Systemic racism in America is hardly a new subject in hip-hop. I don’t say that as a criticism, though – when that is the day-to-day reality that you’re living in, it must be hard to think, let alone write, about anything else. But when there is such a huge and dominating topic looming over a genre and era of music, it can be hard for an artist to stand out in new and interesting ways. It can hard to say the same things and yet sound like you’re doing something different. Even though he is already several albums into an impressive career, my first experience of Mick Jenkins was last year’s single ‘Carefree’. On that song, and the whole of The Circus EP, Jenkins put together an interesting and unique exploration of the subject by considering the things that mark the differences between those who are victims of systemic racism and those who benefit from it – ‘if you’re living carefree then you probably don’t look like us.’ It was a poignant and to-the-point EP that made me want to learn more about its creator.
Elephant In The Room finds him almost immediately back on the same theme. While The Circus dealt in subtlety and nuance, one of the new album’s early highlights decides to get straight to the point. A title like ‘Things You Could Die For If Doing While Black’ tells you pretty much all you need to know, and the lyrics are just as immediate and impactful. Listing some of the daily occurrences that many of us take for granted – ‘I just wanna do my job/might wanna go for a jog/might wanna sleep in my car/might wanna sleep in my bed…I just wanna make mistakes/Might wanna ask a question/Might call the police for protection’ – Jenkins then pivots to a chorus in which he repeats the simple line of ‘I just wanna live my life’. Underpinning all of this, and making the song as powerful as it is, is that any listener who has been paying attention to the news will know that a black person in America has lost their life at the hands of police for doing each and every one of the things he lists. There’s no need for subtlety when the truth is so hard-hitting.
The album expands on this point with the Ayinde Cartman spoken word section at the end of ‘Stiff Arm’, while also honing in on how relevant the album’s title is to its theme. ‘Our existence is the elephant in every boardroom/How we larger than life and lurking in the shadow?…Bring up what y’all did to us, and now the schools uncomfortable/Y’all can ban critical race theory, but it’s the bedrock of your homes’. From an earlier song about the daily threat to life that black people face in the US, Jenkins forces us to look outwards at how these prejudices affect every element of existence. How the history of racism leaks into the present, no matter how hard a big section of the population try to tell you that the problem is in the past.
‘Truffles’ comes towards the end of the album, and has to be a contender for the best hip-hop song of 2021. Sounding like an amalgamation of Open Mike Eagle and Saba, Jenkins pontificates on the societal assumption that a young black man is always out ‘making trouble’ and how knowledge of this assumption creates an inward struggle. ‘Shit is egregious, still, slaves is a secret/Still want the white man to tell you you’re prestigious.’ What perhaps makes this the most effecting of all the songs on offer here is how its seriousness is originally obscured by its sound – the bouncy, guttural beat and the mesmerising vocal performance.
While the three songs I’ve done a deep dive on are probably the album’s strongest, Elephant In The Room is a consistently powerful and affecting album. The soulful and often simplistic beats leave plenty of room for you to revel in the lyricism, the message, and Mick Jenkins’s laid back and hypnotic flow. Songs like ‘Speed Racer’ and ‘Rug Burn’ also bring a more hopeful feel to some of the album, highlighting connection and comradeship as powerful weapons against the outside world. Guest spots from serpentwithfeet (twice) and Greensllime also smooth down some of the harder edges, meaning that if you took this in without getting too lost in the lyrics it might actually feel like a laidback and dreamy listen. But Jenkins is at his most impactful when waxing lyrical on hip-hop’s most overarching theme – the fact that he can make you think about systemic racism from new and unique angles makes it clear what a supreme talent he has.
Words by Fran Slater