into the rabbit hole that is the meaning life [laughs], but that’s essentially  the largest piece of the puzzle, right? Soaking up as much knowledge as you can from those willing to offer it, digesting it through your own experiences, and then willingly make the knowledge available to anyone who seeks it.

Mick Jenkins: Straight up, man.  And I feel like there’s a lot of people who will tell you “do this” or “don’t do that”, but it’s just never received very well. So I’m just trying to express my knowledge and encouragement through how I’m doing it. Just like you said, man, which is evidence for me that people are paying attention and getting this vibe, is that if they choose to, the listener can use what I’m saying as assistance in the direction of their own route. If you choose not to, I mean that’s cool too, but at least you still like the song. [Laughs] Fortunately. [Laughs]

Ambrosia For Heads: When you’re talking about reaching people through your lyrics, the platform to reach fans has never been better. And from a fan’s perspective, the accessibility to an artist has never been so clear. But, I also feel like there are so many really talented artists who have limited fan bases. As an artist who was unsigned for the past handful of years, do you think it’s just a case of there just being so much content out there for people to choose from?

Mick Jenkins: That’s exactly what it is. Sometimes it’s really simple, right? Like there’s a lot of fucking people in the world, and there’s a lot of people who want to create. Before this generation, there were less artists who broke into the game, because there were less ways to break into it. So the people who did make it into it, could control it more. Whether that was good or bad, I’m not sure, but it’s just how the system worked. Now there are millions of ways to get your art out there to the public, and because there are billions of people, you can maintain a small sector of it and still do your thing. I may only have 50,000 fans around the country, but if I can sell out a 500 person venue in the thirteen cities I go to, I can make a living, you know? It’s like that’s what I’m doing now. I’m living off this shit, but I’m not really making great money. But I’m living, and I’m doing better in multiple ways than I was when I was at work. There’s so many artists at that level, you know? Artists who are just getting by off of their music, and don’t have to really have to worry about going to work every day. They may never be heard on a large scale, but they are making a living doing music. And that’s what’s able to happen in this day in age with the internet. It’s created so many different platforms for artists to get there music out there, but that’s definitely what makes it harder to attain notoriety from a national and worldwide standpoint. Just across the board, period. Unless you’re dope. Unless you just really have that thing, man. Unless you really have that spark. If you do, then you might end up like Mick Jenkins. [Laughs]

Ambrosia For Heads: Touching on how artists may never be seen on a large scale simply due to the overwhelming amounts of artists utilizing the same platforms and whatnot, I think a lot about how there are certain albums over the past four-five years, that maybe 15-20 years ago might be considered absolute timeless classics. But because of the current consumer landscape that is blanketed with instant gratification, these albums or artists don’t flourish as much as they could, simply due to something that is essentially out of their control.  

Mick Jenkins: Like even Beyonce! Her [self-titled album] would have gone diamond. Like in the ’80s or the ’90s? That shit would have gone diamond, man. It’s fucking crazy to think about. There is definitely a lot of shit that should’ve gotten more shine, but really now a days it comes down to how you’re pushing it. It has to do with the pushibility behind your music now. First, it’s all about is your machine equipped and smart enough to know how to do it this day in age? And then second and most importantly, is your content good enough? Kendrick Lamar is a great example of this. A lot of people heard the growing murmur about him before the music itself, and he capitalized off of that. It’s a great example that it’s still able to be done on that scale.  It just really matters about your content, and then it’s up to your machine to know how to execute it all.

Ambrosia For Heads: Do you feel like the foundation of your machine, and all of the variables in attaining that apex are all aligned for you?

Mick Jenkins: Honestly, stepping outside of myself and taking a look, I feel like I have something special. It definitely still needs to be honed, and taken in a better direction, but it’s all there. Some people can just rap, some people can just make a good song, but when you got that extra shit, that “it,” you know what I’m saying? I don’t know, maybe I’m being too cocky or too confident, but I feel like I have some sort of undeniable factor. Like there is no way you’re going to listen to my shit, and not fuck with it. Unless you’re just hating. That’s just how I feel.

Ambrosia For Heads: You are heading on a country wide tour this month with Method Man & Redman, for the Smokers Club. How’d that come about, and is that really going to be your main focus as 2014 closes out? Is there anything else you’ll be working on?

Mick Jenkins: I just signed to Cinematic [Entertainment] and that’s how that whole tour came about. It’s a honor to be on the road with artists of that standing, for sure. When it comes to my focus, I definitely don’t take the opportunity for granted. I’m not here to play. I think about shit like how am I going to record like I want to? There are two week stints where we are in a different city every day. I think a lot about how that’s going to affect me as a person. Am I going to be available creatively to write and record music? I don’t really know, either. it’s a world that I’ve never stepped into before. So, I’m just going to prepare for myself for what may come in that regard. I mean, creating music is second nature, for me. I’m constantly recording music, and constantly writing, and constantly listening to shit, just because that’s how I get inspired and let my emotions out. So, that’s that type of shit I’m most worried about from a personal standpoint. But we’re going to give great shows, and that’s going to be the main focus. We’re going to be very busy, so like I said, my biggest concern is that I won’t be available to maintain the creative output that I’m used to.

Ambrosia For Heads: I’ve never really looked at being on tour that way. Where it can essentially create an alternative barrier to sustaining creative momentum. Especially on the heels of releasing such an innovative and honest album. It’s like you’ve been trying for years to get the attention of this woman, and you finally get to take her on a date and end up having the best sex of your life with her, then she just moves away to a different city like two weeks later.

Mick Jenkins: Yo! For real. [Laughs] That is exactly what I’m feeling.

Ambrosia For Heads: Mick, the best of vibes and success your way on the impending tour and your future endeavors. Thanks for taking the time to chop it up, man.

Mick Jenkins: Thanks, man. Same to you.

Author Michael Blair can be followed on Twitter @senseiscommon, Mick Jenkins is at @FreeMickJenkins.

Purchase Music by Mick Jenkins.

Related: Quench Your Thirst With Mick Jenkins’ The Water[s] (Mixtape)