Mick Jenkins, 23, used his 2014 track "11" to speak to the death of Eric Garner. Credit: Ryan Lowry

On December 3, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. It had hardly been a week since a grand jury in Missouri did the same for Darren Wilson, who’d killed Michael Brown. Garner’s cry for help while trapped by Pantaleo’s illegal chokehold—”I can’t breathe”—became a cry of protest all over the country, and few used it as effectively as Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins.

Released on December 28, Jenkins’s haunting single “11” would sound dystopian if it were fiction. The south-side MC decries the way corporations and celebrities (“From ComEd to Converse to Kanye to Complex”) profit from black youth culture while the communities that create it are forced to do without almost everything (“Potholes fill faster than our needs”). Partway through the track Jenkins climbs from his usual self-­possessed baritone into a half scream burning with anger and disillusionment. “And everybody wanna be a nigga,” he sing-speaks in the bridge, “But don’t nobody wanna be a nigga.” As the song ends, he repeats “I can’t breathe” 11 times—the same number of times Garner did as he died.

When “11” came out, Jenkins had already been rapping about racism, classism, and hip-hop politics for years. His breakthrough mixtape, The Water[s], which came out in August, addresses those issues on almost every one of its 15 soul-steeped tracks. It uses water as a metaphor for knowledge, and his ambitious, sure-footed rhymes confront the cycle of poverty and violence that he sees trapping his south-side community.

“As much as people like to [say] that having purpose or a message in your music is lame and people don’t care, they actually do,” says Andrew Barber, founder of Chicago-based hip-hop site Fake Shore Drive. “People care, but it has to be good. I think that’s what Mick did. He didn’t compromise himself. He’s always done him—he’s done what he wanted to do.”

Jenkins wrote and recorded “11” after a 36-show run on the fifth annual Smoker’s Club Tour, traveling with Taylor Gang rapper Berner, Cypress Hill’s B-Real, and the duo of Method Man and Redman. Smoker’s Club cofounder Jonny Shipes, who also runs management company and label Cinematic Music Group, has been working with Jenkins since last winter; the Cinematic roster also includes hit makers Big K.R.I.T. and Joey Badass. For those shows, he performed lots of material from The Water[s], and the gnawing, minimalist “11” picks up where that mixtape left off. Its outrage, frustration, and despair convey the weight of the burden Jenkins feels himself carrying—and share some of it with his audience.

By the time “11” came out, though, Jenkins was ready to shift gears for his next release. “I have to live with this shit and listen to it,” he says. “I listen to my music more than anybody else—I play my songs back all the time. Playing back ’11’ and really evaluating it, it was just like, ‘I’m not about to do this 12 more times.’ I couldn’t keep writing about shit like that. It takes a toll.”

Jenkins’s new ten-track EP, Wave[s], is due to drop any day now, and it’s much lighter material. “It’s bouncy,” he says. “Very singable choruses—it’s more fun.” He compares it to “Comfortable,” a breezy Noname Gypsy collaboration on The Water[s] with birdsong wafting in and out of it. “I wanted to take a break,” he says. “The EP was kind of like a break—a time to recoup.”

Jenkins tries out some new moves.
Jenkins tries out some new moves.Credit: Ryan Lowry

Jenkins, 23, grew up a Seventh-day Adventist in Huntsville, Alabama. His mother moved him and his younger sister to the south side of Chicago when he was ten, after she was diagnosed with lupus; Jenkins’s parents had split, and his mother’s family in Chicago could provide her with the help she needed. “We came on a Greyhound, and I remember looking up at the buildings kind of in awe,” Jenkins says.

“Coming to an all-black neighborhood and going to an all-black school—that was different, and I was different. And it was pointed out,” he says. “I got used to it—jokes stopped. You just assimilate.”

At his mother’s encouragement, Jenkins began exploring the city on his own in his early teens. He credits this time wandering through neighborhoods beyond his block with helping him develop the broad perspective and observational acumen in his lyrics. For the most part he kept his nose clean, but at 16 he ran afoul of his mother’s rules. “I got in trouble one time,” he says. “I came home at two in the morning. But, you know, I was figuring it out.”

Jenkins got some flak at Hirsch Metropolitan High School for the way he talked and dressed—at least until he hit a growth spurt that took him to six foot five. “I think I was the first person in my group of friends and the people I hung out with to don some skinny jeans,” he says. “People were looking at me crazy for that shit. I was always doing something different, putting my collar up on my Polo or rolling my pants up. I was trying to be distinctive from everybody else, always, in what I wore, on purpose. Today I get dressed and I’m like, ‘I am different,’ but back then I was trying to be different.”

Jenkins got hooked on poetry in late 2007, during his junior year, through a school drama group called Controversy. “My leader wished we had a poem that could accompany a skit, and I was like, ‘I could do that,'” he says. A week later Jenkins brought in a poem, “The Great Controversy,” and the group began performing it in churches and public spaces. “That was it—that was the bug,” he says. “I looked up poetry jams and started going to open mikes in the city.”

At first Jenkins tried to find a way into the 21-and-up open mikes at the Green Mill, the Mercury Cafe, and Jokes and Notes. “I was going religiously, because I couldn’t get in,” he says. “I would just go all the time, so they could see my face. I got into Jokes and Notes twice, but I went, like, ten times. I would always go just so I could be a part of it.”

Jenkins decided to look for ways to perform without pretending to be older than he was. His senior year he found the community of writers and performers at local nonprofit Young Chicago Authors. YCA artistic director director Kevin Coval remembers first seeing Jenkins at the organization’s Tuesday open-mike series, WordPlay. “He was stoic and a really good writer, so I was struck by him,” Koval says. “I feel like at the time him and Saba and Noname [Gypsy] were all hanging out in that space—they would come on Tuesdays, participate in the workshop, and build a collective fan base. They met in this space and are now helping, along with others, transform the landscape.”

In fall 2009 Jenkins packed his bags for Huntsville to attend Oakwood University, a small private school affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church—because his father worked at the school, he got discounted tuition. In his sophomore year at Oakwood, he took his first steps toward becoming an MC, entering a rap competition where the prize was a pair of Beats by Dre headphones. “That was when they first came out, and I had never even thought about a $200 pair of headphones before,” he says. He didn’t win, but he found a new passion. “Same as poetry, it just kind of spiraled out of control into what it is today.”

Within the next two years Jenkins recorded and released a flurry of mixtapes. “I dropped five in college,” he says. “I was getting 200 downloads and being excited. I was so far removed from how to correctly do this shit. I don’t even count those much anymore. I don’t think the rest of the world counts them—I took three of them off of the Internet, ’cause I don’t want people to find that shit.” One of those five mixtapes, 2012’s The Pursuit of Happy­Ness: The Story of MickalasCage, is still available on Bandcamp; Jenkins’s verbal skills are already evident, but his imagination and ferocity had yet to bloom.

Jenkins dropped out of Oakwood before HappyNess came out—his dad had lost his job at the university, which put tuition out of reach. “I was down there for a year not doing shit, living off of my girlfriend, not working,” he says. “I just took a look at myself and evaluated myself and was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?'”

When Jenkins moved back to Chicago in late 2012, he had to step up his game—several of his contemporaries in the city’s hip-hop community, notably Kembe X, Alex Wiley, and Chance the Rapper, were already building their audiences. “They all had a little buzz—Chance had the most,” Jenkins says. “I was looking at The Pursuit of HappyNess like, ‘This isn’t good enough.'” In January he outdid himself with the track “Negro League,” which he accompanied with a video the following month. “Swear to God that I’ll never lose my soul for no Benz,” he raps. “Negro please, we gon’ play this negro league till we bleed / Till the fleas eat my mothafuckin’ knees / I’ll be running with my dogs.”

“That was when I was first like, ‘OK, I’m in, I can rap at this level,'” Jenkins says. “I just continued to get better.”

Jenkins landed an internship at a West Loop marketing firm, which soon turned into a full-time copywriter gig. He spent his days at the office and his evenings in the studio with production collective OnGaud. “It became way too much with the music and work,” he says. “I was at a point where I felt like I had to choose, and then I got arrested.” While visiting Alabama in March 2013, Jenkins was taken into custody by the police for possession of marijuana.

Rather than spend money that he and his family didn’t have trying to fight the charge (a third-degree misdemeanor), Jenkins chose to simply get the ordeal over with by staying in jail for a month. While serving his time, he lost his job and missed some musical opportunities. “I was supposed to be on Acid Rap, but I was in jail,” he says. “I was super salty about that.” When he got out, Jenkins attacked his hip-hop career with new resolve. In April 2013 he dropped what he now refers to as his debut mixtape, Trees & Truths, a brainy precursor to the gargantuan The Water[s].

Jenkins worked on The Water[s] for nearly a year—he got started in August 2013. In December of that year he released a video for “Martyrs,” the first advance track from the mixtape. It’s an obvious single, with a sample of “Strange Fruit” and lyrics that explore the slippery slope between glamorizing violence in rap songs and contributing to real-world brutality: “All the little niggas got guns now / And they carry them to the fucking beat.” The video mimics the stripped-down house-party scenes from Chief Keef‘s “I Don’t Like” clip, except that Jenkins is wearing a noose hanging loosely around his neck. “‘Martyrs’ was the first video to break through,” says Barber. “That was the first time the general public saw him.”

YouTube video

One of the people who saw the “Martyrs” video was Cinematic president Jonny Shipes. He caught a snippet of it a couple months after it came out, when he was about to fly to Atlanta to take care of some business with Big K.R.I.T. and his manager, Steve-O. “I landed in Atlanta that night and I’m sitting with Steve-O before we go to meet K.R.I.T., and he’s playing the same video,” Shipes says. “I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’ So I look at it again and it’s just amazing music.” Shipes was hooked. “I just saw him and was like, ‘Yo, this kid is fucking awesome. I want to work with him,'” he says.

“All the courtships started when the ‘Martyrs’ video released last year, and Jonny was the only one who came with a different approach,” Jenkins says. “Tons of labels, rappers, and producers were coming at me, and Jonny offered to work with me for free. I saw what that was about, and he was working with me for free for about five months. It just made sense.”

The deal worked for Shipes too. “I’d rather spend my time developing an act for three years that’s going to be around for the next 15 or 20 years or however long they choose to do music than just some shit that’s a fly-by-night radio song,” he says. “He just had all of the intangibles that I look for. The music was amazing, and his total vibe and attitude. Even his dress code—that shit is next level, like how he puts stuff together and how creative he is.”

Jenkins announced his signing with Cinematic in July, several months after he started working with the company. At that point he was in full grind mode promoting The Water[s]. Some of the tracks he dropped to promote the mixtape don’t even appear on it, though, including the June premiere “Treat Me (Caucasian),” a collaboration with burgeoning young hip-hop outfit Hurt Everybody (and one of my favorite songs from last year). Jenkins’s fiery performance indicts the everyday racism that cost Trayvon Martin his life: “All in your hood with my hoodie on, Skittles and tea / I’m like 14, treat me Caucasian.” The video, released a few months later, ends with Jenkins, Hurt Everybody, and a group of fans raising their hands to the sky—an homage to the “Hands up, don’t shoot” gesture that spread among protesters after Michael Brown’s death.

Barber compares Jenkins’s work to the hip-hop released in the wake of the LA riots in 1992. “They were speaking about social injustice and the racial issues of America, and all the things that were messed up that were happening to African-­Americans—there was great music that came out of that,” he says. “Now with all the racial and social injustices that are happening in the United States, I think it’s that time again. You’re gonna see people coming up and having these messages and saying ‘Screw the system, this is wrong and we’re gonna speak up on this.’ That’s why Kendrick [Lamar] is popular, and I think that’s why Mick is popular. Because he’s there speaking to it. He’s speaking to a generation of people, and people that agree with him. His timing is definitely perfect.”

The rap Internet has lavished praise on The Water[s], and it’s been downloaded more than 194,000 times—75,000 times from mixtape platform DatPiff alone. Part of its success can be attributed to the acumen of Cinematic Music Group, which has been on a hot streak. Since The Water[s] dropped, the label has put out Big K.R.I.T.’s Cadillactica (a corelease with Def Jam, it debuted at number five on the Billboard 200 in November) and Joey Badass’s debut album, B4.DA.$$ (which duplicated that chart feat). Jenkins performed with Joey Badass at the Smoker’s Club SXSW party last month, which also featured New York heavyweights the Diplomats.

Jenkins intends to make the most of his shot at success. He’s saying yes to every opportunity—shows, interviews, guest verses—to help ensure he’ll have a career full of them. And when Lollapalooza announced its lineup last week, he turned up booked in a decent slot on Saturday afternoon. “Chance can exercise more freedom than I can, because he’s in more of a position of power—I am not,” he says. “I need the opportunities that are gonna come my way. Once I’m at the position to say ‘no’ and take breaks at my leisure, then I will. Right now, I’m still very much in the grind.”

As a sign of his seriousness, Jenkins has decided not to give away his forthcoming EP—a gutsy move, considering that the big mixtape sites host lots of free downloads from major-­label players way bigger than he is. “I put a lot of hard work, energy, and money into this music, and I should give it away for free because fans want it for free?” he says. “That’s not good enough for me. I’ll never release free music again.”

If Andrew Barber is right about Jenkins, the MC’s timing is perfect. “He’s going to be the next guy out of here—there are a lot of people in line, but he’s right at the front,” Barber says. “The first time I met him in person, that’s the vibe I got—this dude is going to make it, because he has that look and that drive.”  v