Monday, August 24, 2015

album review: 'wave[s]' by mick jenkins

I rarely cover EPs. I almost never cover mixtapes. So why the hell am I talking about this?

Well, in this case it's the artist himself having a reputation for dropping projects that really should be full albums at this point. I might have been skeptical when I covered Chicago MC Mick Jenkins' mixtape last year The Water(s), as I didn't exactly love his earlier mixtapes, but that tape caught me by surprise by how startlingly fully formed and articulate it was, exploring its themes surrounding water with a depth that I never could have expected. It was a potent release and very nearly missed my year-end list of albums, but even with that the song 'Jazz' was one of my favourite songs of 2014, and I'd have to be crazy to pass it up.

That said, I did have a bit of pause before approaching this EP, which is just under a half-hour, which has been longer than some albums I've covered this year. I heard it was more jazz-inspired and more eclectic, and while I've been appreciating the revival of this brand of hip-hop, Chance The Rapper's project with Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment Surf proved it could go wrong if there wasn't a clear artistic direction, and that can be tricky to sketch out on a shorter project, at least to the same depth. But Mick Jenkins is still a great rapper, so I dug into Wave[s] - what did I find?

Well, to some extent, I got mostly what I expected. Mick Jenkins is still a great rapper and he delivers here as an outgrowth of material he included on The Water(s), but he definitely took a step to the left in his instrumentation - definitely jazz-inspired but more free jazz than smooth jazz, which gives the hazy tracks an oddly jumbled feel that doesn't quite have the same grooves as the best of his material, but does end up working better than expected. I won't say this is better than The Water(s) - in terms of cohesive rap projects, it set a high standard, especially for any upcoming debut albums from Jenkins - but I did find this experiment pretty solid all the same.

So how does this come together? Well, in a sense I'm not quite sure it does, mostly because the production is as eclectic as it is, grabbing choppy, brittle trap beats, noisy dustier drums, rubbery synth-heavy backing textures, and loading them all into Jenkins' typically expansive mix. Factor in lo-fi layers of vocal production and sung multitracking, the organs, chimes, and the distant horn fragments courtesy of Donnie Trumpet on 'Slumber' that frankly sounds better than the majority of Surf, it can lead to songs that feel impressively dense but occasionally cluttered, which can detract from the actual bars. And here's the thing: I don't think this production is precisely bad - sure, it's choppy and doesn't quite have the languid potent grooves that Mick Jenkins' voice could easily roll with on The Water(s), but there's an off-kilter texture to these songs that I did like a lot, especially with the real drums on 'Slumber', the razor-tight beat against the rubbery bass on 'Your Love', the eerie waves of oily synth against the lo-fi filter on Jenkins' voice on '40 Below', and especially that guitar line on 'P's & Q's', easily the album highlight and probably featuring the simplest of the beats and even with that the cymbals sound great. On the other hand, some of the synth and beat choices didn't quite land as well as I'd like, most notably the odd choppiness of the background sample on 'Piano' or the odd off-beat pseudo-g-funk of 'The Giver', or the distinctly Asian-inspired plucked beat of the closer 'Perception' which just felt a little awkward, especially when the rest of the instrumentation came in. I feel many of these tracks could have worked a little better if they had been given a little more space and room to breathe - which is why it's baffling that so many of these tracks feel so short. Mick Jenkins could have easily added a few verses to these tracks in turn to flesh them out further and he could have had more than just an EP on his hands - as it is we get fragments of good ideas, but few that feel completely developed or explored.

Granted, I get the feeling Jenkins might have been intending this as a chance to test out some new ideas for that debut, which takes us to his vocals. Now I definitely like him as a rapper and I'll admit he can handle most of his own hooks easily when he sticks to his low baritone. That said, some of his stabs at more singing are hit-and-miss, no matter how many filters or how much multitracking he adds - he's got charisma, but his technique definitely could use some work. And on that note, his few guest stars don't really contribute much: Sean Deaux isn't really impressive on the hook for 'Slumber', and while I liked Saba's content, his technical construction could use a little work.

Where that isn't an issue is Mick Jenkins himself, so let's talk about lyrics and content. Now as expected, Wave[s] doesn't really as distinctive of themes and cohesion as The Water(s) so much as it is an extension of it, with Jenkins expressing some amusement that people didn't understand the ginger ale and water motifs that showed up in his material... and he doesn't mind all that much. Instead, much of this EP focuses on the immediate aftermath, the necessity of progression and dealing with his newfound fame and success. And what I really like about Jenkins is the balance: he goes to a concert and sees a sea of white fans, which unnerves him enough to almost not go on the tour, but he continues anyway, even if it means doing it his way means a pay cut. He reflects upon a broken relationship and remembers the time he creeped the girl's Facebook in his teens, but through a refocus on his art, she was the one who came coming back. But Jenkins is more interested in the future, which is why a fair few songs focus on him hunting for girls not for their butts but their brains through the guise of your typical dance songs like 'Your Love' and 'The Giver'. And then there are just tracks where his wordplay is so strikingly potent in asserting dominance it's impossible not respect, like on album opener 'Alchemy' and especially the alliterative 'P's & Q's' - and yeah, it's a gimmick that even Melanie Martinez tried on her debut just over a week ago, but Mick Jenkins' extended verse is miles more impressive in terms of writing and flow, even though it is a literary exercise for its own sake.

So as a whole, even though I'd argue Wave[s] isn't quite a great EP, it arguably succeeds in its purpose of having a distinctive sound, enough ideas and good cuts to keep it interesting, and enough unique material that feeds off of The Water(s) but has enough ideas to not merely make it feel like an extension. I just wish it had more room to breathe and more extensive bars, but if this was Mick Jenkins refining his approach before a full debut album, this was the place to do it. For me, it's a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're looking for some off-kilter hip-hop, and for me... Mick Jenkins, it's about damn time we got that debut man. I've got the Canada Dry - you bring the water.

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