Mick Jenkins Talks New Album 'Pieces of a Man' and Finding Balance in His Career

Sam Schmieg
Mick Jenkins

It’s noon on a recent Thursday in Chicago, and Mick Jenkins’ workday is nearly complete. Not that he’s a slacker by any stretch: per his recently acquired and already habitual routine, the rapper has been up since 5:00 a.m. grinding. “Yah, I be up early,” he says, sitting in a high-ceiling performance space he recently purchased in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood. “If you bring me to a night session I will fall asleep. I will. I might fuck with you, and we might get something done, but I will fall asleep."”

For Jenkins, it’s all part of a long-gestating maturation process: Four years ago, with the release of his 2014 debut mixtape The Water[s] (and then its follow-up EP, 2015’s Wave[s]), the South Side Chicago emcee was being toasted as one of the hottest young talents in hip-hop. Now, on the eve of his releasing his second full-length album, the contemplative and typically forthright Pieces of a Man, which takes its name from the 1971 Gil Scott-Heron classic, Jenkins admits much of that hype has subsided. But he’s hardly complaining -- to hear him tell it, this album, this early-bird schedule, the studio we’re sitting in called WeSpace (run by his sister, London, and hosting performances and art shows by local, typically undiscovered artists), it all best explains why he’s the happiest and most fulfilled he’s ever been in his life.

“I was becoming a victim to this music life, and I peeped it,” he offers candidly of his motivation for his change in behavior and new 8:00 p.m. bedtime. Jenkins chooses to not disclose whether he personally suffered any particular physical or emotional repercussions of his life in recent years, but he rather cites seeing those within his inner circle neglecting their own bodies in service of his career as a deeply disturbing — and ultimately life-changing — observation.  

“When you watch somebody get sick and they just get a cold, but it lasts three weeks because they’re not sleeping and they’re not eating right and they’re not getting the things that would normally kill that shit in a week…” He pauses and looks down. “Those kinds of things plagued me. I was always looking back like, ‘Naw. I won’t accept that.’”

It’s why, Jenkins says, he’s spent nearly the entirety of two years since 2016’s The Healing Component here at home, writing, recording and, most importantly, reflecting on where his life and career have taken him. “I literally put myself on a schedule, and made sure I made time for myself,” he says. He also began taking the business side of his career more seriously. “There’s a lot of shit I just didn’t have a handle on,” he says. “I hadn’t really stepped into the role of owning my own business, and what that meant fully. And I can’t afford not to. I can’t afford to do some of the things I was doing. And so I had to get that shit together. It’s imperative to my success.”

Jenkins admits to being swept up in the initial wave of attention that followed The Water[s], but he’s come to see it as something of a false flag. “I came in the game and I was new, so I was affected by the hype,” he admits. “But when the hype dies down, what is there?” For Jenkins, the answer was creating a string of weighty, thematic albums -- each a snapshot of that moment in time. “It really comes back to the personal,” he says of the genesis of each of his LPs, and how each feels like a dispatch direct from his heart. “That’s why that shit bleeds through the way it does.”

Sitting here in his studio, wearing a white linen shirt buttoned to the top and green khakis, Jenkins says Pieces of a Man may be his most personal effort yet. The 17-track album, Jenkins notes, is him zooming out on the world, assessing its ills and falsehoods, and then pointing the lens back on himself. On “Stress Fracture,” Jenkins takes aim at the hypocrisy of bombastic flex culture when so many of us are crippled with anxiety: “I look good/ I dress good/ Smoke good/ Stress a lot,” he raps. And over the pounding percussion on “Ghost,” the emcee avails himself of any angst he feels over his current toned-down lifestyle: “You never really see me out (unless you see me out)/ I be on the road/ Or I be in the crib/ When I’m not on the road I’m working on my penmanship.”

Jenkins says he isn’t all that concerned with how Pieces of a Man performs commercially. The brand of honest and illuminating but hardly trend-chasing music he makes "gives me the ability to take off for two years and still come back to a fanbase waiting for music,” Jenkins says. “I can release an album that not all of my fans love, and still tour the world and sell out half of the shows. And that’s because I am who I am and the music is what it is.

He laughs and admits he wouldn’t be upset if the mainstream commercial success that’s largely eluded him came to pass: "I still look at that shit like ‘Damn!' But I can get over it and I can move on and I can live my life.”

In fact, Jenkins says that even if he plateaus commercially from here, "I’m so good. I’m so content. Because what’s there to complain about? Because you never won an award? Because you were never on TV?  Because you never broke through? Because BET didn’t recognize you? Fuck that!” He looks around the room and smiles. “Look at the quality of life I’m able to make because I’m touching people with my art.”