You might not have heard of Mick Jenkins. I hadn’t. Not until, flicking through the list of releases up for review at Picky Bastards, I gave a cursory listen to the single from his latest EP. Who’s this new rapper, I thought? Not realising that Jenkins is actually already four albums in, coming up in the same Chicago scene as rappers such as Saba, Chance the Rapper, and Noname. Garnering critical acclaim and building a fanbase that seem to spend a lot of time on social media wondering why their man is not getting the props he deserves.
The Circus EP, then, feels like a pretty strange place to jump in. Jenkins himself has admitted that he sees this as a prelude to his forthcoming album, a place in which he has been able to simply release a few songs without focusing on any kind of concept to tie them together. And on the first couple of listens, I was a little nonplussed. There were some interesting beats, and it would take a certain amount of stupidity not to notice that Jenkins has an impressive flow. But when not listening too carefully, this lack of a concept seemed to be resulting in a set of songs about ‘money’ and ‘flex’. There seemed to be a few too many tropes for this to be anything that worthwhile.
But I kept coming back to the single I heard while looking for something to review from the list. ‘Carefree’ has a loose, soulful, almost jazzy instrumentation. Jenkins switches between an almost aggressive flow and a more dreamlike singing style in the chorus. And there’s a real anger in the way he delivers the songs most important line ‘if you’re living carefree then you probably don’t look like us’, before traversing through a few tales of difficult encounters with the cops. And as he repeats in the chorus that he was ‘off the drinks, off the drugs, off the vibes’ but still couldn’t avoid the suspicions of the law, a theme to the EP does start to emerge.
Jenkins, through an EP that he himself has simply called ‘just a set of good songs’, has created a nineteen-minute testament to difficulties a young black man faces to escape judgement, no matter what he is doing with his own life. A successful musician, a recovered addict, an example of how to work through a system that makes everything difficult for you because of your skin colour – all of this, and Jenkins still doesn’t feel that he can live his life with a sense of freedom. ‘Flaunt’ originally sounds like a typical hip-hop demonstration of braggadocio, until you hear that Jenkins is actually talking about how difficult it gets when people expect you to perform, in life and in music, in a way that simply isn’t you. ‘The Light’ – a collaboration with EARTHGANG – discusses how Jenkins ‘puts himself on house arrest’ and is ‘chasing new highs’ after becoming sober in attempt to find ‘the light’, but the general sense of The Circus is that society makes it much more difficult for a person of colour to achieve this.
And all of this makes me think about the title. The Circus. Just as I was originally unsure about the music I was listening to, I also struggled to understand why he had decided to name it after something with which we associate chaos, foolishness, and a general sense of disorder. The musical tone didn’t fit with that. On early listens, this sounds like such a laid-back album – more suited to a quiet night in with a glass of whisky than an evening at a circus. But when you spend time listening to the story these songs tell, the sense that all efforts to make changes and restore some calm can be felled by the madness that surrounds us all, the title starts to make a lot more sense.
With that realisation, comes a much deeper appreciation of the music. This isn’t generic hip-hop at all. The Circus still might be a slightly odd place to start delving into Mick Jenkins’s career, but I’ve decided to look at it like a starter to a really good meal. And if the main courses that make up his LPs are anywhere near as appetising, I’ll be going back for seconds and thirds.
Words by Fran Slater