MICK JENKINS

THE ROOTS

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO PREMIERE

119 sits down with Mick Jenkins to talk Trees & Truths, the Chicago renaissance, and how he plans to save the soul of a generation.

Interview & design by Mark Jacobs

Photographs by Jude Appleby & Mike Bump

“What does Chicago need right now?” Mick Jenkins leans forward, his elbows on the edge of the table. It wobbles on its uneven legs. “What it already has.”

We're sitting in the back room of Township, in the heart of Logan Square. All around us are remnants of the venue’s past life as Pancho’s, a Cuban sandwich joint with autographed photos of José Conseco adorning the walls. But tonight, in its reincarnation, a packed audience waits to see a live performance of Jenkins' acclaimed Trees & Truths mixtape.

I ask him to explain. “Exactly what’s going on in Chicago,” he concludes, “that’s what it needs.”

It’s late August, and it’s hot. As fans arrive, they mop the sweat from their faces. Over at the bar, the complimentary pitchers of ice water are soon empty. It seems we’ve survived another brutal summer here, but Chicago's fate still hangs dangerously in the balance. Across the United States, the only other city with the headlines to beat Chicago for Saddest Place Ever is Detroit. In fact, as Rachel Shteir points out, “At least we’re not Detroit” is a common refrain here.

But let’s take a quick inventory. Money problems? Check. Crime? Check. Segregation, inequality, and out-of-touch leadership? Yes, yes, and yes.

There’s no question Chicago is struggling. Nonetheless, Jenkins is staying positive. “From every angle, the city’s stocked with musicians, artists, fashion people.”

“After Kanye hopped on [Chief Keef’s 2011 single] ‘I Don’t Like,’ Chief Keef got a whole lot of buzz, and just because there was renewed attention on Chicago, Chance The Rapper got a whole lot of buzz. Vic Mensa is right on the cusp, and the artists that are feeding the scene are just dope.” He lists his personal favorites. “Jean Deaux, Saba, myself, Martin $ky, Kembe X, Treated Crew, Lili K.”

“It’s all falling in place to do what Atlanta did for ten years,” Jenkins says. “I think this is exactly what Chicago needs.”

There’s no doubt the city could use a renaissance. But what I think Chicago especially needs—in fact, what we need all across the US—is more artists like Mick Jenkins.

When I ask him what makes Trees & Truths his best music yet, I hardly finish my question before Jenkins has his answer. “Learning!” he shouts. “Learning. Going to school. Living on my own. Getting evicted. Having someone I thought I was gonna marry, but then didn’t. It’s where I get my music from,” he continues, “drawing from my everyday experiences.”

Indeed, Trees & Truths testifies to the belief that everyday experiences have consequences. This fact usually frightens other artists into beating their audiences over the head with morals and cheap advice. But not Jenkins.

Instead, by uncovering the universal truth amid the everyday, he offers his listeners a challenge.

“All of these songs have an underlying message,” Jenkins admits, but it’s not to emphasize any particular lesson so much the importance of having an open mind. See for instance the mixtape’s most basic metaphor: “The trees are ourselves,” he explains, “with the roots being where we come from, the leaves being what we produce.”

On the surface, it’s about taking in what’s good and producing good things in return. It’s simple enough, but what’s impressive is the way Jenkins refashions the symbol to multiply the layers of meaning.

There's a word for people who specialize in that sort of thing: we call them poets.

Jenkins has been one since he was 14, when he joined Young Chicago Authors. “YCA had the biggest effect on me,” he said, “and got me into poetry. I liked poetry before, and used to watch Def Jam videos, but I never took it that seriously until I started going to YCA, and that’s of course where the rapping all starts.”

In 2012, Jenkins teamed up with fellow YCA-alum Saba on the explosive single “Heaux”—a track as impressive for its weapons-grade trap beat as for its highly conscious wordplay. Its hook is a masterpiece of syntactic trickery: what sounds like “Free my niggas: that’s Lincoln, hoe” is at the same time “Free my niggas that’s Linkin’, hoe” a cri de couer against the bondage of government dependency—in this case, Illinois’s LINK program—that hinders the progress of Chicago’s impoverished black community.

Trees & Truths, the first installment of a planned three-part series, finds Jenkins continuing in this same vein. “I try to be innovative in what I do, at every level,” Jenkins says of his composing process.

“The fun part about it for me is trying to fit these messages into a song, kind of like [Kendrick Lamar’s] ‘Drank.’ People wanna hear it, at the club, at the crib—wherever. They want to listen to it. Even while there’s some very, very real verses.

“That’s what I shoot for. To be able to make a song that’s infectious, have it for both the people really listening and the people who aren’t, sneaking the message up on them.”

At stake, Jenkins believes, is nothing less than the soul of a generation.

“There’s a system at work in society. And I believe it’s there to destroy our generation. Every day, this mundane bullshit we see on TV, the bullshit coming in through our radios—it’s a part of that system.”

“‘Fuck it, let’s do it,’ that’s what music is telling people right now,” Jenkins says. “‘Fuck it, have fun now, fuck your responsibilities.’”

And if you want his response, look no further than Trees & Truths, which rewards numerous playbacks by design. “I don’t think that after the first listen to Trees & Truths you’ll be able to understand everything that I’m about,” says Jenkins. “I don’t think after the first listen to Trees & Truths that you’ll be able to know exactly who I am. But I do believe after you first hear Trees & Truths, you’ll want to listen again. If you like hip-hop, you’ll want to listen again, and as you do, you start to learn and hear what I’m trying to say.”

No, it turns out to be more nuanced than that: somewhere in the midst of all these trees is the idea of truth—truth about oneself, truth about the world, truth about what good and evil actually mean.

That last one in particular is a prickly matter: Adam and Eve would’ve been just fine had they remained in ignorance, but once you’re aware of the difference, don’t you now have a responsibility to act?

We’re heading into dangerously deep waters now. (Is it a coincidence that Jenkins’ next project is titled The Waters?). And if you think you can find anything else on DatPiff that’s brave enough to tackle these timeless questions, good luck.

Back at Township, as Jenkins takes the stage, I suspect he’s right to be optimistic about Chicago these days. Among the crowd, there’s a palpable feeling that we’re bearing witness to something special. When the crowd joins in, rapping along without missing a bar, it’s all too clear that Mick Jenkins is on to something. -119

“What does Chicago need right now?” Mick Jenkins leans forward, his elbows on the edge of the table. It wobbles on its uneven legs. “What it already has.”

We're sitting in the back room of Township, in the heart of Logan Square. All around us are remnants of the venue’s past life as Pancho’s, a Cuban sandwich joint with autographed photos of José Conseco adorning the walls. But tonight, in its reincarnation, a packed audience waits to see a live performance of Jenkins' acclaimed Trees & Truths mixtape.

I ask him to explain. “Exactly what’s going on in Chicago,” he concludes, “that’s what it needs.”

It’s late August, and it’s hot. As fans arrive, they mop the sweat from their faces. Over at the bar, the complimentary pitchers of ice water are soon empty. It seems we’ve survived another brutal summer here, but Chicago's fate still hangs dangerously in the balance. Across the United States, the only other city with the headlines to beat Chicago for Saddest Place Ever is Detroit. In fact, as Rachel Shteir points out, “At least we’re not Detroit” is a common refrain here.

But let’s take a quick inventory. Money problems? Check. Crime? Check. Segregation, inequality, and out-of-touch leadership? Yes, yes, and yes.

There’s no question Chicago is struggling. Nonetheless, Jenkins is staying positive. “From every angle, the city’s stocked with musicians, artists, fashion people.”

“After Kanye hopped on [Chief Keef’s 2011 single] ‘I Don’t Like,’ Chief Keef got a whole lot of buzz, and just because there was renewed attention on Chicago, Chance The Rapper got a whole lot of buzz. Vic Mensa is right on the cusp, and the artists that are feeding the scene are just dope.” He lists his personal favorites. “Jean Deaux, Saba, myself, Martin $ky, Kembe X, Treated Crew, Lili K.”

“What does Chicago need right now? What it already has.”

“It’s all falling in place to do what Atlanta did for ten years,” Jenkins says. “I think this is exactly what Chicago needs.”

There’s no doubt the city could use a renaissance. But what I think Chicago especially needs—in fact, what we need all across the US—is more artists like Mick Jenkins.

When I ask him what makes Trees & Truths his best music yet, I hardly finish my question before Jenkins has his answer. “Learning!” he shouts. “Learning. Going to school. Living on my own. Getting evicted. Having someone I thought I was gonna marry, but then didn’t. It’s where I get my music from,” he continues, “drawing from my everyday experiences.”

Indeed, Trees & Truths testifies to the belief that everyday experiences have consequences. This fact usually frightens other artists into beating their audiences over the head with morals and cheap advice. But not Jenkins.

Instead, by uncovering the universal truth amid the everyday, he offers his listeners a challenge.

“All of these songs have an underlying message,” Jenkins admits, but it’s not to emphasize any particular lesson so much the importance of having an open mind. See for instance the mixtape’s most basic metaphor: “The trees are ourselves,” he explains, “with the roots being where we come from, the leaves being what we produce.”

On the surface, it’s about taking in what’s good and producing good things in return. It’s simple enough, but what’s impressive is the way Jenkins refashions the symbol to multiply the layers of meaning.

“The trees are ourselves, with the roots being where we come from, the leaves being what we produce.”

There's a word for people who specialize in that sort of thing: we call them poets.

Jenkins has been one since he was 14, when he joined Young Chicago Authors. “YCA had the biggest effect on me,” he said, “and got me into poetry. I liked poetry before, and used to watch Def Jam videos, but I never took it that seriously until I started going to YCA, and that’s of course where the rapping all starts.”

In 2012, Jenkins teamed up with fellow YCA-alum Saba on the explosive single “Heaux”—a track as impressive for its weapons-grade trap beat as for its highly conscious wordplay. Its hook is a masterpiece of syntactic trickery: what sounds like “Free my niggas: that’s Lincoln, hoe” is at the same time “Free my niggas that’s Linkin’, hoe” a cri de couer against the bondage of government dependency—in this case, Illinois’s LINK program—that hinders the progress of Chicago’s impoverished black community.

Trees & Truths, the first installment of a planned three-part series, finds Jenkins continuing in this same vein. “I try to be innovative in what I do, at every level,” Jenkins says of his composing process.

“The fun part about it for me is trying to fit these messages into a song, kind of like [Kendrick Lamar’s] ‘Drank.’ People wanna hear it, at the club, at the crib—wherever. They want to listen to it. Even while there’s some very, very real verses.

“That’s what I shoot for. To be able to make a song that’s infectious, have it for both the people really listening and the people who aren’t, sneaking the message up on them.”

“There’s a system at work in society. And I believe it’s there to destroy our generation.”

At stake, Jenkins believes, is nothing less than the soul of a generation.

“There’s a system at work in society. And I believe it’s there to destroy our generation. Every day, this mundane bullshit we see on TV, the bullshit coming in through our radios—it’s a part of that system.”

“‘Fuck it, let’s do it,’ that’s what music is telling people right now,” Jenkins says. “‘Fuck it, have fun now, fuck your responsibilities.’”

And if you want his response, look no further than Trees & Truths, which rewards numerous playbacks by design. “I don’t think that after the first listen to Trees & Truths you’ll be able to understand everything that I’m about,” says Jenkins. “I don’t think after the first listen to Trees & Truths that you’ll be able to know exactly who I am. But I do believe after you first hear Trees & Truths, you’ll want to listen again. If you like hip-hop, you’ll want to listen again, and as you do, you start to learn and hear what I’m trying to say.”

Take a closer look, Jenkins is saying, and you’ll learn. Listeners will notice immediately how the story of Adam and Eve casts the lyrical content in the shadow of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. At the same time, Jenkins raps about those other “trees” we hear about so often in hip-hop. But he avoids the rote comparison between, on one hand, Eden’s forbidden fruit and on the other, the intense self-awareness of marijuana.

“I don’t think after the first listen to Trees & Truths that you’ll be able to know exactly who I am. But I do believe you’ll want to listen again, and as you do, you start to learn and hear what I’m trying to say.”

No, it turns out to be more nuanced than that: somewhere in the midst of all these trees is the idea of truth—truth about oneself, truth about the world, truth about what good and evil actually mean.

That last one in particular is a prickly matter: Adam and Eve would’ve been just fine had they remained in ignorance, but once you’re aware of the difference, don’t you now have a responsibility to act?

We’re heading into dangerously deep waters now. (Is it a coincidence that Jenkins’ next project is titled The Waters?). And if you think you can find anything else on DatPiff that’s brave enough to tackle these timeless questions, good luck.

Back at Township, as Jenkins takes the stage, I suspect he’s right to be optimistic about Chicago these days. There’s a palpable sense in the audience that this is an artist not to be ignored. My suspicion is confirmed when the crowd joins in, rapping along without missing a bar. Mick Jenkins is on to something. -119

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