It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the word "conscience" became a taboo in hip-hop, when a simple test - "Do these words actually mean anything?" - went from an essential tenet of rapping to an albatross. It might have been "Moment of Clarity," it might have been the ringtone rap era, but the idea that lyrical complexity was equivalent to career suicide became the widely accepted truth in hip-hop.
Except it's not true, especially in the newer generation, as artists like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper not only embrace serious music with higher aims, but become household names because of those aims, not in spite of them. And that's why Mick Jenkins is a Top Prospect; the man's proudly waving a middle finger at those who treat lyricism as a four-letter word, and earning a name for himself in the process.
A divorce shuttled a young Mick Jenkins between Huntsville, Alabama and Tallahassee, Florida, but it's really Chicago that raised him, and Chicago that made him a rapper. With the Windy City now firmly in the national spotlight it's a great time to be a Chicago artist, and perhaps not coincidentally, a tragically deadly time to be a young person in Chicago. But with both an unflinchingly aggressive drill scene on one end of the city's hip-hop spectrum and an often almost psychedlic sound on the other, Jenkins' deep growl of a voice, mixed with an art school mentality to his videos, makes it nearly impossible to easily place the artist in the city's scene.
"I feel like I grew up in the same place that drill artists grew up, so did a lot of the rest of us, and I want to represent that guy who grew up in those situations, who saw those same things, but didn't turn out that way, for whatever reason. I feel like that person isn't represented. I have that mixture, I'm in the middle. 'Martyrs' is intense lyrically, but if you just switched the lyrics, it could be a RondoNumbaNine song, or a Lil Dirk song."
So how will hip-hop's often rigid categorization system deal with Jenkins, a rapper who can be intimidating and lyrically deep, often at the same time? That's hip-hop's problem, not his, and he's not shy about revealing how a rap taboo word, poetry, is what really pushed him into the lyrical arts and gave him his first stage experience.
"In high school, I was in a drama group called Controversy. One day our director was like, 'I wish someone could do a poem to accompany one of our skits.' I decided I'd try my hand at it, came back the next day and everyone loved it. I did it all over the city, at churches, things of that nature. That sparked the poetry bug, and I just started writing from then on."
In our conversation Jenkins says he hasn't written pure poetry in a long time, the meters and rhythms of hip-hop are now too implanted in his head to keep him from turning a poem into a rap, but combine his poetry background with the gospel and neo-soul music his parents played constantly, add in a dose of early influences from the likes of Little Brother, Common and Kweli, and the blurry edges of his music begin to come into focus. Once you begin to see his vision, it's hard to look away.
Especially with a brand new signing to Cinematic Music Group giving Mick's jet pack some fuel, hip-hop's about to have a powerful new voice rising through its ranks, one that's not afraid to have his music actually mean something. We need more artists like that, we need more Mick Jenkins. And if it turns out there's only one Mick Jenkins, and there only ever will be one, that's just fine with us.
In the meantime, be sure to follow him @FreeMickJenkins, check out more of his music on The DJBooth, and keep an ear out for his upcoming The Water[s] album, coming whenever Mick is goddamn ready, that's when... or August 12.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]