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“The audience all white, I thought we’d bring blacks out.” That’s a line from “Get Up Get Down” off of Mick Jenkins’ critically acclaimed new EP, “Wave[s].” It’s a passing moment, one you might easily miss, in a song that aims to convey a feeling as much as a message. But there is a tumultuous undercurrent beneath the woozy, back-beat-driven hook.
“I wrote ‘Martyrs’ for black people,” Jenkins says, referring to a song on his 2014 mixtape “The Water[s].” “Not to say that white people can’t listen to it, but the message in it, specifically, is speaking about myself, my friends.” The song’s chorus parodies the cocky bluster of mainstream rap: “I’ma get all this money/ I’ma buy all this s***."
Jenkins, who performs at the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge on Thursday, Sept. 3, finds himself playing to white crowds all the time. Once, while he was performing for a mostly white audience in Arizona, the power went out. “I instantly told the drummer to start the drums, and we did ‘Waters’ and ‘Martyrs’ a cappella. It went up, the vibe was great—and all I could hear were these white people screaming ‘N*****’ to my songs.”
Moments like that—joyous and horrifying all at once—are bound to happen to Jenkins with ever more frequency as his star rises. More so, perhaps, because the Alabama-born, Chicago-based rapper has always positioned himself against the mainstream. “Water[s],” Jenkins’s sophomore album, launched him out of the underground on the strength of a brazenly brainy conceit: water as a metaphor for truth. “N***** always gonna need some water, n***** always gonna speak the truth,” he raps on the title track. Jenkins, who cut his teeth at poetry open mics in Chicago, milks the motif for all its worth, surfing nimbly through a verbal ocean teeming with aquatic entendre.
Jenkins’s is no empty virtuosity. “The Water[s],” and to a slightly lesser extent, “Wave[s],” relish in the exposing of hypocrisy, be it the shallowness Jenkins sees in mainstream rap—“Hanging on for dear life/ For the love of the gold ... Don’t that s*** feel cold?”—or the police: “Serve and protect, like protect your pockets and servin’ subpoenas/ Whole s*** a circus and they ain’t even serving us peanuts.”
“The Water[s]” is steeped in distrust—of the prison system, the government, hip-hop culture and consumerism—and simmers with acutely articulated rage.
Its release also dovetailed potently with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the national spotlight on police brutality against African-Americans. When asked if the movement inspired him to engage politically in his music, Jenkins bristles. “I think that’s kind of a duh-ass question. Like, I’m black. This has been happening to me all my life. This happens to black people all their lives. This isn’t the first time it’s come to national attention—it’s actually come to national attention several times throughout history.”
Editor's note: The following video contains explicit language.
It would probably be wrongheaded to ask why he exercises so much dedication to the water concept, too. For Jenkins, a trope is not a limit, but a springboard off of which he can launch himself to giddy lyrical heights. His most impressive feat on “Wave[s]” occurs on the song “Ps and Qs,” which takes the aphorism “Mind your Ps and Qs” so literally as to subvert the saying altogether. It’s a paean to pure poetry through masterful alliteration: “I been on my Ps and Qs, quantum leaps ahead of my peers/ They not even in my peripheral, pray I keep it proper/ ‘Cause they playing so political, the petty is so pitiful/ N***** Peter Pettigrew, I’m of a higher pedigree.” It goes on like that, only gaining steam, for two and a half minutes.
A better question might be why Jenkins feels so driven by the concept of truth. What does he see that the rest of us do not? “When I say the truth, I literally mean, the truth about the world,” he says. “If you really take a close look at it, all of the world’s problems, it’s not rocket science. Like, it really isn’t. There are alternatives that would produce better outcomes for a lot of the things we do, for a lot of the systems that we implement. There’s a better way to do them. And capitalism really ain’t the way. I think we know that right now.”
“Wave[s]” contains some lighter moments, dispensing with the cool atmospherics of “The Water[s]” in favor of the occasional dance beat and even some singing from Jenkins. The streak of playfulness that animates his lyrics loosens up his vocal chords on the trance-y “The Giver” and the hip-swiveling “Your Love.” “Have a dream in New Orleans/ Fall in love in Chicago” Jenkins purrs, his voice curling around the syllables like a cat.
Jenkins says that “Wave[s]” is just a warm-up to an in-progress album, which he plans to title “The Healing Component.” The album, he says, will tackle many of the same issues as “The Water[s]” and “Wave[s],” but from a slightly different slant. “The healing component is love,” says Jenkins. Sometimes you shout, and sometimes you sing.
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