Mick Jenkins on Love, Learning & Debut Album 'The Healing Component'
When Chicago MC Mick Jenkins first broke out onto the national hip-hop scene with his 2014 mixtape The Water[s], fans embraced the thoughtful new voice for his ability to hold a mirror up to society -- and himself -- and deliver unflinchingly honest reflections in his baritone style over a sonic palette as deep as his lyrical metaphors. But The Water[s] also laid out a thesis statement of sorts, an emphasis on healing and love instead of anger and violence that carried through his next project, the EP Wave[s], and surfaces again fully-formed on his debut album, The Healing Component, which came out Friday (Sept. 23) via Cinematic Music Group.
To Jenkins, 25, the titular "healing component" isn't THC -- the element of marijuana that produces its high -- as the acronym of the album suggests, but love, a concept explored throughout the album and anchored by the single, "Spread Love." The project is stitched together through a series of skits, or more accurately conversations, on the nature and meaning of love for individual people, fleshed out and discussed in a way that's reminiscent of the classroom interludes that pepper The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. But it's not just romantic or familial love that he explores throughout the album's 15 tracks. It's also about love in all the different ways it manifests itself: "It’s all-encompassing," he says, "Because it’s something that I intend to talk about for a while in different ways."
With The Healing Component now available and a 12-city U.S. tour with Smino about to launch (and European dates immediately afterward), Jenkins speaks to Billboard about the evolution of his debut full-length release, the struggles of staying positive in a world overflowing with negativity, and the learning process that brought him to this point.
Billboard: You've had the concept and title for The Healing Component for a while now, right?
A while, yeah. I had it before The Water[s], actually. The Water[s] was supposed to be The Healing Component, but definitely not as dug out an idea as it is now. I just took the idea and dug it out a lot more and just figured out a way to [find] what it is I actually wanted to say, and that’s why I kept it to the debut album. I think it definitely encompasses the definitive statement I want to make with my debut album coming into the game, and that being spread love. So, it definitely took a while.
Was the idea still evolving, too?
The idea was still evolving, for sure. There was a lot of stuff I had to learn on my own, and I don’t think people realize that when I’m recording music it literally mirrors my life and the things that I was learning and coming to understand. I was just telling my manager that people don’t realize how much [of it] is just thinking, just trying to really figure out what it is I’m trying to say and what that means, and [taking] moments of just reflection and thought, you know? It might be a moment of writer’s block where I just sit down for 20-30 minutes and just really think about how I’m going to try to display this part of the story, how it started, what the middle is, and how it ends, and then why that should matter to people. I want the entire scope of what I’m saying to be heard and understood clearly, as opposed to it just being some infectious tune that you just continue to bob your head to, which I feel like is something that we find ourselves doing a lot.
Is it hard to find the time to really sit down and figure it all out?
Yeah, for sure. What I’ve had to do is force myself to do it, not because I don’t want to, but just because we’re busy. This summer, the first month and a half I was overseas every day -- I was back for like, a day or two in Chicago, then I was back out again, and that just is a never-ending cycle of not sleeping until very late or very early, and then sleeping only for like four hours, and not really eating the way you should be eating -- especially because I’m vegetarian, so I kind of need to eat a little bit more and differently than most people. And then just wanting to do s--t for yourself, whatever that may be: shop, worship, you know, kick it with friends. It’s very easy to do things that you like to do that don’t necessarily move the bottom line in your life.
Sonically on the album, there are a lot of familiar names that you’ve worked with before, but it still sounds completely different from your previous projects.
For the first time I just had a real executive producer, THEMpeople, who had produced a couple records in their own right, but also just brought the continuity together over the entire project. I was in the studio with them tinkering with songs post-production in a way that I never had before, and to bring the sound all together and to make sure that the intro is connecting to the outro and those in between as well. We’ve gotten better at that from Trees and Truths to Water[s] to Wave[s] to now, The Healing Component, which I feel is a sonic arrival and compilation of the three. We’re definitely super concerned with the continuity and making sure that everything is together, to package up the story.
The first time I listened to this project, the interludes reminded me of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and those conversations in the classroom about what love is, and what love means. Was that something that you were kind of...
It was something that I couldn’t not be conscious of, you know what I’m saying? I’m a huge Lauryn Hill fan, definitely inspired by that album 100 percent, but it’s necessary -- especially in understanding that I don’t seek to come out talking about love as if I’m a love guru. I think that’s a pertinent part of those conversations, which was an interview between me and my sister and then commentary from a documentary that I shot when I was in college. It's a very broad subject; I think conversation is necessary. Diving into love as a topic, you know, the [people in this room] probably don’t agree on what love is, what it looks like, and what it should look like, just because we’ve all had different experiences growing up and becoming men.
So I think it’s something that absolutely [important], especially in these times where it’s very easy to look at things completely negatively and only focus on the negatives. It’s just like, at a very basic level, "What am I going to do about it?" You can’t just say that, we’ve got to talk about what that means. And that’s what I was hoping to do with the album and with the direction that I was taking. And it’s not just romantic [love] or self-love, it’s all-encompassing, because it’s something that I intend to talk about for a while in different ways.
You mentioned earlier that it’s really easy for people to fall into negativity. How did you push yourself to be more positive? I’m sure it’s hard for you every day, too.
It’s just, what is your resolve? What are you going to do about it? And when I look at any kind of injustice -- because there is so much -- there’s a system at work that is keeping these things in place. I don’t think it’s any individual person who’s doing it by themselves, I don’t think it’s one company or one person’s invalid opinion or somebody who made a mistake and said something, or rappers or whoever. I think it’s a real system in place that’s keeping things the way that they are, and systems are very effective at staying in place, no matter what they look like or what they’re called or what they’re disguised as. And in my personal view, with a lot of the injustices, there’s just not much we can do to change it on a large scale, and change it how we have tried to for so long.
My resolve has been just to connect with people face to face. I think "spread love" and that message, it’s aligned with my Christianity and my beliefs and what God’s purpose was on this Earth in the face of some of the most hateful things. Even being put to death on a cross, he was very loving, and that’s what he was supposed to be showing us. And I think trying to mirror that is just the way to be. So that’s the solution for me. I used to think that I had this good thing for people and I was changing the 700 people that came to the show, very naïvely.
The most effective way for me to do something about it is face to face, talking to people and understanding people and hearing people and their perspective, and then offering up something with my music that might spark an interest or inspire a change. And if it does, like I said, if we do that and 1,300 people are on fire after the concert and it does inspire them to do an action differently out of love or out of spreading love or out of the high of the feeling of leaving that Mick Jenkins concert last night, then I feel like I’m doing my job. It’s so much harder to express genuine love for somebody who might have just slapped you in the face, and figuratively, that’s what is necessary.
We did an interview before Wave[s] came out and you were saying that you wanted to put that project out first because this album felt more like an "album." Now that it's actually out a little over a year later, does it feel like this is your big “album statement” in a way?
The music, the creation of the music, absolutely. The finished product, I’m happy with it, I feel like it’s a definitive statement by me. I know my fans are gonna f--k with it heavily, and it’s gonna acquire some new fans, and it’s gonna make for a great show. I’m learning a lot about the rollout process for an album, and how involved or not involved I need to be, where I would have preferred to spend money, and just who to work with and how and why and for what.
So the business side of it.
Yeah, for sure. And I just know what I’m going to do differently or better next time. But overall, it definitely feels that Wave[s] was just an intermediate and was definitely me exploring those sounds so that I could better balance the kind of music I was trying to make for The Healing Component.
Are you looking far ahead in the future, or are you looking at the album and then the tour right after it?
I’m focused on that right now. When I’m in Chicago I’m practicing every day with a new live set up. I have three background singers with me, a drummer, a DJ, trying to get a bass in there too, but all of that is just to be seen -- we’re working everyday to really create a different type of sound for a live show. You know, then we go straight to Europe and it never really stops for me. The music is still being made, I’m well into my next album, we’re working on bringing a couple FreeNation artists out and dropping their projects as well. Just, you know, starting the same cycle with the lessons that we learned for somebody who hasn’t had any of it at all, and then taking those same lessons and applying them to new things for ourselves.