Every Tuesday in Chicago, the organization Young Chicago Authors hosts WordPlay, the city’s longest-running youth open mic. At every WordPlay, there’s a featured artist—and on one of those Tuesdays in early August, Mick Jenkins just so happened to be that week’s guest.
Even before the hosts announced Jenkins’ name, you knew he was there. Besides the fact that he’s tall as hell—he hovered over the rest of the crowd, even when he was sitting—he has this sort of calming presence. Once on stage, Jenkins quietly admitted, “I’ve always wanted to feature at WordPlay.” He performed several songs from his debut studio album The Healing Component, verses and hooks from what would become “Strange Love,” “Plugged,” “Daniel’s Bloom” and “Spread Love.”
YCA is a prized possession in Chicago’s hip-hop community; YCA and WordPlay have been elemental to Jenkins’ career, and many other Chicago rappers and musicians, like Chance The Rapper, Noname, Saba and Donnie Trumpet, among others. Jenkins articulates the value of the organization on the first single from his album, “Spread Love”: “YCA was where I found myself / I started using lead to harness gold.”
When Jenkins said that line, the entire audience roared. His performance—like many performances in the space—was raw and powerful. As he continued to rap his new material a cappella, there was a conviction in his voice—in his movements—that has never been so palpable. His growth was evident.
He harmonized during the chorus of “Daniel’s Bloom,” showing his true knack for wordplay:
“Just pray for me / Holla at me, I can pray for you / Try to make a play for you, why don’t you show me, love / They said it ain’t no love here, but I do see blood, tears, and sweat, Moët / We pour it up at gatherings that we’ll soon forget / Because the day-by-day negatives be consumed, and hate is boomin’, and love is what flowers and finished blooms we get / Show me your plot and I’ll do the dirt ‘til my wounds cement.”
Jenkins explained his intent behind the song: “That’s an act of love. I think when I’ve been in situations when somebody was hurting, when somebody was disrespecting me, my resolve has been to pray for them, like genuinely… it was out of love. That’s somebody that I really love… I think that’s a very unique and specific way of expressing love that we don’t really consider.”
Though, certainly, there is a more organic quality when hearing the track live and a cappella, that faith and that conviction remain just as strong on the studio version of “Daniel’s Bloom,” as well as the rest of the album.
Jenkins eschews the label conscious rapper—it’s a pretty reductive term—but it’s something he earned with The Water[s] in 2014, which is where we saw the beginnings of Jenkins’ metaphoric water, or for him, what is symbolic for truth.
That theme extended into his 2015 EP Wave[s], a nine-track project that showed his resistance to the conscious rapper designation, and exhibited an obvious shift away from The Water[s]’ downtempo melodies, and toward something more bold and bright. In an interview I did with Jenkins last year for the Village Voice, he said of Wave[s], “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.” Indeed, cuts like “Get Up Get Down” and “Your Love” showed another side of the Chicago rapper’s style and skill that we hadn’t yet seen.
But now, with his debut album, Jenkins has expanded his truth-seeking metaphor in a new direction, where he uses love as an extension of the truth. “And they be asking, ‘What do love got to do with the point?’ / It’s the soothe in your water, it’s the truth in your joint,” he sings on the hook for “Spread Love.” The healing component is love—that, itself, is the movement that’s really at the core of the album and the ethos of Jenkins’ artistry. It also feels like something Jenkins has been trying to articulate for a few years.
It’s difficult to listen to THC without thinking about Jenkins’ musical evolution; the vision has never been so clear. Portions of a conversation between him and his sister are scattered throughout the album: The title track "THC" opens with Jenkins asking her, “You wanna know about the healing component?”, which he uses as a tool to blatantly encourage the listener to think about the album’s theme. The project is inclusive of all kinds of love, exploring each: Self-love, romantic love, love for your friends, for your family, for your culture.
Jenkins has always been a powerful lyricist, with an innate ability to transform real life situations and stories into a consistent pen game. Like The Water[s] and Wave[s], the status quo of being a black man in America weighs heavily on THC. The album’s second single “Drowning”—featuring production by Canadian band BadBadNotGood—digs deep over a melancholic beat, which ebbs and flows with Jenkins’ intensity.
One of the more compelling moments is during the first verse of "Drowning," when he sings, “I was high and I was startin' to lose focus / Then I stumbled in the water, I was trippin', I was chokin' / Saying, I can't breathe.” He pieces together his penchant for smoking with themes of racism and police brutality, particularly alluding to Eric Garner’s last words. The way in which Jenkins is able to intertwine the theme of love with his water metaphor is potent and, at this point, almost effortless.
On the Kaytranada-produced “Communicate,” Jenkins’ viewpoint on love is a little more contentious, where he’s at odds with his girl. It’s a love song that shows the worst parts of love, but that’s also part of it: Fighting comes with the territory. Jenkins balances the song by featuring a female viewpoint from Chicago singer Ravyn Lenae. During the chorus, the two ask, “Are you done with me, my love? / Are you done with me for sure?”
Like Wave[s], a lot of familiar names pop up on the credits for THC. Jenkins taps his producer friends, frequent collaborators, and favorite Chicago musicians to be a part of the album, including THEMPeople, Kaytranada, Sango, Cam O’bi, Monte Booker, Dee Lilly and Noname. In doing this, he continues to connect the dots between each project, a continued succession of work that shows sonic, lyrical and visionary development.
THC is Jenkins in full bloom—and that is its major success. If The Water[s] showcased Jenkins’ ability to rap, and Wave[s] was his opportunity to experiment with bridges, choruses and a palette of more colorful sounds, THC is a mesh of both—a diverse collection of textures, harmonies, and hard-hitting raps that evoke the project’s purpose.
Jenkins says it all during the second half of the album, on “Plugged":
This THC ain’t just no fuckin weed, this ain’t no weed / I think I might have what you, what you want, yeah / Yeah, yeah, yeah / You know I keep it watered for the tree, for the tree, yeah / My niggas’ only focus be on what they want / What they want, yeah yeah yeah / But god as witness love is all you need / And that’s just basics for you.
He’s right: Love really is basic, love really is the key. We forget that all too often, but Jenkins does a stellar job of reminding us.
By Tara Mahadevan. Follow her on Twitter.