Mick Jenkins ‘The Circus’ EP 1 Listen Review

Mick Jenkins is a chess player, not a lion tamer. On ‘The Circus,’ the Chicago emcee reinforces his brand of thoughtful lyricism.
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Mick Jenkins, The Circus, 2020, album review

Chicago-born emcee Mick Jenkins announced his latest EP, The Circus—alongside the release of “Carefree,” the Black Milk-produced first single—on January 3, 2020. With a January 10 release date, The Circus comes 15 months after Pieces of a Man, Mick’s well-received sophomore album that Pitchfork’s Dean Van Nguyen called, “A gripping portrait of one human among Chicago’s 2.7 million.”

The question is, how will one of rap’s most consistent wordsmiths continue his streak? Ever since Mick released The Water[s] in August 2014, fan expectations have been high. Living up to those expectations is what separates the good from the GOAT. To know Mick Jenkins is to see a rapper who aims for greatness. Let’s see if he hit the mark.

In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: No skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Every song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.

1. “Same Ol” 

Mick Jenkins over a Hit-Boy beat. I’m intrigued by this combo on name value alone. Imagine if Mick had the “Niggas In Paris” beat. I’m loving this bass. It’s deeper than King Krule’s voice. “Stay in the sun, I need the darker face.” That Spidey senses bar is cold. Mick isn’t wasting a word. The wordplay will have you coming back. “Same Ol” has a murkiness that can only be found in the underground. There’s no sheen or shine. Hit-Boy still slapping eardrums with kicks that didn’t skip leg day. I hope this foreshadows more of his production on projects this year. A good start. Run it back, Turbo.

Editor’s Note: “Game Don’t Switch” was the original title of this track.

2. “Carefree” 

Black Milk came with a groovy bounce. Sonically, “Carefree” fits in with the soulful slow-burn of Pieces of a Man. Beats this smooth will almost make you forget Black Milk comes from the underground of Detroit boom-bap. Forever impressed by his range. Mick has such an ease to his lyricism here. He’s a fluid wordsmith. I’m so used to Young Thug’s ten voices and 12 flow switches; it’s nice to hear a rapper find a speed and stay on course. “I can’t let them steal my joy.” “Carefree” is effortlessly cool. “We were off the drugs, we were off the drinks,” Mick sings on the hook, but it doesn’t sound like overindulgence, just enough to set the mood. Black Milk composed a beat made of silk and silver for “Carefree.” If Spotify had a mellow banger playlist, this would be at the top.

3. “The Light” ft. EarthGang 

Nice to see EarthGang received an invitation. Slow build-up. Olu is talking to a gnat, haha. That’s a Southern conversation if I ever heard one. Olu is a good writer. The kind of poet who uses imagery to give the listener a portrait of his thoughts. The beat is moving well around his words. “Lately I been sober chasing new highs.” Olu’s voice is pleasant as a day at Jeju Sauna. Mick is second. I like “The Light” a lot. “Over-confident I can’t be Issa Rae.” WowGr8 is third. The wildcard of Dreamville. I need to rewind this one. [Editor’s Note: But you know the rules, Yoh.] It’s a song that moves without a hurry. “Take your time, don’t you rush things.” I like this pacing of this project. 

4. “Flaunt” 

The first three songs all share excellent lyrical clarity. Mick isn’t overcrowding the records with ideas. Okay, Da-P brought the bite. His confidence makes every bar sharp as a shuriken. “Niggas wanna see me talk my shit.” I like a great brag like every JAY-Z loving rap fan, but it’s not what I look forward to when I see a Mick Jenkins’ link. “Flaunt” is cool. Short and solid. Leaning toward a skip, though. I like the light-weighted, airy production. It reminds me of Mndsgn with far less Zen, but the hook isn’t landing for me.

5. “The Fit” 

I’m liking this build-up. Mick has found a nice groove here. He’s keeping the slower-tempo, but there’s infectious energy here. “I got habits, I got problems, got enablers.” I love the life these drums are bringing to the track. They are punching harder than Lil Mac’s uppercut. The Eddie Murphy/character line got a chuckle out of me. I like “The Fit” a great deal. The most punchy record yet. 

6. “I’m Convinced”

These last three records have all been short, two-minute songs. It’s a solid length for Mick. He’s getting to the finish line faster; I’m not mad at it. The Big Daddy Kane/Cappadonna line was a subtle nod to the OGs. Mick is a great example of a newer traditionalist. He takes rap back to the fundamentals without losing that air of contemporary artistry. “I’m Convinced” is another solid effort. “I know somebody out there feel me, but sometimes I can’t fucking tell.” I’m getting Pieces of a Man bonus track vibes. 

7. “Different Scales”

Light keys. The percussion has a Charlie Murphy slap to them without hitting too hard. “You for the gram, we weighing this shit on different scales.” I appreciate the Omarosa bar. Seven songs down and not a single verse was phoned in. Mick just made mention of the elephants in the room. There’s something about hearing Mick use the word “water” that’s nostalgic. “Different Scales” is another good one. Feels like a tangent that doesn’t become a full-blown rant.

Final (First Listen) Thoughts on Mick Jenkins' The Circus

The Circus is a rap-focused affair. The melodic versatility permeating Mick’s discography doesn’t have a substantial presence here. Where singing is absent, plenty of bars appear. At best, the seven tracks give a voice to the thoughts on the mind of Mick Jenkins as we enter 2020. He muses without letting any idea linger too long; a thinker who doesn’t overthink his message. 

Musically, the EP doesn’t have the daring, high-energy of a Ringling Brothers event. Even the Hit-Boy produced intro lacks the dynamite of a chest-caving banger. Mick has never been the kind of emcee who sought the rambunctious soundscapes of Young Chop for his tightly-woven poetics, though. He’s a chess player, not a lion tamer, and The Circus reinforces how mellow introspection is a practical approach for his brand of thoughtful lyricism.

The material Mick comprises on The Circus EP isn’t conceptually expensive but he has a way of making you feel like there’s always more for him to get off his chest. The Circus is the beginning of a meaningful conversation rather than the end of a monumental speech.

By Yoh, aka Yoh Dont Switch aka @Yoh31

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