Protest music can be a tricky riddle. It's tied by necessity to the immediate time in which it is created, and often what we mean by “music” has more to do with messaging. How does an artist use the news as a muse without resorting to the prepackaged, chyron-ready rhythms of “political hip-hop”? How can the music give us an impression of the country while avoiding losing the person? How to address emergency with elegance? It's a slick dance. This is the solicitation that black musicians must respond to at the end of the Obama era. Some have replied with unpolished cliché. On his new album, The Healing Component, 25-year-old Chicago musician Mick Jenkins answers by spreading his whole heart.
Jenkins started gaining attention outside of Chicago during the years when the Black Lives Matter movement consolidated. He was thinking a lot about the people who died then, and those two facts colluded to make people call him a protest musician. Jenkins is affiliated with the YCA (Young Chicago Authors) group, and other production networks in the city, working with people like Saba, Chuck Inglish, and, of course, Chance. As an ambitious student at a tiny Adventist college in Oakwood during the early 2010s, he'd cobbled together not one, not two, but five mixtapes. The first one, a bolt of energy winkingly called The Mickstape, had more than a few lines where the rapper claimed to just be a “chill nigga from the Chi.” The projects he released after dropping out of Oakwood, 2014's The Water[s] and 2015's Wave[s] were better, heightened in acuity. Jenkins had lost his chill. He was heated, and nervous, and exacting. A rampant openness to the social climate dictated the way he made his songs. For example: A Staten Island police officer was acquitted for placing Eric Garner in a chokehold in December of 2014. That month, Jenkins said what Garner said before he died — “I can't breathe” — eleven times on “11,” a missive so crisp it has horns.
Now Jenkins is bending his antennae inward, toward a new direction, questioning the timeless issue of love. He hasn't dissociated from the violence of the state; in fact, he displays how vehicles like drugs, love, and virtuosity, in his case, can be used to fleece that very violence. That conceptual choice, choosing love, makes him a bit fanciful. There are even songs to dance to — like “Angles,” featuring a charming verse from Noname. The Healing Component begins like a musical. Woman asks: “All right, so what is The Healing Component?” and man (Jenkins) says, “Aw, you tell me.” Then the title track beeps in. Conversations between Jenkins and this woman (An actual person? A lover or an embodiment of love itself?) recur throughout, about religion and love and relationships, akin to the Schoolteacher figure in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. We learn that Jenkins wants us to know that he is a man of God — “Didn't you see Jesus?” he asks earnestly on “As Seen in Bethsaida” — and a man of drugs — “1000 Xans,” produced by Kaytranada, is the prodigal stoner's hymn. The chatter between Jenkins and the woman adds texture, sure, but their half-proclamations feel provisional next to the lyrics Jenkins lays down on these 15 tracks. Put it this way: Jenkins calls his bars stanzas.
Jenkins may be one of the most daredevil emcees out. His stunts, including suspended metaphors, inverted storytelling, and pure velocity, always land. The first three tracks, including the single “Spread Love,” find him executing arrhythmic speed every few lines, dispatching increasingly complex language to complicate the simplicity of love, for work, and for people. “YCA was where I found myself / I started using lead to harness gold,” he says on “Spread Love,” and you think of pencils and of bullets. Water gets rearranged just as skillfully as it was in his mixtape days: “I got martyrs with me, ship is chartered / We've been on a mission, lowkey expedition,” and you think of biblical arks, of the Atlantic, of marronnage. On “Strange Love,” Jenkins escalates the mission. His voice abandons cool bass: He gets, as he sometimes does, heated. It's disarming to see a black male rapper remember black women the way he does, to reconstitute the brutal poetics of “strange fruit.” Respecting black women is reliably secondary business in the classical protest cry. But Jenkins knows that black women — Billie Holiday and Nina Simone — always sang “Strange Fruit” with the correct anguish. “Dr. Strangelove / We claim that we love our sisters / That's some strange love, Dr. Strangelove,” he says on the hook. This is what we did not get from To Pimp a Butterfly.
Instrumentally, The Healing Component gives us other unfamiliar constructions. “Drowning,” the second single produced by BADBADNOTGOOD, rides on a slowly syncopated bass line, not unlike the round of an illusory negro spiritual. Jenkins sings deep and slurring, like an inebriated Aloe Blacc. Not only does the song sound like the blues, it follows the philosophy of the men who sang it. “We gon' need some drugs for the situation,” he starts, and then repurposes that deathly, modern field holler, “I can't breathe.” The video shows Jenkins leading a group of runaway slaves to a body of water and then attempting to drown a white man in it, before a child stops them. Jenkins's character, running toward freedom, wears a silver cross. His bluesy folk religiosity permeates elsewhere in this project. On “Fall Through,” a light Gregorian-like chant and trippy organs give way to a quieted Jenkins pleading, “Pray for discernment / I'm seeking his blessing.” Intoxication brings him closer to God's purity.
The component that brings healing may be “love,” but the most convincing moments on this album come when Jenkins loses sight of that concept. “Spreading love,” as a conceit, can get preachy and repetitive, even in Jenkins's adept hands. Water and drugs are more riveting subjects because they are inherently fluid and harder to pin down, and because Jenkins can spin a convincing hook out of them over and over again. “When the real hold you down, you supposed to drown, right?” he says on “Drowning.” Rapping about euphoria, Jenkins produces protest music that chooses richness and intricacy over urgency.