Wednesday, September 17, 2014

album review: 'the water[s]' by mick jenkins

Let's talk a bit about concept albums. They've got a bit of a complicated reputation among critics, with some considering them high points of an artist's creative ambition and skill, and others calling them moments of excruciating hubris that show artists disappearing up their own ass. And let's make this clear, there are cases where both of these are true, but for the most part I tend to like concept albums, if only because they show an artist taking an ambitious risk and not just resorting to the default subject matter.

So let's go further and talk about concept albums in hip-hop, and when I say that, I'm not referring to albums that opt to have a narrative or a story or a subtle underlying theme. I'm talking about records that are focused on a single concept, usually abstract that the rapper then proceeds to explore in detail throughout an entire record. When you take a look from that perspective, the number of concept albums dwindles down to a precious few, appreciated by critics or hardcore hip-hop nerds but few else.

But as experimental hip-hop continues to grow and become more accepted, I knew it was only a matter of time before concept records in hip-hop returned. Enter Mick Jenkins, a Chicago MC who released his first mixtape with Trees and Truths last year that got a fair bit of critical scrutiny. Not only did he display a good flow and real wordplay, he also had interestingly textured production and some intriguing deeper themes in his work. Now I didn't quite love Trees & Truths - it felt a little long, the biblical elements felt a little shaky, and the ubiquitous pitch shifting got exasperating, but it was enough to pique my interest when he dropped his second mixtape The Water[s] this year. Now let me stress that I don't normally cover mixtapes, but considering the absurd critical acclaim this tape has gotten and the assertions that it comes together as more of a fully formed concept album than most, I figured I might as well try something new. So I gave The Water[s] a listen - what did I find?

A pretty damn fascinating record, that's for sure. In terms of weirder MCs coming out of Chicago, Mick Jenkins is definitely the sort of rapper I like seeing, one with ambition, solid wordplay, and some great production to back it up. And while it's definitely an album that requires a lot of work to unpack and process, it's the sort of album pushing an ideal and theme that I can definitely get behind. Is it the sort of rap album that can rise to the greats of this year? Not quite, but there's a level of quality to this mixtape that elevates it above most rap records dropped this year and show that Mick Jenkins is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

So let's start with Mick Jenkins himself, and I have to say, I really like him as a rapper in terms of sheer versatility and charisma. He's capable of sheer raw aggression in asserting himself as a rapper like on the explosive track 'Jerome', but it's the sort of aggression that is tempered with disdain for ignorant rappers and an ego he can back up. And yet he's also capable of slowing it down, being a little more introspective, searching for that vibe connection he can build with a girl and is very conscious of working at her pace and showing respect. While Jenkins isn't a fan of the conscious rap label - and it's not a good fit for him, given his conscious angle is more targeted towards fixing cultural ignorance and stupidity - he comes across as intelligent and very focused behind the microphone, but not so much that he loses his humanity or becomes unapproachable, which is a very narrow line to walk. The one track where the conscious label even comes close is the bleak track 'Martyrs', where he jacks the common sentiments of the shallow, materialistic ambitions of some rappers for his hook and then draws the direct parallel to the death sentence they can become. 

This links back to the lyrics and wordplay of this album - and for the most part, I dug the hell out of Mick Jenkins' flow and energy. From a technical standpoint he's the sort of rapper who can interweave some dense references into his wordplay while still bringing out hard-hitting punchlines. And while there are definitely some running idiosyncrasies throughout Jenkins' music that can get a little played out or even borrowed - the constant references to Canada Dry ginger ale and Montreal, including songs devoted to both of them which aren't bad but do feel a little redundant throughout the entire mixtape, and of course the references that Kanye has drawn upon like Jerome reference to the 90s Martin Lawrence TV show - for the most part his references are layered, crisp, and have a lot of punch. One of the biggest concerns with most concept albums is that they can't sustain their concept or do enough new with it beyond the first few tracks, but to his credit Mick Jenkins manages to make the water motif work for more than just a universal symbol of knowledge and goodness. The opening track 'Shipwrecked' is a good example, using imagery associated with the Titanic to show how people get onboard with various bad lifestyle decisions until they hit the metaphorical iceberg of realization - something that Jenkins is comfortable with because he's used to those waters. What's also telling is how much Jenkins positions himself as an outsider able to swim in those rough waters - he's the black sheep that builds attraction based on being a straight shooter and having a certain rugged honesty to him, and it's a role he's very comfortable in, both against his production and the rest of the rap scene. And while he's not trying to rock the boat - references to Aaliyah pepper this album - the knowledge and truth seem to be spilling out of him at every turn, either through the biblical references that return or callbacks to classic jazz or pop culture, and you can tell while he's not trying to stir up trouble, he'd be the type to take a turn at the wheel and jerk it around enough to knock the fakers flat.

And what's all the more impressive is how well his production mirrors those water references. While it could have been easy to drown this record and reverb and make it literally sound submerged, Mick Jenkins and his producers are more subtle than that, and instead constructed one of the most gracefully melodic hip-hop albums I've heard this year. The waves balanced against the drifting guitars on 'Shipwrecked' with a phenomenal beat change-up, the eerie synth balanced against the hi-hats on 'The Waters', the great guitar melody on 'Healer', the scratchy haze on 'Vibe' that's reminiscent of rain, the creaking thickness of 'Jazz' with the guitar leads bleeding across, the shimmering synths of 'Black Sheep, the staccato fluttering beat on 'Drink More Water', the deep rumble of the guitars on 'Canada Dry', the heavy rough-edged bass on 'Dehydration', and of course the Nina Simone 'Strange Fruit' sample on 'Martyrs' that manages to be completely different from when Kanye West used the sample on 'Blood On The Leaves' and just as relevant. If I were to have any issues with the production, it'd come down to two small issues. The first is that album can run into problems with momentum - by submerging the melodies and going for such a watery, heavy feel, it can make the album feel long, especially in the beginning. Mick Jenkins does compensate for this with some intensity, but it's tough when his voice feels just submerged under enough reverb to add to the heaviness rather than take away from it. Granted, this does not become a problem near the back half of the mixtape and this is where we run into the second problem: namely that some of the beats and tracks feel a shade too aggressive to fit cohesively with the rest of the album. The warning for this was on 'Who Else', which had some great lines and references but the beat felt a little too busy, especially with the clattering percussion in the mid-range. And then there was 'Jerome', a track soaked in organ and scratching with Mick Jenkins going toe-to-toe with Joey Bada$$ with sheer roaring intensity and even maintaining the water motif with references to being able to swim with the sharks, but it's so loud and aggressive that it really feels out of place with the rest of the album. Still a good song - hell, I don't think there's a track on this tape I would consider bad or even mediocre - but it did feel a little out of place.

So considering how much I do love the wordplay and so much of the production, what is ultimately holding this album back from being truly amazing? Well, there are a few things. First is the guest appearances - while I do feel Jean Deaux's verse on 'Healer' did fit the tone and tempo of the track, I did feel Noname Gypsy's verse on 'Comfortable' didn't quite work as well and didn't quite fit with the rest of the track. And while I definitely liked the hook by The Mind on 'Shipwrecked', I found his hook on 'Dehydration' a little overmixed and busy to fit with the verses. And coming back to the central concept of this album, while I do think Mick Jenkins did an impressive job interweaving the water references and symbolism throughout the tape, I do feel it was missing a final track to hammer the disconnected references into a thesis to really drive the water motif home into a potent album statement. Now I get this last nitpick is probably a little too much to ask for on a mixtape - which is why I don't tend to cover mixtapes - but I honestly think Mick Jenkins could have pulled it off which means I can't help but feel a little surprised he ended the album with 'Jerome' - sure, go out on a high note, but it didn't exactly have the lyrical power to tie everything together outside of just sheer aggression.

But look, that's nitpicking, because this mixtape was genuinely great. Mick Jenkins proved with The Water[s] that he's a real talent to watch and if he doesn't manage to explode in the next few years, especially given his charisma and presence and gift for riding some stellar production, I will be shocked. I will say this album is not for everyone - the production takes getting used to, and his gift for wordplay means this album takes a while to truly decode and deconstruct - but believe me, it's definitely worth it. I think a solid 8/10 and definitely a recommendation are in order. I may have gotten to this mixtape late, but I'm definitely glad I got to it, and if you haven't checked out Mick Jenkins yet, you're definitely missing out, so go look him up.

1 comment:

  1. Will you be reviewing the new Karen O album?