Rap is a personal thing, and those of us who listen to the stuff all have our own particular sets of likes and dislikes. They vary from one listener to the next, and there’s no such thing as a right way to listen to the music, even if, as we’re listening, it sometimes seems like the things we don’t like are obviously shit. With that in mind, here are a few of my rap pet peeves: Poetry-slam symbolism. Rigid and upright syllable-cramming. Soft drum sounds. Wobbly Fender Rhodes. Throwaway lines that make fun of rappers who the rapper perceives to be dumb, especially sour-grapes lines about more-famous rappers. Vague, amorphous lyrics about how messed up the world is. That’s the shit I don’t like. I mention all these things because The Water[s], the second mixtape from the young Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins, is guilty of every last one of them. The Water[s] is total honor-student rap, rap that seems to emanate from the head as much as the heart, rap that seems aimed directly at the sort of rap fans who regard Chief Keef as a horseman of the apocalypse. I resisted it, hard. But it’s good. It’s really good.
The Water[s] does so many things that bother me. There’s the idiosyncratic punctuation in the tape’s title. There’s the part on “Jazz” where Jenkins rattles off the names of jazz greats, like he’ll get a gold star for it. There’s the snarly line about Riff Raff — “I couldn’t afford to get my girl into this open-mic concert that I perform for / Somewhere in the world, there’s a Riff Raff concert that people gon’ swarm for” — that makes me want to write an impassioned defense of Riff Raff even though I didn’t really like Riff Raff’s album. There’s the inclusion of East Coast boom-bap conservatives like Statik Selektah, who produces one track, and Joey Bada$$, who shows up on another. There’s the part where Jenkins complains that girls give it up too easily. There’s the part where Jenkins rhymes “Jiminy Cricket” with “Lemony Snicket.” There’s the spoken-word interlude about how the tape is named after water because water is the substance that gives life, or whatever. There’s the way the production flutters and wobbles and never bothers to blast bass through your skull. These were major stumbling blocks for me. Maybe they won’t be stumbling blocks for you. But despite all these things — or maybe in part because of these things — The Water[s] emerges as an absolutely successful rap full-length, one that succeeds at everything it sets out to do. So even if you don’t like honor-student rap, you will have to concede that Jenkins is really good at honor-student rap. And if you do like honor-student rap, the tape is an instant classic.
It’s tempting to compare Jenkins to Chance The Rapper, a fellow Chicagoan who’s collaborated with Jenkins in the past. And Chance does share a few things with Jenkins, like his jazzbo production tastes and his gently stoned the-world-is-a-crazy-place point of view. They both like to sing, too. But Chance has that anarchic squawk of a voice, whereas Jenkins is an old-school formalist with a deep monotone of a voice and a gift for locked-in boom-bap cadences. A better point of comparison might be Kendrick Lamar, a clear influence, perhaps even on Jenkins’ decision to release music under his government name. Kendrick producer THC supplies one beat to The Water[s], and Jenkins has a similar sense of vision and an ability to evoke the lost-kid uncertainties of his younger days while packing in tons of internal-rhyme wordplay: “We was thrown off, it was New Years Eve / I still remember when my baby lungs blew them trees / I still felt like a saint when I drew that breeze / On no corners was I hanging, never banging, but I knew them Gs.” It’s also worth noting that Jenkins is a native of Huntsville, Alabama who moved to Chicago as a kid and who returned to his old hometown for a little bit of college; it’s where he took up rapping. Huntsville is an underground-rap hotbed The Water[s] has some of the earnest, workaday do-it-yourself basement-psychedelia sensibility of Hunstville guys like G-Side.
Still the best point of comparison for Jenkins is probably also his greatest influence: The young Common Sense, who came out of Chicago in a similarly turbulent period with a similarly verbose, idealistic persona and a similarly fully-formed musical aesthetic. Like Common, Jenkins sounds in love with the idea of spending an afternoon in a coffee shop getting to know a girl, and like Common, Jenkins still sounds like he’ll slap you in the mouth if you start to piss him off. There are things that Common always did that bothered the shit out of me, too: The over-reliance on goofy extended metaphors, the way his voice goes up at the end of a line. But with his second album, Common made Resurrection, a dense and thoughtful and beautifully produced exploration of the world and Common’s place in it. Resurrection holds up as an absolute unimpeachable classic now. The Water[s] is Jenkins’ second mixtape, and it’s a dense and thoughtful and beautifully produced exploration of the world and Jenkins’ place in it. I’ll have to spend more time with it before I’m ready to declare it anything like a classic. But despite all my little hang-ups with it, it’s a sweeping, powerful piece of work. And if Jenkins is playing the fourth lead in a romantic comedy a decade from now, The Water[s] is going to be a huge part of the reason why.
Download The Water[s] at DatPiff.