Mick Jenkins's Undefinable Step Up: "Pieces of a Man"
by Noah Adaikkalam
Chicago’s finest, Mick Jenkins, comes in hard with his second studio album that dropped on Friday. The rapper’s sound has developed notably since his last release, as he refuses to settle in the heart of a single genre, rather drawing inspirations from Jazz, lo-fi hip-hop, and rap, into one massive conglomerate. The sound is unique, like his voice, and continues to help him stake out his own corner of Chicago. But most importantly, the album showcases what Mick does best: throwing well-written lyrics over distinct beats, and combining his sound with big-name producers, like BADBADNOTGOOD or Kaytranada, to deliver a record that leaves us stuck on both his lyrics and his beats.
The first track, “Heron Flow,” opens with an extended monologue over the sound of a cheering crowd, casting somber shadows that drift into Julian Belle’s vocals and wind the track to its eventual end. For seasoned listeners, this is a familiar feel to Jenkins’s past work: an interconnected narrative deeper than just the music on a track. Riding off of the opening track is the harsh transition into “Stress Fracture.” Jenkins’s ambition here is still ever present, mixing sounds way tie-dye shirts are made in the summer. The second track sounds grittier, with laid-back rapping, occasionally accompanied by his own singing. Each part weaves in perfectly over the repeating minor chords and background vocals of Mikhal Anthony. An abrupt ending quickly picked up by “Gwendolynn’s Apprehension” rounds out the first arc of Jenkins’s sound. This song sounds something like a Homeshake cut. A very light synth spreads out over the entire track, allowing Jenkins’s to easily switch between rapping and singing, his voice going deep and lifting back up for the sung choruses. This song is produced by Black Milk, a Detroit native, and prominent underground producer.
Then we hit the second arc of sound in the album. “Soft Porn,” “Grace & Mercy” and “Barcelona” have a much darker and intimidating sound to them. They also all rely on a much harder beat where the gliding synths are still prominent, but the foundations of each track are built in the beat. “Soft Porn” has an ominous track underneath it, the intro comes right out saying: “What's so hard about the naked truth? / I scream about it 'til I change it, oh / And still I wonder am I breaking through at all.” Throughout the rest of the song, Jenkins uses wordplay, running a dual metaphor between this universal idea of the truth and the way transparency is manifested physically in “soft porn.” The same ominous tone carries over through a keyboard in “Grace & Mercy.” Jenkins falls back on the chorus, “Wake up thanking God for these brand new mercies”. The lyrics of the songs focus on stunting; counting the ways in which he is doing more than those around him. But ultimately, it relates back to prayer, and thankfulness to God. “Barcelona” finishes it off, relying on bongos and sliding baselines that haunt, casting the end of this musical arc in some ambiguity. It’s a somewhat unsettling end to the previous two tracks.
A brief spoken interlude, where he and his friends talk about weed, breaks this arc up from the transition into the third. It’s a similar narrative to the beginning, following suit from The Healing Component (2016), a move most well known in Ms. Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).
We re-enter the album with “Reginald”, “Padded Locks”, and “Ghost” before another brief interlude at “Heron Flow 2”. The third musical arc, “Reginald” and “Ghost” are pretty similar sounding tracks. “Reginald” has a much heavier jazz sound, rooted in a calm repeating drum line and an electric keyboard riff. Jenkins raps in his signature deep voice with some musical interludes from Ben Hixon, a new electronic musician from Dallas. “Ghost” has an even darker tone to it. It is much more electronic, a piece combo produced by Dee Lily (known for Mick Jenkins’s “Strange Love” and Rejjie Snow’s “Pink Lemonade”), OV, and THEMPeople. The sound is much more complex with synths, multiple keys riffs, and a drum sound centered on a high hat. The three producers come together very effectively over Jenkins’s work, providing layers that add a much-appreciated diversity to his typical sound. A specific focus should be put on THEMPeople, a four-member Chicago production team. They were regulars on Jenkins’s last studio album The Healing Component and has clearly inspired his sound since, as shown in this track.
“Padded Locks”, the song splitting the two mellower tracks before them, drifts out of the musical arc becoming the climax of the album. Kaytranada produced the song, giving the synths and backtrack his patented futuristic sound. The synths tessellate over one another to create almost a space organ sound. Additionally, Ghostface Killah is featured. Jenkins’s and Ghostface’s voice coincide together verywell, both heavy and passionate. The entire song rotates between flexing and urging listeners to question authority, ending the chorus with “Fuck the dramatics, we get through them locks when they padded.” It is a deeply meditative song, low voices contrasted with light synths, asking important and unspoken questions.
“Heron Flow 2” is a much needed lighthearted interlude. Laughter accompanying the words, as it fades out and the third musical arc continues. At this point, the next four songs all follow that same lo-fi hip-hop vibe and sound. “Plain Clothes” features more of Jenkins’s singing, at some point harmonizing with himself and soaring up into the highest reaches of his vocal range. “Pull Up” has that similar foreboding sound, specifically in the keys, with an old school beat behind it, courtesy of THEMPeople. “Consensual Seduction” has a really interesting give and take within the beat, including a steady drum that fluctuates with a fun bass riff and nice soft keys. Corinne Bailey Rae’s voice, similar to Ravyn Lenae’s on “Communicate” from 2016, offers a beautiful soul contrast, and a yet unheard female sound on his record. “U Turn” is a standard chill Mick Jenkins track, his lyrics sounding somber over minor chords and sliding synths- the collaborative musicality of THEMPeople heard in the background yet again. None of this tracks are sub-par, but compared to the musical diversity of the first half of the record, the consistency is less gripping. The argument could be made that it is simply Jenkins finding his sound, but it is too late in the album to establish a sound.
Thankfully, the last two songs swing back out into the randomness of Jenkins’s sound. “Understood,” Kaytranada’s second masterfully produced piece features a steel guitar chord that slides down the frets, while a simple 1-2 drum beat plays under it. His lyrics acknowledge an ingenuine nature between the language of money and that of truth, touching on his ability to speak both. It’s mixed phenomenally well, as it should be, and Jenkins’s sing-rapping on top of it gives the steel guitar riff a nostalgic, homey feel.
Finally, the album comes to an unexpected end with “Smoking Song.” Produced by BADBADNOTGOOD, it has a similar sound to the last joint production they did, “DROWNING” off of The Healing Component. An upright bass dominates the heart of the song. Different instruments take turns dancing with the upright bass. A saxophone riff has a solo across the track, taking the spotlight for a second. Following that a radiating synth comes in, buzzing and beeping repeatedly. His lyrics reflect on the path he’s come down as a rapper, emphasizing, as expected, smoking.
This record is a definite step up for Jenkins. His sound expanding, yet still undefined, as he alludes to some consistency towards the middle of the record but jumps back out of it for the last two songs. His raps and singing have a similar lyrical depth to his previous discography, tightening ever so slightly. I’m content with it, happy to have something to play on repeat until his next project takes me in an unpredictable direction.