“They say I be talking about water too much?” snarls Mick Jenkins on ‘Alchemy’, his voice rough with distortion. With a chuckle, the Chicago based rapper reacts to those confused or unconvinced by his breakthrough project, ‘The Water[s]’ – an absorbing album that uses water as a central symbol for truth, alertness and knowledge. A concept album of that scale would be risky in the hands of any rising talent, with the threat of redundancy or condescension looming over any half-baked metaphor. But Jenkins isn’t your average rapper; densely constructed wordplay, vivid production and a range of engaging flows lifted ‘the Water[s]’ above many other projects from the crowded Chicago scene last year. There were no viral hits; Jenkins’s bars took a while to fully unpack from within the fluid, reverb splashed beats, but a slow-burning anticipation has been rising since its release. His latest EP is a confident return, and will quench the thirst of any of those desperate for new material from the water obsessed MC.
Jenkins’s clear thoughtfulness has led to his unfair labelling as a “conscious” rapper; a reductive tag often associated with preachy lyricism, a rejection of modern rap sensibilities, and a lack of personality. ‘Wave[s]’ seems intent to break from that categorization by shifting into brighter sonic territory and untapped lyrical avenues, with its surprising focus on relationships. The variety of moods is a welcome shift, adding an extra dimension to Jenkin’s typically weighty lyrics.
Thankfully, he doesn’t hold back on the spitting either. On ‘Slumber’, Jenkins’s choppy flow sits beautifully over visceral, skittering drumming and sharp horns. He reflects on truth as he has before, but with a shrewdness and intensity that makes it enthralling even though the message is close to what we’ve heard already from him.
‘Get up Get Down’s bustling first half is the closest Jenkin’s has come to hit appeal. His staccato flow has an infectious energy, as he squeezes dizzying internal rhymes into a tightly woven verse. Sugary synth stabs and a lively refrain keep the momentum high, before the track woozily disintegrates at its beat change, shifting from an energetic dance track into a clattering, introspective slice of cloud rap. With a slight vulnerability, he notes his surprise that most of his fans are white (*raises hand*), and admits that he misses his dad. Every line is detailed and memorable, and Jenkin’s remains commanding and passionate over the track’s dissonant shift in mood.
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Jenkins’s exploration of his romantic side takes a surprising 808’s and Heartbreaks approach, with the MC stepping up to sing on a handful of cuts. The hypnotic groove on ‘Your Love’ creates a genuinely sensual atmosphere, with a sparkling synth slides and a clean, punchy beat that sets the mood for unashamedly loved-up bars. Despite the song topic, Jenkins’s sweet verses feel wholly his own, knowingly avoiding cheap club tropes with a wink (“She the type of woman make you wanna leave the drugs/I’m the type of ni**a that don’t really do the club/Flaming water, double cup, baby let me know what’s up”). Not just this, but the tickling rasp in his voice shows that he was made for music this syrupy.
It’s a song with great potential, but is let down by a clunky chorus and amateur singing – a problem that plagues the other love songs here. ‘The Giver’ has a fluid beat that is weakened by Jenkins’s goofy vocals, while ’40 Below’ feels frigid instead of tragic due to the passionless singing.
Thankfully, the final two tracks are a glorious return to straight spitting, ‘P’s and Q’s’ is a mastery of alliteration and worldplay, laced around a howling guitar sample that’s stripped back enough to allow focus to squarely be on the enthralling lyrical agility. ‘Perception’ is just as impressive in its flow and wordplay, but its thick, warped production from Mulatto Beats takes the spotlight instead. It’s a powerful closer, with swelling synth chords and a grimey plucked string refrain lumbering over Jenkin’s verses centred around on human awareness. The hazy outro from TheMIND is a gorgeous way to close the EP, and makes it easy to wish that passionate his singing flowed through the whole project.
‘The Wave[s]’, while underwhelming in spots, provides a handful of excellent tracks that will keep fans satisfied until his next full release. The exploration of new sonic avenues is a welcome change of pace, and shows Jenkins to be bold enough to expand his sound past the successful breakthrough. Comparisons to a 2011 Kendrick Lamar, fresh from Section80 have stalked Jenkins everywhere following The Water[S], and even though that comparison might be an incisive one, he proves himself to be an artist wholly his own here. On Alchemy, he barks: “Don’t greet me as God, my ni**a, I ain’t no deity”; somethings tells me fans will be studying ‘Wave[s] as religiously as anything he’s done before.
‘Wave[s]’ is out now on Cinematic Music Group