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Pieces of a Man: Mick Jenkins' Confessional Hip-Hop

Diving deeper into Mick Jenkins’ masterpiece, its scattered reflections and distorted perceptions.

"God, but did you ever try to turn your sick soul inside out so that the world, so that the world can watch you die."

Listen to Mick Jenkins' masterpiece here. Scattered reflections and distorted perceptions...

Mick Jenkins' acid-jazz-influenced music is infused with a sense of nostalgia, and his lyrics are a conscious attempt to vocalise a respect for the people who paved the way for artists like himself; his nod to the ancestors of the genre. His words and beats invoke an almost futile quest to connect the past causes of artists and musicians (specifically Gil Scott-Heron, of which Jenkins borrows the title of the album). He takes the music from the past, and brings it into the present, as he searches for his own place and purpose in the new world’s social expectations and identification. But where Scott-Heron dismantled the idea of a modern black man in America, Jenkins attempts to pick up the shattered pieces.

Jenkins' iconography — such as the striking album cover depicting Jenkins' splintered reflection — is Jenkins holding a mirror up to himself, but also the world of hip hop around him. Much in the same way, onn "Barcelona" he raps, "I be on my show and prove, not my show-and-tell..." before referencing Frank Ocean, (the modern connoisseur of confessional hip-hop), finishing the track with "A tornado flew around my room before you came, I straightened it // Right before yo eyes you see my stains, see me basically // Pickin' up the pieces".

This concoction of layered metaphors and Jenkins' sharp, self-reflexive observations, sprinkled in with sometimes-jarring and often less-than-subtle pop-culture references, represents the "totality of personality" Jenkins attempts to portray — rather than the collection of moments many people see and base their perception of you on, filling in the blanks themselves. The eighth track "Reginald", featuring artist Ben Hixon, opens with the verse:

"Aye, feeling like that nigga these days my skin is much clearer My woman skin is much clearer of course I'm drinkin' my water Don't spend too much time in mirrors Reflections will get you caught up Connections will get you brought up in conversation You basing everything you know about me from moments I'm more a compilation of composition it's complicated I've contemplated so many perspectives Accommodated my vices, exonerated emotions And then I'm copin' Macaulay Culkin..."

...which perfectly encapsulates the way Jenkins uses this album to pull back the curtain on his anxieties. This sense of insecurity, the constant overthinking about every aspect that makes him "him" is the central contemplation of the album as a whole. But when you break down every track — this "compilation of compositions" — it seems each track could just as easily be the "pieces" Jenkins alludes to that fit together to describe him: loose stream-of-consciousness musings on sex, youth, religion, the falsehoods of rap culture, and his place in the modern music industry. It is this dynamic and dilemma of portraying himself as the stereotypical rapper seen in the media and maintaining his sense of individuality, instead of simply projecting an illusion of authenticity that drives the album forward to its hazy, lullaby of an ending.

mick jenkins pieces of a man
Photography by Sam Schmieg

What seems like it may be, at first glance, nothing more than a self-satisfying homage to a hero, Jenkins' album is so much more than an audacious attempt to carry on the tradition of past musicians, and a series of hat-tips and head-nods. This is, in fact, an ambitious attempt to get modern hip-hop back on the course Scott-Heron set it on in his own work. Just like Scott-Heron, Jenkins feels like a different type of artist than the ones we see plastered on your Instagram feed or the Top 40 charts. Some tracks on this album, such as "Gwendolynn's Apprehension" and the Kaytranada-produced "Padded Locks (Ft. Ghostface Killer)" are among the best of Jenkins' career, both lyrically and artistically. This balance he achieves between the personal exploration in his lyrics and the quality of the music itself is what makes this album just so fucking good. Mick is simply doing things his way.

Somehow, in today’s world where it is so easy to curate your own life and share just the moments you deem interesting, Jenkins (like Scott-Heron) chose to "keep it real". Slowly, over the course of the album, Jenkins' fuzzy, jazzy style drifts into focus and we start to get a sense of the full image. Jenkins may begin the album complaining that if you open yourself up people take advantage, but then spends another 16 tracks ensuring we listen to the sound of him taking a shard of broken glass and slicing open every single aspect of his person and manhood. And we listen, gulping it all up, every last drop like the voyeurs we are.


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