In his industrious resolve to deliver Houston hip-hop to the widest possible market in the mid-2000s, rapper Mike Jones assumed the role of carnival barker. The carnival, though, was Mike Jones himself. He yapped his name on every track he could, usually prefaced by a “Who?”, and doled out T-shirts emblazoned with his cell phone number (281-330-8004, sadly a dead end now). He named his debut album Who Is Mike Jones? and shouted out its title on the mega-premiere single, “Still Tippin’,” that preceded the album by a full five months. By April 19, 2005 — a decade ago this Sunday — the relentless self-marketing had clearly worked: Who Is Mike Jones? sold 180,000 units in its first week, and by June, it had gone platinum.
But 10 years later, the question has changed. On “Back Then,” Jones summed himself up in an infectious, two-bar elevator pitch meant for mass consumption: “Back then, hoes didn’t want me / Now I’m hot, hoes all on me.” We got it; we know who Mike Jones was. We just have no idea what the hell happened to him. He’s only thought of, if at all, in the past tense — a brief fluke, a good-for-a-while gimmick, a one-off novelty that lit up the pop charts for a period (remember “Badd” with the Ying Yang Twins and the juggernaut T-Pain collab “I’m N Luv (Wit A Stripper)”?). For a sizable listenership, that’s where the story ended. And that’s why in 2015, the important question has become not who, but where is Mike Jones, really?
On April 4, Jones’ Instagram account (@wheres_mikejones, naturally) teased a new mixtape in the works called Money Train Reloaded, apparently due out at the end of May. It’ll be his second release in five months, after the languid Money Train popped up just after New Year’s. Yes, there have been 58 minutes’ worth of new Mike Jones music available since January — did you notice? And did you listen back in 2011 when he dropped a new single called “Leanin On Dat Butter,” which, as of this writing, only boasts a paltry 316,000 YouTube views on its “official” leak video? (By comparison, an unofficial upload of “Still Tippin'” has racked up 3 million.) Or maybe you caught Mike Jones plugging Columbus, GA attorney Mark Jones in an odd commercial that aired during Super Bowl XLIX in February. This breadcrumb trail logically leads to a long-promised third album called, of course, Where Is Mike Jones?, which the rapper has referenced in interviews since early last year. Just as he intended, Jones’ incessant buzz-spinning continues to define his legacy.
Of course, hip-hop today is not the same scene it was a decade ago, and in a post-Soulja Boy world, ceaseless self-promotion means nothing if you don’t have the mic prowess to match. As much as he pumped the concept of himself, Mike Jones could never stand up alongside former Swishahouse labelmates Slim Thug and Paul Wall when it came to crafting compelling raps. Case in point: the aforementioned sludgy Southern masterpiece “Still Tippin’,” which helped rocket the careers of all three talents. It’s billed as a Mike Jones song, but Slim provides the hook and a laidback but decimating intro verse, while Wall plays us out with his grillz-sparkling shit talk. Jones’ verse, by comparison, amounts to a verbal business card: name, album info, etc. Still, the repetition worked, and the Mike Jones marketing ploy kicked into gear, for a little while, anyway.
Jones’ corner-to-club charm transformed him into a pop fixture, but by 2007, his long-espoused follow-up, The American Dream, ended up an EP, not an album, and largely a retread of the tunes that people had come to expect — “Still Tippin'” and “Back Then” included, both of which had been bled dry by then. Two years later, Jones finally delivered a proper sophomore effort titled The Voice, but despite a buzzy start (the album debuted at 12 on the Billboard Hot 100), and appearances from T-Pain, Twista, and Lil Wayne, the audience at large simply wasn’t as curious anymore. We all knew who Mike Jones was, but what could he deliver us in 2009 that we didn’t already have? He receded gradually into the recesses of pop culture memory, like a local used car salesman or hometown DUI attorney, where he haunts today — save for the occasional, unexpectedly impressive Mac Miller mixtape cameo.
The general evaporation of Mike Jones very likely has deeper causes, too. In 2008, he and T-Pain tried to beat back a nasty lawsuit brought on by producers who claimed the melody of “I’m N Luv (Wit A Stripper)” as their own. The suit wasn’t settled until 2011. And as his semi-public beef with one-time compadre Paul Wall thickened up in 2010, Jones retreated to the background, at least compared to his grand public arrival five years prior. Jones shrank back into himself, too, shedding 100 pounds in the process and emerging a trimmer, scrappier rapper than even the showman from the Who Is Mike Jones? days.
Ultimately, a pair of new Mike Jones releases in 2015 doesn’t signify a comeback. Would a proper rollout of Where Is Mike Jones? — or something inventive, like a well-timed surprise release around the anniversary of his debut, perhaps — do the trick? It’s not impossible; Jones told XXL in 2014 that the album was close to finished: “Where Is Mike Jones? is already kind of complete. I gotta let y’all know where I been. I gotta let y’all know what I can do and what I been doing. It’s just stuff people got to know.” Real talk — we do need to know. We need to know how a once-ubiquitous name can become a “remember when?,” then hope to spring back into serious discussion.
In that same interview, Jones mentioned being proud of the mark he left on hip-hop back in ’05: “I [was] putting out my insecurity and how people didn’t want to fuck with me, now they all on me. How often do you see people come out and give the real about them, even if it’s in a bad way, and turn it positive?” Mike Jones circa 2005 championed flipping inner insecurities into points of pride, yet Mike Jones circa 2015 hasn’t quite settled on a stump speech. Money Train’s opener, “3 Grams,” talks about weed and money in an awfully familiar way, but hey, that’s just a preview, right? Where Is Mike Jones?, the re-emergence of Houston’s canniest entrepreneur, could be his next definitive statement — as soon as he figures out what that statement is.