Saying that The Water(s) shows potential would be unfair. Mick Jenkins has already arrived.
Mick Jenkins is an old soul. It seems absurd that he’s only 24. That’s not just a commentary on his technical prowess. His first foray into the hip-hop consciousness was "Martyrs", a pitch-black meditation on violence and misogyny in Jenkins’ Chicago hip-hop scene (where he directly called out Chief Keef). The impossibly heavy conversation Jenkins started was paired with images of Jenkins wearing a noose like a 2 Chainz accessory. Appropriately his newest release, The Water(s), at its best, doesn’t feel like a mixtape. It feels like a solid release from an MC establishing himself as a rising power.
The Water(s) is a concept mixtape, as strange as that is. As the title and album cover suggest, Jenkins’ lyrics are immersed in the symbolic meanings of water. Jenkins leads an exploration in the mythos of water and the common themes connected with it. Jenkins’ descriptions shift from dirty bong water to sea water that chokes a drowning sailor. There’s not a true narrative here, just Jenkins diving into a strange mythos, visiting the fountain of youth, Noah’s flood, and the bottom of the Pacific. It gives Jenkins plenty of room to unspool dizzying lines. He remembers "when my baby lungs blew trees / I still felt like a saint when I drew that breeze," as he gets lost in a cloud of smoke before arriving at a different state of thought. "Stephen Hawking, no need for talking/Got a hawk's eye but I can hardly see you," he reveals like a shaman on the title track. It’s a clever narrative thread for Jenkins to work with, but some of the production feels boxed in by the liquid motifs. "Who Else" and "Dehydration" both feel like straightforward trap tracks that strain to sound aquatic. Those two tracks is also a reminder that The Water(s) has a fondness for speedy hi-hats, already too ubiquitous in hip-hop. The sudden flash of those 16th notes is jarring, as most of The Water(s) is a weird beast, trying to distance itself from the mainstream.
Thankfully the production high points are spectacular. Opener "Shipwrecked" has an absolutely bonkers beat change up introduced by a gorgeous choir and brass interlude, shifting the song from an ebbing and flowing background to a stormy second half that has Jenkins pitting a flood. The Water(s) is also a showcase for Chicago producer Ongaud. He crafted the "Strange Fruit" biting "Mayters", the hypnotic "Canada Dry", and The Water(s)’s central track "Jazz". The rippling xylophone line starts "Jazz" starkly, but grows in menace with an eerie flute sample and a clanking drum kit lurking in the chorus. Jenkins uses it as a platform to deconstruct rival rappers. "Most rappers these days is actors / And I can't keep watching the same movie," he spits with a sneer. "Jazz" and "Mayters" work off of a lurching tension that creeps into every nook and cranny.
As the album closes the tension finally breaks with the monstrous "Jerome". Jenkins switches his baritone drawl into a hoarse yell and guest Joey Bada$$ does the same over a terrifying beat, heavy on a Halloween-organ and a perfectly placed Biggy sample. "This ain’t no game like Sega, don’t be a hero / I’m with my good fellas and we ‘bout to rob dinero," snarls Bada$$. Bada$$ is, in fact, the only feature that can keep up with Jenkins. Jean Deaux and No Gypsy both do fine on their verses, but their completely dwarfed by Jenkins. Jenkins’ domination runs parallel to the album’s biggest weakness: unevenness. There’s not really a bad song here, but next to monsters like "Jazz", "Mayters", and "Jerome" some of the album feels like filler. When the album’s main trio is composed of some of the best songs of the year, other tracks can’t help but pale in comparison. Still, The Water(s) proves that Jenkins is as ambitious as he is talented. Saying that The Water(s) shows potential would be unfair. Jenkins has already arrived.