As closely related as rap and poetry are to one another, it’s always a pleasant surprise to hear rap directly reference a prominent poet in such casual way that it almost becomes its own sort of flex. The fact that Mick Jenkins does so on “Gwendolyn’s Apprehension,” turning it into sort of an anti-flex is even more impressive, but that’s Mick Jenkins in a nutshell. He’s humble almost to a fault, coolly intellectual, without forcing the “certain level of intelligence” trope down anyone’s throat. He’s done this over the course of a quietly impressive six-year career, but on his latest album, Pieces Of A Man, he comes into his own in a way he hadn’t yet. Like “Gwendolyn’s Apprehension” is within the album itself, Pieces Of A Man is a microcosm of the larger whole that makes up Mick Jenkins, as complete as he’s ever been.
Ever since his appearance on the burgeoning blog scene with his debut, Mickstape, Jenkins has used a soul-shot, freeform flow to explore spirituality and social awareness, along with poetic associates Chance The Rapper, Saba, Noname, and Smino, like a modern-day Harlem Rennaissance, but in the Midwest.
Unlike many of his fellow poets, however, his gravelly growl has always lent him a gravitas that many of them seemingly lacked. On the flip side of that coin, it also denied him some of the levity that made Chance basically a gospel-tinged pop star and Smino an outer space alien that drew comparisons to the funk-washed cosmic slop of Outkast and the Dungeon Family. While Chance became the clear breakout of the group with his appearance on the coveted XXL Freshman Cover, Mick joined Noname, Saba, and Smino as the part of the internet’s perpetually underrated underdogs.
That’s begun to change over the course of the last year or so. Despite their lack of mainstream recognition, Noname and Saba drew plenty of attention for masterful releases in 2018 that spanned genres from jazz to house to spoken word, with Smino and Mick seemingly waiting in the wings for their respective opportunities to meet or clear the bar set by their tightly knit band of Chicago Renaissance rap compatriots. With Pieces Of A Man, not only does Mick meet those expectations, he resets the bar for stream-of-consciousness, expressive turns of phrase and sensitive, erudite self-examination. Smino will have to work to keep up. Even in borrowing the name from the work of Gil Scott-Heron (and dedicating two of the album’s tracks to the man himself), Mick shows that he’s found poetry and profundity in coming into his own.
The level of conceptual X-ray vision Mick possesses is evidenced just in the clever descriptors he uses to twist well-worn rap tropes into “eureka” moments so subtle they’re likely to slip by the first time, hidden in the jazz-influenced grooves of his Black Milk and Kaytranada-produced beats. Consider the way he flips “the naked truth” into the double take-inducing phraseology of “Soft Porn,” or the aforementioned juxtaposition of Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1959 poem “We Real Cool” for “Gwendolyn’s Apprehension.” Where the original poem wonders how might the truant schoolboys of 1960s Chicago feel about themselves, Mick knows well, rejecting their “live fast, die young” ethos as vanity and superficiality: “You n—-s be too cool for me / Too many social rules for me.”
When he wants to get loose, though, watch out. The snickety snares of “Reginald” provide plenty of space for him to stretch his lyrical muscles, unspooling a knotted, double-weaved flow that sounds as improvised in its delivery as tightly-devised in its construction, like a freestyle drum solo in the middle of a carefully crafted jazz composition. The chorus is as cool as Mick denies being, laying deeper in the pocket than a lost button or that last stick of double mint gum. Then, it’s right back to the struggle of constructing himself and his image on “Plain Clothes,” of cutting off dead weight friends on “Pull Up,” and of looking for “Consensual Seduction” in a romantic pursuit.
In each instance, he stands askew of the standard role that’s been assigned by society, squints, cocks his head, and tries to determine why he does — or doesn’t — fit, considering alternate positions without offering definite answers or preachy instructions. It’s a thinking person’s take on modern hip-hop; it’s loose and breezy, without the strict commitment to structure that rap formalists often insist is the foundation of any worthwhile rap artist, but it’s dense and thoughtful to satisfy even the purest of purists. Mick speaks for the everyman — not in the sense that the everyman is another trope that hip-hop pulls out of the closet to use as a straw man against whatever popular movement is currently “ruining the culture,” but in the sense that he’s still figuring himself out, putting himself together, and learning who he is against the idea of who he wants to be. All these ideas are constantly in flux, much like his flow. It’s like he knows that being a man is more complicated than putting together a puzzle; it’s difficult, it’s fluid, and it’s never quite all the way finished. It’s a lot like writing a poem.
Pieces Of A Man is out now via Cinematic Music Group. Get it here.