Cover Image for Lyrical Miracle: Mick Jenkins Hits the Eject Button

Lyrical Miracle: Mick Jenkins Hits the Eject Button

Words by Alex Siber
Published on 

Thank god for the waters, waters; god stop the waters’ rise

Validation gnaws on art’s achilles with sawed teeth. As does earnest belief in another’s promise.

Phase one starts young: hushed cafeteria beats, clowned rap dreams, silent talent show audiences, hallway side-eyes, failed serenades, guardians with diploma frames reserved for their child’s faraway doctorate. Those brave, insulated, misled, desperate, or unbothered enough to push through their social circles get to face off with stream-count crickets. Feigned label interest, even. A million almosts.

As life ticks, bills knock, and “related artists” outpace us, yearning for gold stars (or advance checks) can start to creep. Public displays of creation further expose tendons to the wind. It doesn’t matter whether you’re sweating through your first basement gig or you’re a superstar, responding to everyday haters who get under your skin. Art is raw to the touch. 10,000 hearts wince with each dump them meme about DJ boyfriends and whispersinging girlfriends. Is music magic or make believe?

This hyper-subjective craft we all adore — both supported and exploited by an insecure, soft-skills industry — invents benchmarks to prove itself a worthy and valuable pursuit. Music tries to mirror the language and credentials of other business sectors to feel legitimated by the social economics of our time. In the gray, danger blooms. Art’s scattershot lottery makes saviors out of sirens with a bag, an audience, an affiliation. Anything to duck the loser allegations. Whatever it takes to avoid elders shaking their heads at your choices. Pay off that groceries-and-rent credit debt by any means. Such forces have colluded against artistry (and humanity!) for generations; Mick Jenkins just knows that firepower’s been pack-a-punched. It’s a different comeup.

“Way back when, here’s what I thought to myself: ‘I have to get better,’” Jenkins tells Liner Notes. “I looked at the way this music shit worked, and my takeaway was, ‘I’m not good enough yet.’ That’s not what a lot of kids look at now, and I’m not blaming them. Nothing about right now tells you that you need to get better. It’s telling you that you can do damn near anything as long as it goes viral. How does that not affect your perspective?”

Today’s reward systems accelerate compromise. A cost-of-living crisis, hollowed cities, platform incentives, illusions of calm that don’t last long. Hatebait gets paid, foresight ignored. The rank-and-file look at wealth banditry and attempt to replicate their schemes amongst themselves. Ancient power imbalances, now at scale. Venerated, resisted, repeated, everywhere.

Trees & Truth, Jenkins’ prophetic mixtape, hit DatPiff on April 15, 2013. 15 days later, Acid Rap by Chance The Rapper touched down. Their SAVEMONEY crew co-captain Vic Mensa released his endearing INNANETAPE single “Orange Soda” that same month. “Dis Ain’t What You Want” by Lil Durk came in May. Alex Wiley dropped his Club Wiley tape in June. Chief Keef’s six-month-old “Love Sosa” had become lexicon. Within a year, head-turning music from Saba (“401k,” ComfortZone), Eryn Allen Kane (“Hollow”), and dozens of others confirmed a Chicago renaissance in SoundCloud’s twilight, carried forth by genre titans like Noname. TikTok didn’t exist. Royalty splits weren’t automated. FADER covers moved the needle. Spotify was clawing its way toward household name recognition. Debates about human curation versus algorithmic recommendation were about to kick into high gear. Instagram hadn’t yet dominated the internet. Every era is a mixed bag of hilariously good and destructively bad. All that changes is the ratio, sources, mechanics, and funding.

The ‘blog era,’ I should mention, was extremely imperfect. Ad-dependent media led to miserable editorial UX experiences. If you could read in the early 2010s, you’ll remember cringe lists and corrosive story concepts. Fans derided the Music Media Industrial Complex for, among other things, ruining lyricism, orchestrating Bobby Shmurda’s popularity, functioning as undercover PR for Kanye West, watering “industry plants,” neglecting women with glee, overlooking high-profile abuses, taking risks at insular cocaine fests but rarely in coverage of newer artists, etc. (I was a 19-year-old intern at what was arguably the most prominent pop culture mag when I was instructed to write a story on rappers who missed their child support payments.)

Nonetheless, the fact that it’s largely remembered as a Goldilocks Zone attests to its benefits, and more niche, well-meaning sites forged alliances through blog rolls. (This practice continues via No Bells, marg.mp3, Radio Alhara, and other contributors to the unofficial music discovery brigade, though not without its sponsored content compromises. People gotta eat.) Jenkins and his peers made use of accessible writing programs like the YCA, open mics, coordinated collabs, and a collective spirit, which extended to other creative minds around them. Impassioned writers amplified their endeavors.

“It wasn't nothing but journalists,” Jenkins says. “And it's crazy because yall n****s had to get it in your own right. Motherfuckers wasn't hiring. Motherfuckers wasn't putting us in VIBE or XXL. So n****s started making their own shit. You got regional blogs everywhere. You got Fake Shore Drive, [the late] Combat Jack in New York. these blogs are regionally feeding you n****s you never knew about! Then some of the bigger blogs, the Okayplayers, would source from them and give you a wrap-up of what’s going on. 2DopeBoyz would give you the source! Motherfuckers would pull up on me when I was doing 250-person shows — n****s from Okayplayer, sweating. [Laughs]”

As online chatter helped tune national rap attention to the South Side and surrounding areas, more music companies considered investing in neighborhood talent. Around this time, Mick Jenkins sidestepped nonspecific, noncommittal interest from Pusha T and Timbaland to sign with the formerly independent NYC-based label Cinematic Music Group. Over eight years, Jenkins and Cinematic released six albums together: The Water[s], Wave[s], The Healing Component, Pieces of a Man, The Circus, and Elephant in the Room. During this stretch, the revered artist and lyricist entered the underground pantheon. Behind the scenes, he was hellbent on exiting his contract, holding back his best efforts.

“There’s a combination of two things: my ignorance, and straight up lying,” Jenkins says. “Before the deal, I was making music off the pennies I had. I didn’t have any conceptual understanding that it could take $100,000 to make an album. I just made two albums and I’ve never touched $10,000 at any one time. So when I get $60,000 for an album, I don’t know shit, I think that’s great. Is that their fault? No, it’s my ignorance. But then there’s things I was told or promised on a handshake. You’re looking a man in his face and they say, 'If this happens, we’ll do that. If that happens, we’ll do this.' Or, 'If you ever need help with something, just come to me.' Then you watch a n***a laugh when you come back. They make you feel crazy for trusting something they said to your face.“

The music industry is rare in its blatant defense of asymmetrical information. A common refrain goes something like this: “The artist entered an agreement; it’s their responsibility to know what they’ve agreed to.” If food producers mislabel product ingredients, car manufacturers attempt to bury evidence of faulty breaks, banks offer predatory loans, or dishonest sports doctors share flawed medical recommendations to their players, we don’t approve of their actions. Call it the abuse of perceived expertise. Negligence grows up to become deception, and deceivers learn to adapt. Snakes shed skin. Jenkins’ story is, in some ways, a best case scenario for the early 2010s. He kept 50% of his recordings. His label had no 360 stake in his touring revenue. Yet he still experienced recurring betrayals of good faith.

“A friend of mine was saying to me, ‘You should know better, you’ve heard the stories,’“ Jenkins remembers. “But there’s only so much that research can tell you about how to move in a space full of people that want to take things from you. You could enter that room the most researched n***a in the world. What happens when the n****s know how to respond to your research? Your point of view?”

Wars have come and gone since Lupe Fiasco’s publicized battle with Atlantic Records. Jay Z issued a warning (and a plea) 22 years ago about industry vultures that had to be taken over. 10 years before that, Tribe shared their immortal “industry rule #4080.” History’s been rhyming for awhile now. We have more stories, stats, and education, but the cracks remain massive, and new ones have widened. Now’s as good a time as ever to continue working toward something better.

On an early career standout, “Martyrs,” Jenkins satirizes his peers over a Nina Simone sample, but not without chewing up and spitting out the systems directing misguided desire. It’s a menacing record. A demanding record. His words land like cannons through gritted teeth. It’s also an elegant flaunting of grim comedy, daring us to laugh along to the swing of the gallows. He updates this concept on The Patience, his first release free from Cinematic, and a triumphant reclamation of self-control. Jenkins and I spoke at length about his path to the present and his prowess as a writer. We dove into basketball analogies, Smino’s greatness, why fans misunderstand what a hit is, different forms of lyricism, A&Rs, and lots more. Keep scrolling for the full conversation, keep pushing forward, and stay safe out there. Thank you for reading.

Important questions come first: How does it feel to be the unofficial spokesperson of water for a generation of music listeners?

I know quite a few different people were using water for different reasons — ILoveMakonnen, at that time. There’s something tangible I did with water, conceptually, but I’m not the first. My fans know it, but it’d need to be a wider known thing for me to take that responsibility [Laughs]. If I’m at my own show, I can claim that all day, but outside the show? [Laughs] Nobody would know what we’re talking about. If they give me credit for anything, it’s inspiring a group of kids in Chicago to drink more water.

Poland Springs owes you a check.

It’s a shame we never got that rocking. But a lot of that had to do with what we had going on at the time, business-wise. Me and my manager Jon-Pierre, we locked in for life.

We’re joking about water sponsorships, but would it be fair to point to that as an example of something Cinematic should have looked after and failed to uphold?

It was their responsibility, contractually. There was a number, for brand sponsorships, that I was specifically ensured. They can’t control another company, but there was an obligation to at least work toward that outcome, and it didn’t materialize.

Bun B spoke recently about an incredible UGK story. Him and Pimp C traveled to New York for the first time to sign with Jive. Bun B stepped into the hallway after signing the paper and ran into KRS-One. Bun B was ecstatic, feeling like he finally made it, validated. When he told KRS-One that they just signed, KRS-One was like, “The ink dried already? Damn. Well, good luck to yall.” From that point onward, UGK knew they had to gain leverage and get out. How long did that take you to realize with Cinematic?

Six months. I got to see the people I was working with. When I got to know them better, I didn’t think they were good people. There’s a combination of two things: ignorance, and straightup lying. I don't think I had a terrible contract in a 360 sense. I was ignorant in not knowing I would need far more than what was provided for me. Before the deal, I was making music off the pennies I had. I didn’t have any conceptual understanding that it could take $100,000 to make an album. Or half a million. It was like, what are you talking about? I just made two albums and I’ve never touched $10,000 at any one time. So when I get $60,000 for an album, I don’t know shit, I think that’s great. Is that their fault? No, it’s my ignorance. But then there’s things I was told or promised on a handshake. You’re looking a man in his face and they say, “If this happens, we’ll do that. If that happens, we’ll do this.” Or, “if you ever need help with something, just come to me.” Then you watch a n***a laugh when you do come back. They make you feel crazy for trusting something they said to your face. That’s the game.

No sympathy, no accountability.

No nothing. But then again, why are we owed that, for real? N****s don’t give a fuck. But those six months, being close to that label, I watched them lie to other people in front of me. I heard them lie to other people on the phone while they stood next to me. Egregious lies. Unnecessary lies. I watch them duck people. Avoid people. I see all of it. I’m in their houses. I didn’t have shit. I flew to New York, and wasn’t staying in hotels, I’m staying at their cribs. I’m not even mad at that. It showed me very quickly that these people were not the people we should be in business with. And even though I was told I could do something about that situation if I didn’t like it anymore, I couldn’t. I wasn’t allowed to change things. And I didn’t owe bread to nobody, either. I recoup my albums, my tours. I sell tickets. I didn’t owe a bunch of money to keep me hostage. To me, if we’re not doing good business, let’s part ways. They’d still have their percentages. Why can’t we just wipe our hands clean? That was my ignorance.

As naive as I know it seems, I’d like to think we can hold each other to higher standards than that, as people. There’s almost always this massive power imbalance between first-time signees and the companies signing them. One party has an awareness of that gap and has the choice of alleviating it, but they often choose not to.

It really doesn’t matter how good you are, either: how much money you have, how much you studied, none of it. You simply don’t know everything. LeBron James didn’t know everything about the NBA when he came to the league. People only think about the court. There is so much else at play. Zion just showed us. Morant just showed us. PJ Washington just showed us. Music’s the same. It’s more than the music. But when you’re an artist entering the industry, what have you been focusing on? Making music! That’s what we’ve been doing for years. I wasn’t skimming contracts for years.

An industry revolving around music would ideally reward artists for devotion to their crafts, rather than punish them for that focus.

A friend of mine was saying to me, like, “You should know better, you’ve heard the stories,” etc. But there’s only so much that research can tell you about how to move in a space full of people that want to take things from you. You could enter that room the most researched n***a in the world. What happens when the n****s know how to respond to your research? Your point of view. Let’s say you build a defensive wall to anticipate that.

The person who’s talking to 10 artists a day, flying out artists and managers for in-person potential signings, they’ve probably thought about that wall you’ve built a little bit.

They know how to get around that wall. The predatory practices that have been part of hip-hop since its beginning, they’re not the exact same. They evolve. What I did know is that I should own my masters. You know what they told me?

No leverage.

They took 50 percent. Good luck trying to get the money you want, let alone 100 percent with no previous project out. This is going back to before The Water[s]. Trees & Truth wasn’t enough. My lawyer told me I had no leverage. Theirs did too. They’re right. All I have out is a mixtape doing numbers on DatPiff. The people tell you it’s a special tape. The business tells you something different. All this to say, it didn’t matter that I knew I was ‘supposed’ to own my masters. At that time, Timbaland’s calling my phone. Pusha T’s giving me an offer that’s not specific about anything they want to do. They just keep asking me for a number and saying Pusha T wants to sign me. Him and I talked art shit, rap shit, then the next day his manager and I talked business, floating these nonspecifics. “Whatever you need” isn’t helpful. What does that mean? I went to Cinematic because they weren’t having these vague conversations, which we were running into all around the industry. You just won’t know what somebody who’s been in the game for 10 years knows. You could have a doctorate in something, but you won’t know anything until you’re in the field. Now I can listen to somebody talk about the music industry and know if I want to continue that conversation in 30 seconds. Capitalism at its worst. [Laughs]

The reason people want to sign you in the first place, or the reason you have the audience they want, is because you focused on the music. Were you and your manager Jon learning through this turbulence at the same time, or had Jon been through it before? I think this was before he had started working with Noname…

It was the first rodeo for us both. We was homies in school. He left and went back to Canada our freshman year, but we stayed connected. This n***a came down to Alabama, where we were in school. We went to Atlanta for the weekend. He was like, “I’ve been hearing the shit you’ve been doing, bro. It’s next level. I’m trying to fuck with you.” I was like, “Bet, what you want to do?” He was like, “Well, I got you a show this weekend.” [Laughs] So we went and smashed that shit. After that, I was like, “Why don’t you be my manager?” He’s like, What? I’m like, “You set all of this up in Atlanta, and I didn’t say a word to you about it beforehand. You did this.” Shortly after that, this n***a quit his job, took out like six bands, and then we went to New York and knocked on doors. We were in New York off Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn for six months. We met a lot of people, every one of them staying with six, seven motherfuckers. A lot of art, parties, mixing. We went up there with another guy who ditched us because he didn’t believe in it. He was the content creator. He had the cameras. He took all of that with him. To this day, I hope that n***a is salty as fuck. [Laughs]

You have to wonder if someone without financial backing could even recover from that now — losing nearly half a year of visualized progress, the way that matters more than the music to so many people. Back then, this must have been barely a year after Instagram launched, if that.

We had nothing to show for it. That’s what it felt like at the time, outside looking in. No business shit went well in New York. We were out of bread. But we knew that we met people who would help us later. I remember the day Jon left his job. He was at a call center for Aldo. It was like 20 homies in there. They tried to clown Jon when he quit, like, “Good luck with your fucking rap project.” [Laughs] So, fast forward to us failing in New York. I look at Jon before I go back to Chicago, before he goes back to Montreal. I’m like, all sullen, “I’ll work on getting you this bread back bro.” Jon looks at me and he says, “I’m already plotting on what we doing next.” I never questioned that n***a again.

It’s remarkable this one experience in New York gave you direct exposure to completely opposite ends of the loyalty spectrum. The videographer you were with never even left you the files? No hard drive dump? Nothing?

Even in the years following, he never sent that shit.

Setbacks really come out of nowhere, from anyone. You can’t predict your videographer jumping ship like that, and you can’t predict how well the boardroom faces are predicting you, either. How quickly they can adjust.

Moves and countermoves. Say you’re an amazing shooter but you don’t got no handles, so you start working on that. But just because you improved your handles doesn’t mean you’re about to wow the defense. There is a defense. They know what to do with that crossover you just learned, bro. That behind-the-back move? They know what to do with that, brother.

The Boston Celtics fan in me has to think about Jaylen Brown’s left dribble, or lack thereof. [Laughs]

Exactly! And Brown’s amazing! But when teams get to the playoffs, they’re all sending Brown to his left.

And if he improves his left, that doesn’t magically solve all his problems. The defense has seen someone with a halfway decent left before.

It’s the same idea in the boardroom. There’s theory to it. When an artist speaks a certain way, they can respond a certain way, and it’ll let the room know that you just said “fuck you,” but you didn’t actually say “fuck you.” [Laughs] There’s a way to command and move through those spaces. Even if you do know how you’re supposed to be, you probably won’t do that convincingly. It’s like Simba trying to roar at the damn hyenas. You got the right idea! But we don’t believe you! So we’ll press you harder. You speak up for yourself, somebody doesn’t believe you, so they press you harder.

Blood in the water.

What you do when they press you like this and you block that one, but then they press you from the side? What happens when you wasn't expecting that one? Yeah, these are the tactics that people use. This is war.

Getting a taste of label flirtations during the SoundCloud era, I learned how deftly some A&Rs play the accessible friend to the artist while acting as this sort of hawk surveillance on behalf of their boss. In some cases, it’s just life. Trying to support an artist they believe in while reconciling internal politics, which are dizzying. But sometimes it really just felt two-faced.

I’ve met more than a few of those characters. I’m grateful I don’t have to be in that position, and Jon handles those people. If I was somebody’s manager, or if I was a label guy, I don’t think a ton of success would come from my work, because I don’t play those games with people. I do not operate that way. Like, “Oh, I’ve got a gripe with you, but I’m not going to let you know I have a gripe with you, because we got this thing coming up next month, and if we’re not on good terms I might not be able to use you in the way I need.” To me, since we’ve worked together, since we’ve done things for each other, I should be able to be honest with you. But I can’t be honest with you because it will affect our business.

Friends just for the sake of getting x, y, z.

I prefer if we not friends at that point. If you need an exchange, cool, let’s figure out an exchange. We could just let business be business, but a n***a has to be your friend. They need you to come out with them, eat with them, but it’s about business. I’ve got shit to do! Real friends, real family. I want to hang with my wife. [Laughs] I’ll leave the games to the A&Rs and managers. And that’s important! Because when my answer is “HELLLLL NO,” Jon comes in, all calm, like, “We’re going to pass on that.” [Laughs] Like when a company reaches out, tells us they’re big fans, then asks me for some type of music in a different universe.

Do I want to know? [Laughs]

Man. It was a Weeknd record. They played me a Weeknd record as a reference. I’m versatile, but that’s offensive. You’re telling me you’re a fan and asking for that? Stop it. This is what it’s like to network and be mix-y. You can only let people like that get close to you so many times. We’re a small team, me and Jon and Affan. We’ve tried out different people, but the core is us. Mick Jenkins Touring Incorporated. We came up with 70% of everything we’re doing. Our ideas. I write on most of the visuals. These are our ideas. I’m helping create my merch. Our ideas. I’m giving heavy photo direction to photographers. Experimental marketing? Our ideas. The label helps, but they’re not presenting us with the vision. If anything, the social media plan, Crowd Surf and RBC got that all day because I hate that shit. [Laughs]

That buffer zone managers create is miracle work.

I might want to never even hear somebody’s name ever again. And Jon’s over there, keeping the connection alive, because that same n***a I don’t want to speak with is in a position that can put other people in position. He got power. That’s not what this should be about, but what it’s about to me isn’t what this is all about to the industry.

Would you call the false friendship something you weren’t aware of while first entering the industry?

You think n****s are trying to be your friend — at least the ones who are convincing. There’s a lot of industry people where it’s like, get this lame ass motherfucker out of here. But then there’s dudes who are knowledgeable, talk a certain way, and you think you can fuck with them. At this point, calling yourself an A&R is a red flag to me in general. I don’t think it’s a real job anymore.

You’ve never met an exception?

I know they’re out there, but I haven’t. I think people who hold that title who are effective at their job are probably doing a lot more than what their title consists of. An effective A&R is out here going to different concerts, learning about artists, learning new shit, looking for new shit, showing up physically, showing love tangibly. Putting you in position. That hasn’t been my experience. The people I’ve met are asking you to do for them: prove to them, perform for them. That’s what the industry asks of artists: prove it. Rather than listening to the music and knowing this person could be something, and making it happen.

Photo courtesy of Jon-Pierre Louis
Photo courtesy of Jon-Pierre Louis

Maybe my least favorite part of an old job at a label was watching one of the top execs checking an artist’s monthly listeners — in a meeting with that artist. As they played their unreleased music. [Laughs] You can see the gears turning, calculating what the label might earn for acquiring the artist’s catalog along with any deal to release new music.

Artists have talent. A&Rs are supposed to be the ones finding and nurturing talent. You’re not doing anything when you find somebody who already has a following. It’s been discovered. You on some Columbus shit. The monetization hasn’t been pushed to its capacity yet, maybe, but you didn’t discover something. It’s different than taking pride in finding somebody with 500 followers or whatever on SoundCloud and they’re blowing your mind away. You and me took pride in that. Finding a motherfucker with 35 listens on a record and it’s amazing. Amazing.

That’s how it felt as a high schooler lost online and stumbling into Trees and Truth, into “Cross Roads.” And it’s not about some ego trip, gloating about being first. It’s about feeling like you’re hearing the future in the present, and, if you can, supporting that person. It doesn’t have to be some weird hoarding of artists. It can instead be a source for optimism. The torch, however you interpret that, is getting carried in real time, as you’re listening.

That’s discovery. The good kind. N****s will ‘find’ you then put you in their back pocket and check back in two years. That? I don’t think that’s a real job. It’s not a knock to the ones who really do it right. That’s just how few of them are straightup doing what a true A&R should do. And you know what? Being that way won’t get you to the top.

It’s disincentivized. I know firsthand several exceptions but I also know they’re pulled in 100 different directions, and it’s a miracle, just because of the limits of human time and energy, that they manage to keep their purity at all intact.

You gotta really love this shit if you do it the right way. That’s to their credit, not to even dog on them. The industry just ain’t built for people like that. They don’t give a fuck! They’re throwing artists on the big stage. Like, immediately. And they go up there and don’t know what they doing. It’s apparent. None of this is conducive to art or craft.

There’s nothing like sitting in a label meeting and watching the artist manager ask the label, “So what can we expect from you?” To which an executive dutifully replies, with full confidence: “We’re going to throw gasoline on the fire.” [Laughs]

It’s like what Wiz Khalifa said on Taylor Allderdice. They can’t make the fire. They can only intensify it, if that, and I challenge that. I saw someone naming Smino, Saba, myself, saying “They’re all amazing, but they don’t have hits.” Brother, do you know what a hit is? How many unique hits are on the top 40? You know who has unique hits? Sexyy Red. Both of them. “Skeeyee” and “Pound Town,” pussy pink, booty hole brown. It was already going stupid. It was already fire. GloRilla! The fire was started. Those are unique. Most hits are hits because they’re on the radio 50 times a day. Music that’s engineered to be just good enough.

Image via Smino's Instagram
Image via Smino's Instagram

Smino deserves whatever he wants to achieve with his music. If he wants 50 spins a day on the radio, I hope he gets it. What’s beautiful about him is he’s already set new standards. He’s already inspired countless artists, across genres. He’s been inspiring the level of fandom and support in people that lasts a lifetime since he was releasing songs as Chris Smith Jr. And he’s added to that every year, from “Ruby Red” through Luv 4 Rent.

If Smino got played 50 times a day on the radio, he’d have hits too. [Laughs] A hit’s a catchy song. You’re telling me Smino doesn’t have catchy songs?!

What’s your favorite Smino lyric?

I love how he plays with his name. “Smino Carlito.” I’ll use that melody and say “Smino whatever.” Smino this, Smino that. Someone should compile all the different twists he does with his name. [Laughs]

It’s almost like an invitation to do MadLibs with his lyrics.

That’s fire. Nah, that’s fire. There’s lyrics like that. Then there’s lyrics like Frank Ocean’s — “Did you call me from a seance? He was from my past life, hope you’re doing well, bruh.” I heard that and I said “YIKES!” Imagine someone hits you up like, “Yo, what you been on?” and you reply with that Frank lyric. “Hope you’re doing well, bruh.” That’s fucking nuts. And that’s something I’ve experienced a lot in my life. People you used to know who think they still got access to you.

I always think about the time he said “Wish we grew up on the same advice.” I wish that lyric didn’t still feel relevant all these years later. [Laughs] He spins these vignettes. He can get abstract in a way that’s different from Thug.

Frank Ocean does a really good job — no matter how metaphorical — of letting you know he felt exactly how you felt. People might do something clever, or creative, and you say, “Damn, that was really clever. That was creative.” But that’s a different thing than letting someone you’ve never met know and believe you’ve truly felt the same.

Like technicality versus magic.

We’ve all been happy, but only a few lines can make you feel, “This n***a felt the same happiness as me.” We’ve all been upset, but only a few lines make you think, "Damn, he felt the same anger I did." Frank’s done that so many times.

Doing it at your level, or his level, is so remarkable, because you’re putting yourselves in the shoes of 1000s, if not 10s of 1000s, of people, and making it feel like it’s just you and the listener. Drake comes to mind, as funny as it is citing him.

It’s valid! You cannot deny him that.

He did an MTV documentary around 2009, 2010, about the creation of Thank Me Later. I never forgot this one moment where he’s remembering what a fan said to him. They told Drake that he gave them the words to describe their experience.

And that’s when music leaves the role of soundtrack for the moment, and becomes an iteration of your own understanding of that moment. Like, “I didn’t even know how to process my own life, this thing that happened to me, until I heard that song.” Think about how many times I’ve done this for my fans, and they still get upset that my songs are too short now. How many times Frank’s done that for people, and everyone’s like, “Where the fuck are you at?” [Laughs] I’m trying to live my life so I can keep doing that magic trick. Can I have a moment? [Laughs] Rihanna has to deal with this? Let her start a family! Has she not defined enough moments for you guys?

Two decades!

You just have to reduce your expectations, as an artist. You have to just accept that this priceless thing artists do gets taken for granted.

Do you feel that entitlement is most blatant among white fans?

It’s hard to know because 70% of my shows are white. The way I feel about white people in general is going to affect my perspective about that; I probably would tolerate something from people who aren’t white because of my own experiences with white people, and I’m aware of that, so there’s a lot of factors. I have white fans who are super humble, super respectful, super cool. What I can say is I experience that from everybody. It’s a fan thing, not a white or black or any-other-color thing. I’ve toured ten-plus times all over the world and that’s what I’ve concluded. You just gotta adjust and find your peace.

You and I both started getting into music, from different angles, at the same time, and it was before TikTok, before streaming became what it did. Most of the metrics used to determine someone’s worth today didn’t exist, even though the different eras across this past decade feels tethered.

Motherfuckers were doing their job. It was the blog era. It wasn't nothing but journalists. And it's crazy because yall n****s had to get it in your own right. Motherfuckers wasn't hiring. Motherfuckers wasn't putting us in VIBE or XXL. So n****s started making their own shit. You got regional blogs everywhere. You got Fake Shore Drive, Combat Jack in New York.

Rest in peace to Combat Jack.

Rest in peace to Combat Jack. But these blogs are regionally feeding you n****s you never knew about! Then some of the bigger blogs, the Okayplayers, would source from them and give you a wrap-up of what’s going on. 2DopeBoyz would give you the source! Motherfuckers would pull up on me when I was doing 250-person shows — n****s from Okayplayer, sweating. [Laughs] That’s why we found out about so many dope artists. That’s why people reminisce about that time. It’s not because we loved hearing them n****s talk. They were bringing us what we wanted. Shit we didn’t know about. For me, because I’m from the Midwest, it was Kid Cudi and Chip Tha Ripper. Pac Div. The list is endless. I tapped into them because of blogs.

Mick Jenkins in The Fresh Heir (2013)
Mick Jenkins in The Fresh Heir (2013)

You’d have these sites popping up caring so deeply about the music getting made in their own backyards. And then, sometimes, those ‘local’ blogs would create portals for out-of-state artists to visit. You have a blog like The Fresh Heir in Boston helping put on Chance The Rapper’s first show here. That opens up, at that time, all of Chicago to a bunch of passionate kids on the east coast.

Let’s look at what happened. Where did it go? FADER, Complex, XXL after the Freshman lists blew up. For a while, we were looking to Complex. Nylon was in there. These mainstream outlets that were looking at these blogs like, “All right, we love what you’ve done, we’ll take this model and act like we’re doing what you’re doing, but we’re not.” You can see that they’re absolutely not doing that shit 10 years later.

It was short-lived.

Very short. It felt like something we’d have forever, but we didn’t. What are they pumping out now versus at that time? What are the experiences we’re having now with people at the helm of hip-hop media now versus then? What’s produced? How? Are we getting Wale’s and J Cole’s and Chance’s and Denzel Curry’s and SpaceGhostPurrp’s? Kaytranada’s coming up. Danny Brown. All these people are dope in their own right. They all have something to bring that’s not bull shit. I was fucking with Dom Kennedy! Not just Yellow Tape Dom. “25th Hour” Dom!

That’s 2008, for those at home. [Laughs]

They’re feeding me microwave shit now. I’m getting Tostitos and I was getting meals before. That’s not even a knock. That’s not an old head sentiment. Shit’s crazy.

The ‘blog era’ sort of covered two full high school cycles, the eight years between 2007 to 2015. My initiation happened during the second half of that. Within a couple years, you have the pivot-to-video craze happening in the media. SoundCloud’s tapering off, in this context, though there’s been multiple waves of incredible music on there since then. The passionate kids running some of these blogs are now college graduates and careerism takes over. Digital display ads crater. Blogs form networks, which become acquisition bait for massive conglomerates like Hearst, which bought Complex (before BuzzFeed did).

Everything got diluted or diminished. Not just the music. Writing too. Why? You don’t need quality to make a ton of money now. It’s profit. Like most changes in anything as powerful as hip-hop. Look at the NBA. It’s egregious how in bed they are with betting. Why the fuck am I looking at DraftKings when I’m watching Charles Barkley talk on TV? I’ll be on FanDuel brother! [Laughs] I bought my engagement ring off FanDuel winnings. [Laughs] But watching them break down the game and tell me who to bet on? And that’s not a scam? What the hell is happening right now? Why does Shams, the number one deliverer of NBA information, have a FanDuel deal? Why? I’m not trying to be on some whiny soap box, like, ohhh, look what they’ve done to hip-hop. They just do this to anything powerful.

There’s the relentless profit chase, then the macro context. Cost of living crises, widespread desperation. It leads to these hail mary’s, and the hideous underbellies of crypto. People do it to themselves now in music. Either out of desperation, which isn’t solely on them obviously, or out of this broken expectation that if you’re not getting labels calling after a month on TikTok, something’s wrong. There’s such a pressure-cooked expectation for rapid growth, which mirrors our economy.

The system is going to system all day, but what’s it doing to artists? You get a generation of motherfuckers whose reasons for doing this, and whose beliefs about the most effective way to do it, are robbing the integrity of what they’re trying to do.

Even labels hold a different position now for a lot of artists I talk to. The independent route was always more tenable for people coming from wealth, but now, as rents rise everywhere and affordable gathering grounds diminish, a label advance might be the difference between you having all day to work on music versus working around a 9-to-5 (or 9-to-9). It puts more power back toward the labels and that dynamic we talked about earlier. What was driving you when you started?

You know what I thought I had to do when I was coming up? “I’ve gotta get better.” I looked at the way this shit worked, and my takeaway was, “I’m not good enough yet.” That’s now what these kids look at now. And I’m not blaming them. Because when you look around now at this shit, it’s not telling you that you need to get better. It’s telling you that you can do damn near anything as long as it goes viral. If you’re 10, or a young teenager, how does that not affect your perspective?

It’s reading the room.

It’s the world you live in. The only thing that’s going to affect that is a big cousin, big brother, art toucher, somebody giving you game about what’s real and what’s not. At one point, when you wanted to be a singer and you looked around and you saw Motown, it told you that you had to be amazing, that you’d probably do better in a group, that you’d probably do best if you can sing and you can dance. Then we started seeing, “Oh, you’re better off if you look good and you’re solo.” Now we get to the 80s, and you just have to look good, no need to sing well! By the 2000s, most motherfuckers can’t sing at all. And they have million dollar deals. [Laughs] It’s still Mariah Carey’s out there, but it’s regular by the 2000s to hop in the studio without singing.

Every generation looks at what’s pantheon, or what’s missing, in their present moment, and it keeps resetting, colored by how the elders around them pass down music and institutions preserve or erase it. There’s infinite chances to do that, every day, as collective cultures. For you, who is contributing to that broad degradation?

It happens up and down the pipeline. I’m not knocking the new shit — I think there’s a lot of trash in it, but that’s how it goes with any art form. It’s nature. It’s not about “I hate this,” it’s about “how are we doing things?” The art gets microwaved. The expectations, of both artists and companies, is astronomical. What n****s expect versus what they’ve done. Insane. [Laughs] And the industry is fostering that. What keeps this alive? Whenever a n***a gets to talking like I am, everybody’s like, “Oh my god! We know!” You can’t even talk about it. There’s a difference between a hater ass motherfucker and a n***a with perspective. It’s just systems.

A lot of knee-jerk eye-rolling. Are there causes for optimism in the music world right now, from your perspective?

I really love the exploration. The way these n****s push sound? Even Thug. Everybody hates the ‘mumble’ shit, but I think it’s amazing. It shows the power of melody. That’s what will get them. For years, n****s was like, “It’s the beat, ughhh, you can say whatever you want. The beat blinds them. They don’t even be saying anything.” Old heads have knocked younger generations for years over that.

We’ve reached spectacular levels of post-understanding.

I can’t understand to the fifth power. [Laughs] N****s are squeaking and mumbling on the record. Now you really don’t know what’s said. But they like it, on such a large scale. What is it with Carti bro? It’s melody. It’s music. Sounds. Not complicated. Sounds triggering feelings. Sometimes lyrics get in the way of the life that’s happening in front of the listener. I love Who Is Jill Scott because it’s amazing music, yes, but also because it brings me right back into my house, growing up, Sundays with my mom. Kush and Orange Juice by Wiz Khalifa defined two years of my life. I can transport back to DJ and Devin’s car right now, bumping “Mesmerized,” watching the sun go down. It’s dope raps, it’s wavy, Cardo snapped on the production, but it’s still in rotation because it was the reason I was walking the way I was walking some days. You don’t need the words to feel that.

And this is coming from someone who’s renowned for their words. I remember driving with someone years ago on a road trip. They loved jazz. Like, true scholar. I put on Slime Season 3 by Thug and she was horrified. Like, “Turn this off.” [Laughs] To me it was the same thing. I was like, “The spirit of what you love is right there for you, in this.”

I definitely don’t look at myself and Thug’s approach to lyrics as the same. He truly uses his voice as an instrument. It doesn’t feel like he’s rapping over the beat, it feels like he’s part of the production sometimes. That’s a combination of mixing, vocal inflection.

How do you view your own vocals in relation to the production?

Me? I’m a drum. I’m dancing over that. Playing with percussion, when I’m trying to figure out how much space I’m leaving between words, how many syllables to fit in. You know how Fruity Loops has all the grid squares to program into? It could be for a 16, 32, 64, 128, whatever. Then you pick on the four, where you want to fill or land. I can break that down to infinity, splitting it. I see every single mark where I could put a syllable, where I could put an inflection. I’m looking for a pattern to break. I don’t want you to get used to what I’m doing. I want you to think you know what I’m doing, then I’ll veer left, then come right back.

Like a jump scare.

Like, what the fuck was that?! [Laughs] I just made a curve! That’s the basis of how I approach writing a verse 70% of the time.

The pattern gets filled with the words and the way you say them.

And that varies. Take a song like “Guapanese” versus a song like “Pasta.” I want you to listen to what I’m saying on “Guapanese.” It’s a very simple concept: These n****s let their money talk. I don’t want you to be distracted by all my amazing bars. I want you to think about a simple idea. What if you never said anything and you let your money do all the talking? What do I even know about you? There’s nothing if you take the money talk away. So, no amazing flows, no nothing. I’m going to say a line and I’m going to let it breathe.

That’s the intention there. That’s why that space is there.

It’s the same thing with “Roy G Biv.” I’m saying things to you that I want you to think about. It’s a barrage in “Pasta” because I want you to listen to that 30 times to get it all. I’m just doing what I love to do there. When you say “lyricism,” I also think about flow. Otherwise, it’s just lyrics. The “ism” part, to me, is the doing. Rhyming isn’t enough to be a lyricist.

What I love about lyricism is how many different schools there are. There’s stories, turns of phrase, humor, absurdism, vulnerabilities… I think about “Martyrs” by you, versus “Dying of Thirst” by Kendrick, versus Lil Yachty saying “I can show you how to get these Ms DIY,” versus Veeze doing everything Veeze does. [Laughs]

It’s all writing at the end of the day. There’s so many different disciplines. Creative, essays, nonfiction, poetry. Within poetry, I can think of eight different kinds off the top of my head.

It’s sad how flattened conversation about lyricism tends to be in music.

It’s really infinite. Me and Kendrick are the same type of lyricism, but different styles. Lupe had that take about Kendrick Lamar not having a lot of bars, and n****s were mad as hell! But they’re casuals. We’re all amazing writers: Kendrick, me, Lupe. Lupe’s not dissing. Kendrick isn’t a bar-heavy rapper. He weaves concepts in and out of his lines. He has wordplay. Every other line on The Patience, I’m barring the fuck up. That’s not something I do all the time! I’m not doing “Michelin Star” and “Seven” and “Sitting Ducks” all the time, because you can’t tell stories or deliver a specific concept. Kendrick isn't trying to make bar fests. He’s delivering us stories, top to bottom. Lot of wordplay, lot of lyricism, some bars.

It’s not his priority.

No one’s denying he’s capable of it! [Laughs] What happens when you add somebody’s personal style, their voice inflection, to the lyrics, that’s where you get special shit.

Do you think there’s a gap between how your own fans think about lyricism versus the way you think about it?

Absolutely. I give basketball players a lot of grace and credit. I still know I have misunderstandings because I never played pro ball. Until you’re there, no matter how much you’re schooled, you can’t know it all. I’ve never been with anyone at that level for an entire offseason and see what they do. Only the n****s who was with me at YCA knows about my writing. Only people who do what I do at this level can talk to me. JID and I can have a conversation about writing. We don’t have to agree, we just do amazing shit differently. So I don’t give a fuck what backlash n****s say to me about Kendrick, because if him and I had a conversation, he wouldn’t be offended. Only a few people do what we do.

Are there other artists, writers, in the younger generations who’ve impressed you, or have that potential?

Just with music in general, Monte Booker. He’s been around for a while now, but he’s younger. I watched him be 18 years old. To me, he’s one of the leaders on the production shit. I really fuck with Tierra Whack and Doechii. I fuck with redveil, on some rap shit. I don’t know if you’d consider them ‘new,’ but they’re in their 20s and I’m in my 30s [Laughs] Young Nudy’s getting played in my car for sure. Luh Tyler. I’ll play the songs I like until I get to the parts I like, then I’ll turn it off. [Laughs] I fuck with PinkPantheress heavy. I don’t think we give Dreezy enough credit at all. I’m on YouTube all the time looking at type-beat mother fuckers. [Laughs] I’m on SoundCloud still. I’m listening to poetry a lot. I was moved by a poet recently who wrote about male stereotypes. It wasn’t simping, pick-me behavior. It was mature.

How have your listening habits changed since you and your wife married?

Most of my new music, I get from her now. She’s always listening to new shit.

She’s got your back. [Laughs] Who’s her current top five?

It’s not rap right now. Beyonce. Snoh Aalegra. Summer Walker.

Cleo Sol?

Yes, exactly. Cleo Sol and Sault. And Yebba. I just found out Sault was Cleo and—


Yes! Like, WHAT? Simz! Crazy! [Laughs]