Wave[s] is not Mick Jenkins’ second album, but it sure sounds like a sophomore album. If you look back at most sophomore rap albums you’ll hear something that unites all second efforts: transition. Nearly every sophomore album of note sounds like the “old” artist placating die-hard fans while attempting to simultaneously appeal to new ones to ensure the debut was not a fluke. The hard rap over pop melodies from Jay Z’s “Sunshine” on In My Lifetime Vol.1 became the blueprint for one of his biggest singles ever, “Hard Knock Life”, where he perfectly married the street realism with catchy hooks.
In the age where rappers are either making mixtapes that sound like albums, EPs that sound like albums or just taking songs from both and putting them on their albums, the creative trajectory of an artist has drastically altered to where artists are ready to branch out when they have only just planted their tree.
Chicago MC Mick Jenkins dented the rap game with one of the most engrossing debut mixtapes in years with last year’s The Water[s]. Ripe with vivid storytelling and nuanced lyricism, conceptual continuity (drink more water or you may die) and production perfect for a Netflix and chill session, the Cinematic Music Group artist somehow balances biblical references with “some Jill Scott I know you like to snap to” (“Vibes”) and industrial drill rap (“Who Else”). For a man who says he doesn’t listen to current music, Jenkins’ new EP Wave[s] sounds like he’s trying to fit better in today’s music, which champions the turn-up and makes the turn down a novelty.
Mick stays afloat but doesn’t swim forward.
The production on Wave[s] EP is lush and handled mostly by Chicago collective THEMPeople, producing on seven of the nine songs as opposed to only one on The Water[s]. THEMPeople brightens up Mick’s usual somber mood with their penchant for a mosaic of instrumentation that perfectly matches the EP’s cover. Donnie Trumpet’s perfect trumpet playing, the hard, stuttering drums and soft piano chimes mesh together to energize Mick’s “Slumber”. THEMPeople’s spacey synths and soft drums on “Get Up, Get Down” knocks. But it’s “40 Below”, the best song on Wave[s] where the gruff and aggressive flow from songs such as “Dehydration” coalesces with the new, upbeat, love-inspired music injected in the EP. Starting out with a woman’s scathing diatribe on men’s treatment of love “like it’s a fucking disease,” the soft bass turns into a warped version of itself, creeps up with the ambient sounds and finally smacks you in the face with dirty hi-hats.
But, going from mixtape rapper to well-rounded artists leaves a lot lost in translation.
For one, none of the nine tracks on Wave[s] has a runtime of more than 4 minutes, whereas six of the first nine songs on the 15-track The Water[s] mixtape exceed four minutes. Just like water scarcity, the lack of sonic real estate for Jenkins to rap has glaring consequences. Mick raps A LOT less on Wave[s] than on The Water[s]. No song on the EP features more than one verse from Mick and even with six less tracks, Wave[s] has more incandescent singing, than The Water[s] (5).
Mick’s wit is still as sharp as ever with lines like, “Creating the gold from my pen, I think I’m an alchemist” from “Alchemy.” He exhibits his penchant for layered metaphors, there. But we don’t get deeper into Mick Jenkins via his lyrics this time around, we simply watch the show he puts on. By the sixth bar of Mick’s first verse on “Shipwrecked” from The Water[s], fans have already joined Mick and five of his friends rolling through 91st & Langley in Chicago on New Year’s Eve while Mick “still remembers when my baby lungs blew them trees / I still felt like a saint when I drew that breeze.” No song on Wave[s] is nearly as vivid, with some songs, such as Wave[s] standout “40 Below” needing more detailed bars than “random nights on her Facebook page” to truly make fans care why his love interest got so cold.
If The Water[s] helped us excavate the depths of Mick Jenkins’ mind, Wave[s] is the result of coming up for air. The fierce lyricism isn’t gone it just comes in waves. The food for thought isn’t gone it just comes in waves. Let’s just hope for his full-length debut Jenkins is manning his own ship ready to take dedicated fans and new ones alike into uncharted territory.