Mick Jenkins seemed like a very peaceable dude on his 2014 mixtape “The Water[s].” To be honest, he seemed like a bit of an herb. There are plenty of rap heads that only want odes to non-alcoholic substances, dreamy, jazz-driven beats and Native Tongues references galore, to the point of it being played out. The whole schtick seemed almost to be pandering to the ideal of the conscious rapper. Still, the rhymes were slick enough, and the beats so inviting so that I let it spin several times, mostly in the small hours of the morning.
The going is choppier on “Wave[s],” Jenkin’s newest EP, which dropped late August. There are trappy, booming snare drums, and Migos triplet flows and candy cane synthesizers you’d normally find on a Porter Robinson track. “They say I be talking bout water too much!” he yells on the first track. He refuses to outwardly renounce the metaphor, but his palette has expanded from shimmering blue-grey to include the whole color wheel. The result is maybe my favorite hip hop album of the year. Welcome aboard, Mick.
You know that metaphor with all the blind dudes feeling up an elephant? This album, clocking in at a tiny 9 tracks and 28 minutes, is a goddamn elephant. If you showed a friend “Ps and Qs,” they’d think Mick was a virtuoso wordsmith with no ear for choruses. Listen only to “Your Love,” you’d think he was an 00’s pop rapper carrying Lupe Fiasco baggage. And “40 Below,” with its tortured “how she got so cold?” refrain, is straight from the “808s and Heartbreak” playbook. This versatility makes “Wave[s]” an astounding listen purely for the surprise value.
He can do this because he’s not a name yet; he hasn’t put out his debut LP, and he doesn’t have much to lose. After going monochrome on “The Water[s],” he throws a lot of shit at the wall and surveys the aftermath. This is very good for us, especially when the result is as sticky as the closer, “Perception.” There are not one but two hooks; dread-filled slow strings; references to Bruce Banner, Beetle Juice and Austin Powers, and a sublime plucked sample threading everything together.
Muthafucka this is art trap / You can see the verses like I’m painting shit
With some paintballs / shots sound like Goose Goose
Willy Wonka, I got no ceilings / If I do, I finna need a new roof, fuck a limitation
Only complaint about the song? It’s only got one verse. It’s audacious as hell: I’m giving you this amazing creation, but it’s only half a song. I’ve got so much new shit, I can throw this at the back of my EP.
“Perception,” and the album as a whole, marks the output of a five-tool rapper. Let me explain. Five-tool baseball players are all-around studs: they run, field, throw, and hit for power and contact. Mike Trout and Junior Griffey are good examples of the dominance that can result from being good at everything. Of course, you can be great while missing a tool or too (think Babe Ruth chugging around the basepaths, or Ichiro rarely clearing the seats). But five-tool players have multiple ways to impact a game, even if they slump in one area.
Mick Jenkins is a five-tool rapper. He’s got (1) a flow, (2) lyrical content, (3) production, (4) hooks, (5) swag.
A$AP Rocky is strong on (1), (3), and (5). J. Cole has (1) and maybe that’s it? Lil Wayne as (1) and (5). Common has (1) (2) and (3).
On “Wave[s],” Mick Jenkins spits out a dozen different rhythmic patterns with ease. He raps about love, and community building and education and heartbreak. His beats are laid back, nuanced, and still slap. His hooks are singable and melodic, especially “Piano” and “Your Love.” And he exudes a cool toughness; there’s little fronting involved, only suave honesty.
Of course, not all five-tool player become all time greats. What’s going on with Yasiel Puig right now, for instance? Mick flashes his all-around talent in less than half an hour here. And if his next leap up is the same size as the one he took from “The Water[s]” to Wave[s]”—damn. He better call it Tsunam[i].