The atmosphere Mick Jenkins evokes is awash in calm blues and velvet rooms filled with singers adorned in sparkling dresses. It wasn’t always this gentle, or commercial, but here we are. Pieces of A Man may initially give the feeling of a man at war with his identity, but it reveals itself to be that and so much more. Jenkins’ new album is a declaration of authenticity and a dedication to delivering verisimilitude, engorged with energetic raps and brimming with internal conflict. It’s Jenkins at his most bare and his most commercial, finally enabling us to understand the full spectrum of who he is.
A constant in Jenkins’ world is his baritone voice and sentimental outlook on existence. His projects have all had strong links to concepts, exploring anger, healing, and thoughtfulness. If a blanket term could be applied to Pieces of a Man, it would be identity. Southside Chicago’s most idiosyncratic lyricist has garnered attention further and further beyond his city over the years. Now that he’s disillusioned with success and the evils it brings to its chasers, he’s desperate to make sense of it and discover just exactly who he is.
Entering into the album’s world is akin to opening a 19th-century wooden door with wind chimes in front, entering a house with a chilling breeze and dimly-lit ambience. The atmosphere here is thick with mysterious fog that prevents the heart from fluttering over 80 beats per minutes. Its jazzy inflection compliments the milky grain of Jenkins’ haunting raps; if the beats were a tad bit faster, the music would become haunting. Pieces of a Man’s sixteen tracks are as smooth as they come. And once again, Jenkins chooses not to pander for commercial replay value in his sonic choices. The album reads as a labor of emotion more so than something spawned out of a need to remain in the hip hop world’s good graces. It’s beautiful, pressing, and indicative of a man looking to get more out of the world than what he currently is.
The album begins with a rousing round of applause as Jenkins thanks an audience for joining him for some “food for thought.” He’s the announcer ripping the audience away from its digital existence of social stresses and secular problems to prepare them for a night of tuxedos and gowns as the band howls in the background, making fresh drinks spill with rumbling bass. From there, the album builds upon this premise. “Stress Fracture” presents an interesting juxtaposition; the musicality is meant to invoke the first dance of the jazz club’s night with its gentle ambience and funky bassline, while its lyricism speaks of having the weight of the world dangling from your shoulders. Jenkins’ ability to make the audience empathize with his struggles has never been more captivating. The flows bite with menace brewing just beneath the surface of every other word.
Make no mistake, the album’s production is forged in the waters of jazz, but there’s also some other inspirations extrapolated from around the country, something that Jenkins’ typically avoids for his own claustrophobic brand of taste. You’ll find some of the Bay Area’s bouncy scintilla, early 2010s drawling bass that arose from Lex Luger-era trap music, and pugnacious funk splashes across the album, sometimes existing all on the same song. He throws his colors, whites, and delicates all into the same washing cycle, and, somehow, they all come out smooth. “Soft Porn” is one of these elegant blends with silky supporting vocals that web together the track’s disparate parts for a mesmerizing river of repose.
Pieces of A Man is at its strongest when it goes full in on that mesmerizingly simple urbane aesthetic, with Jenkins riding the wave with a relaxed nod and making good on his promise to deliver the most authentic experience possible. “Reginald” is a satiny look at common sense — telling the truth shouldn’t be punished, but rewarded. “Ghost” turns up the energy slightly to explain his lack of being on the “scene.” He’s working, he digs his personal space, he’s focused on him. These common truths take on new meaning when stripped away from the common bells and whistles of new age rap; jazz gives them a richer, fuller deliverance. The tone helps its message not come off as preachy, but more relatable — something that’ll convince the listener to actually take in these teachings instead of rolling their eyes. It’s a masterful feat brought on by some years in the game.
“Heron Flow 2” pulls the listener from the Matrix for a brief soulful interlude that trickles from the ears and rolls like room temperature water to the nape of the neck before thrusting the listener back into uncommon shades of grey and torrential downpours. Mick slicks the album’s backend with even more fine textures and conflicted music in cuts like “U Turn” and “Understood,” where he’s much more antagonistic and hardcore than his normally casual stream of consciousness raps that push peaceful narratives. The album’s build up to these darker cuts shows the larger picture that Pieces of a Man paints. Mick, like all of us, is in perpetual conflict with himself. Every disparate part may not make sense in an ideal world, but this aligns with reality. He can push for peace while also acknowledging his darker tendencies. He can keep it real without dumbing it down. The album’s night out narrative strings together a mesmerizing look at just about everything that we need to hear now – bullshit-less rap about something visceral for a change.
Next to the lunacy we hear in today’s world, Pieces of A Man sounds brilliant. Its release is perfectly timed too – on the heels of WRLD on Drugs and Drip Harder, two albums that rely on bombastic trap rhythms and are indicative of the rap game’s ebb and flow, Pieces of A Man feels resoundingly fresh and against the grain. It’s more charismatic than what’s considered conscious rap, yet more straightforward and streamlined than the usually top-heavy conscious ideas we get today from our paragons.
Mick continues to refine his ability to captivate without preaching by wrapping it in silk. Pieces of A Man deserves a replay once its finished to realize the breadth of the message. You’ll be surprised to digest it so smoothly that you’ll begin to wonder how much food for thought existed in your life without it. Let the album suck you in with its calmness and hook you with its message; the music makes the journey well worth it.