The rhetoric of “quality over quantity” is peddled everywhere in the rap scene. SoundCloud-bred rap fans will demand quantity, going as far to leak 30 Young Thug tracks or live off Playboi Carti snippets in their pursuit, possibly causing emotional distress to the artists involved. Rap purists advocate for quality, but this often results in lofty and loaded expectations. MIKE, a member of New York rap collective sLUms, is one of the few rappers that doesn’t need to compromise on either side.
Steadily dropping EPs and mixtapes since 2015 and gaining an Earl Sweatshirt co-sign (“I was in the kitchen with that nigga MIKE,” Earl shouts out in “The Mint” of Some Rap Songs), MIKE has a praise-worthy discography that most of his contemporaries can’t come close to matching. But not everyone is as profound or alien as MIKE, so his presence in the game feels the mixing of oil and water; it’s discernible yet there’s something otherworldly, almost unnatural about him – from his consistency that always hits and never misses to his reclusive yet incongruous personality (a result of MIKE growing up in Essex, New York, London and Philadelphia), to the dusted youthfulness exhibited in his music. He’s the youngest old man that you know, and if War In My Pen, Renaissance Man, and May God Bless Your Hustle are mixtapes that parade MIKE’s wisdom and eagerness of this quality, then Tears of Joy is just pure bildungsroman; it’s more vulnerable, contemplative, and personal.
The mixtape centers on his relationship with his late mother (in the Bandcamp liner notes, he writes, “rest in power mama”), and the anxieties of losing a loved one are palpable throughout every song on the 20-track project. Mourning is a process, a very complex one. There are days where you’re just about doing okay, then days where you crumble. The conversation orbiting death in rap is abundant, but MIKE offers us an elusive perspective that hasn’t been properly tapped in rap before. Focusing on the aftermath of death, it’s a snapshot of a complex and never-really ending process. As a result, the mixtape embraces those sudden bursts of joy, and those among us who have experienced loss take in every second of it because we know the feeling doesn’t last. MIKE channels that joy in songs like ‘its like basketball’ that picks up the pace after the claustrophobic, atmospheric array of track before it. Produced by himself (as djblackpower) and Sporting Life, MIKE ditches his molasses-paced flow in exchange for an urgent one, sounding like a marble-mouthed Maxo Kream over the airtight snares and dulcet bass slaps.
Thematically and structurally, Tears of Joy oscillates just as it seemingly arcs towards self-realization; the depression and malaise of incurring that joy. From the onset of two-parter “scarred lungs vol.1 & 2,” we’re met with piercing vulnerability over a lonely air flute: “Someone playing with my momma, hope it’s not God”. While the first half gives MIKE room to voice his troubles, the second half spirals into a bearhug of askew glockenspiels, out-of-tune piano chords, and disorientating drum programming. MIKE voices lamentations in the woozy “true blood.” “Looking in the mirror, saw my youth was missing/ Sister used to get along but now she’s too religious,” he curses with that dusty youthfulness that we revered him for. “big smoke” sounds like the theme song of a dungeon level in a Legend of Zelda game with submerged snares and hypnotizing synths, and MIKE’s vocals serve as a guiding fire through the deep and seemingly perpetual darkness, eventually burrowing into depression and grief.
The production in MIKE’s discography has always flirted with the craft of sampling; his ability to merge the observational into a form of poetry marries well with the J Dilla-inspired production that puts him above the rest. While the lyrics in Tears of Joy serve as memories with anxieties as their nucleus, his use of sampling is trying to bridge the distance between the generational gap of MIKE and his mother. “Ain’t no love” feels like the 20-year-old rapper went back in time with a DeLorean and stole demos from Kanye West’s pre-College Dropout beats for the sparkling piano chords leading us into a silky slowed-down version of The Isley Brothers. “right here next to you baby” samples “Stars” by the neo-soul duo Kindred the Family Soul. The crooked production can sometimes feel jarring for the listener; MIKE’s production skills are admittedly nascent compared to the best beats on the mixtape produced by Sporting Life, Navy Blue, Ted Kamal, and Ade Hakim. However, this scrappiness can be forgiven in lieu of appreciating the mixtapes as a rite of passage for MIKE; allowing us to witness his growth as both producer djblackpower and as a rapper.
Tears of Joy muddies the boundaries of mixtapes to send off a loving lament, historically, rappers have used the format of mixtapes to show their prowess as a lyricist or to piss off their labels. MIKE uses its possibilities to showcase his grief. MIKE’s mother is the first voice that prays for him on Black Soap and is the face of the album cover for May God Bless Your Hustle. Just when it all seems to be falling apart, a sense of apprehensive, cathartic joy approaches you by the end of this album.
“stargazer pt. 3” shows a hopeful MIKE, his gravelly voice levitating above the roaring trumpets. It’s the first time he carries that youthful swagger exhibited in his previous bodies of work as he holds tight the gems his mother taught him: “Momma told me stress ain’t a thing/ wasting breath, smoking setups till I sleep.” It passes on the baton to encourage MIKE to keep going. The trumpets depart, leaving us with a prayer from his late mother where she proclaims MIKE is her golden child. Ultimately, it serves its purpose, and it also solidifies an idea that rap critics, rap purists, and SoundCloud fans alike can all agree on – MIKE is the golden child of New Age rap.
- Words: Ethan H-L