Wednesday, September 28, 2016

album review: 'the healing component' by mick jenkins

This is one of the big ones, one of the albums I've been looking forward to for well over a year now, probably close to two, ever since I covered Mick Jenkins' star-making mixtape The Water(s) back in 2014 and he landed a song on my top fifty of that year - in the top 20. This was an MC with serious chops, not just as one of the most potent and subtly charismatic rappers I've heard in some time, but also proving himself as a thoughtful but hard-hitting presence who was willing to experiment with poise and consideration. I might not have loved the EP Wave[s] he put out in 2015, but that was more because he was testing the waters with different sounds and styles that I expected would be refined considerably on this upcoming debut.

And to be honest, I was surprised he was going to release a full-length album at all - like fellow Chicago native Chance The Rapper he had been running up considerable buzz and critical acclaim just on mixtapes alone, and considering he's not on a major label, he could have easily continued this hype until the radio got a clue and gave him a push, or he got a big name collaboration. But from what I saw of The Healing Component, at least from the features list, he didn't appear to be making that mainstream play, with his guests including BadBadNotGood, Noname, and Kaytranada - and sure, the latter two might have hype now but it's not precisely mainstream.

But I've wasted enough time here - this is a big one, so how did The Healing Component check out?

Well... this was a tough record to really analyze, because upon my first few listens I was convinced that this would be one of the best albums of the year. The half-dozen or so listens afterwards - it's a contender, but I find this album a little tough to love as much as I'd want. Make no mistake, there are some individual cuts which are stellar and some of the most well-considered bars and verses you'll hear in 2016, and the production does a fantastic job matching it to create some ridiculously smooth, powerful vibes... but just like The Water(s), I'd say it's just a shade away from being a true masterpiece, although as a whole it's probably more consistent than that tape.

So let's start with Mick Jenkins himself: and make no mistake, I've always liked this guy as a rapper and as a presence behind the microphone. His baritone has the collected heft of a man who could unleash all hell but chooses not to, making him one of hell of a potent presence. And I could go about how strong he is as a rapper - his bars nearly always connect, he's got a fantastic command of the language while still remaining accessible, he's one of the few rappers who could reference Harry Potter twice and have both punchlines connect incredibly well with layered meaning, and he's got the charisma and versatility to ride some pretty experimental production. Now one of the big criticisms I had of Wave[s] was that while he was a great rapper, he wasn't exactly a stronger singer and he focused more on that - and to some extent it's a little true here too in that there is more singing, Jenkins does two things to alleviate that. First, he leans into his lower, more soulful tones which work to great effect, and when he doesn't get his guests to handle his hooks, he also loads in enough choppy vocal effects that fit with the liquid, ever-shifting feel of the mix, and not only does it feel cohesive, but adding to the personality of these songs. It also helps that the majority of his guest stars are on point too. BadBadNotGood is the obvious standout bringing in their rougher lo-fi soul and blues touches on the album centerpiece 'Drowning', which is an incredible song in its own right, but I also liked how Rayvn Lenae channeled Estelle on the Kaytranada-produced 'Communicate', which easily had one of the most potent grooves here. And of course frequent collaborator TheMIND did his thing too, probably shining the most on '1000 Xans' in his more soulful upper register, but the bigger standout is Noname, who delivers the sort of effortlessly charismatic verse that makes me really wish she'd drop an actual album already and not just mixtapes. I'l admit I was a little less impressed with J-Stock's verse on 'Love, Robert Horry' - not quite on the same level as Jenkins - or with the heavier autotune on the hook of 'Fucked Up Outro' for Michael Anthony, which led to an ending that lacked a little impact, but that's a minor gripe.

And it definitely helps that so much of the production is fantastic here, usually most characterized by deep, bass-heavy synths, liquid oscillations occasionally touched with organ and piano, incredibly varied percussion, and even hints of g-funk and jazz that creep around the edges. Take the blasts of horns on the title track that lead to a great infectious hook, or the distant sax creeping through in the background on 'Strange Love', or the hollow sorts of horns in the warping groove-heavy mix on 'Communicate', or the g-funk gurgle of the bass on 'Plugged', or again, how willing they are to step into a rougher, bluesy soul on 'Drowning'. And what's a little amazing is how much mileage this album can get out of pretty minimalist setups that still have a lot of real complexity: the warping and collapsing synths on 'Strange Love', the liquid spacious groove on 'Spread Love', the female vocal sample playing off the deeper drums on 'Fall Through', the cascades of pianos on 'Angles' - there is so much of a languid, watery groove on this record you could assume that the occasional bits of choppiness might sound even better high, the vibes are that good. And I can that, for sure, but that doesn't mean this record isn't without its instrumental issues. For one, some of the programmed percussion can be incredibly sharp, like on the title track, 'As Seen In Bethsaida', and especially '1000 Xans' - not bad, but they might cut through a little too harshly to blend well. Granted, for as much as this record gets cohesion through its choppy, unsettled synths and vocal layers, there are points where the vocals are mixed a little low - which is saying something, given how well Jenkins' baritone comes through. Finally, for as much as I dig the vibes, just like The Water(s) this record does run long, especially with the interjection of a few too many spoken word pieces and dialogues, and probably could have been trimmed back to a tighter project with more momentum, because it can feel listless at points.

And this is where we get to the content and themes - and here's the thing: Mick Jenkins has a few metaphors he's hammered on for years now, specifically water as truth, which if you're familiar with his last two projects he's explored significantly. As such, it's a bit hard not to see his continuous callbacks to both previous projects and recurring metaphors as filler - but to be fair, the water takes on a much bigger, more contentious connotation - specifically, linked to love and by extension Jesus and God. Yes, just like his friend and fellow Chicago MC Chance The Rapper, Mick Jenkins takes a hard right turn into spiritual material - and yet probably to your surprise, it didn't bother me as much as even I expected. For one, this is not an evangelical record, with Jenkins' take on spirituality actually coming close to my own, and he doesn't shy away from hammering organized religion on 'As Seen In Bethsaida' and admitting he still doesn't have all the answers either. More importantly, for as much as he speaks to positivity and spreading the love, he's also very much aware that to spread that water of truth, he first needs to be able to love himself and know himself, including his own vices and temptations, like the frustrated lust of 'Communicate' and the potential opulence of 'Prosperity' and the substance abuse of '1000 Xans'. And I really did appreciate how he describes how the black community has fallen victim its own vices partially by muting that possibility of happiness, or is so cynical to hear 'I'll pray for you' as insincere like described on 'Daniel's Bloom'. But Jenkins can't entirely blame them for that - when faced with the brutal truth of systemic inequality on 'Drowning', it's easy to get dispirited, or for people to misinterpret his own inspiration as from weed - which he does smoke - rather than God and get the wrong impression of his material altogether, especially when hip-hop glorifies the love of money over actual love, which rarely lasts and as said on 'Prosperity', 'time is the only measure of the four letter word'. And when you also consider an environment of backstabbing on 'Plugged' or how so many in his crew has 'horcruxes' - the extension of life attained through murder - no wonder how it can be hard to produce a Patronus, which relies on happy memories to ward off fear and depression. Now let me stress this is all powerful, well-thought out, big idea stuff I can certainly get behind... I just wish the ending of this record brought it all together a little better. 'Fucked Up Outro' gets close with Mick Jenkins circling back to hip-hop and how he doesn't just want to share in his heart but to inspire and help others to grow the same... but when the record ends with another monologue reiterating the album's underlying Christian idea, it feels like an opportunity was lost to really create a powerful thesis moment to really round out this complex picture. And considering both 'Love, Robert Horry' and 'Angles' are more about finding love, God and fulfillment through their art and don't aim nearly as populist as, say 'Fall Through' - especially with the escapist hook on 'Angles' - this album ends more slightly than it could.

But overall, I dug the hell out of this album. I doubt that The Healing Component is going to smash already strong expectations for Mick Jenkins so much as reinforce them, but I would certainly agree that this sort of intensely lyrical but accessible hip-hop in its production and style is supremely underrated. For those worried about the Christian subtext overwhelming this record... it's a little more overplayed than I'd ultimately prefer, but it is well-focused and framed enough to earn it - but then again one of my favourite songs of this year is 'Hand Of God (Outro)' by Jon Bellion. But even if you don't care about lyrics, this album has some stellar grooves that make it one hell of a potent listen, in other words netting an extremely strong 8/10 and a high recommendation indeed. Probably one of the best hip-hop albums of the year overall, and if you aren't familiar with The Water(s), easily a starmaking debut. Folks, definitely do not sleep on Mick Jenkins and The Healing Component, if only because I think people could use a little more positivity that's as smart and heartfelt as this.

No comments:

Post a Comment