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Mick Jenkins - Pieces of a Man Music Album Reviews

Borrowing a title and sometimes a tone from Gil Scott-Heron, the Chicago rapper explores religion, consensual sex, and himself.

In the pluralistic realm of Chicago rap, one thing seems certain: Mick Jenkins will never suffer a lack of ambition. His new album, Pieces of a Man, lifts its name from the 1971 Gil Scott-Heron classic and attempts the daunting task of channeling the bohemian beatnik’s indomitable spirit. Jenkins even gives us a pretty good impression, morphing his voice to match Scott-Heron’s distinct tenor for two skits that double as live spoken-word sessions. Stepping into the role of a legend is, for sure, an audacious move, but the appeal of the South Side star has typically been for those with a taste for the maneuvering metaphors and trenchant critiques that afforded Scott-Heron his status.

Central themes have defined Jenkins’ previous full-lengths. The Healing Component, for instance, was a spiritually charged concept record focused on the impossible task of defining love. Pondering police brutality, racism, and cultural appropriation, that album took stock of social ills in the United States. Pieces of a Man plays like a more personalised counterpoint. If Scott-Heron was like a photographer, snapping society from never-before-seen angles, Jenkins turns the lens on himself. The results illuminate the title: We get all the pieces that make up the man.

Religion again plays a central role. For Jenkins, there’s no chasm between being a Christian and street kid, as Pieces of a Man captures the low-key impact faith has on Jenkins’ daily grind. Take the rumbling bass and doomed piano keys of “Grace & Mercy,” which finds Jenkins wryly thanking God for the gifts he has before throwing vague threats at unidentified enemies and detailing plans to smoke weed with the squad. On “Barcelona,” Jenkins longs for an escape from his daily bullshit and ponders the impact his lifestyle has on his spirituality: “Granny praying for it,” he raps desperately. “She say we ain’t Christian-ing right!” These moments of clarity seem summoned from the deepest crevices of Jenkins’ id.

Most striking is “Consensual Seduction,” a song about the importance of verbal consent that seems inspired by #MeToo. “I need you to tell me what you want,” croons Jenkins without sucking up the song’s romantic tension. This is one of the few moments when he engages with the current news cycle. Jenkins does, though, get help in that regard from other sources. Ghostface Killah delivers an impassioned assist on “Padded Locks” as vital as anything on his own recent album, The Lost Tapes. It might not be the most graceful presidential takedown ever, but hearing Tony Starks scream “Donald Trump is a piece of shit” has an undeniably visceral appeal.

The original Pieces of a Man was Scott-Heron’s first studio record and also one of his most pop-focused efforts, where his pointed messages were presented with pleasing arrangements and hooks that stuck. Jenkins, however, has little interest in adding pop to this tome. There are hooks, sure, but nothing like a swooning chorus. The beats are built largely around twilit, soulful organ and dinky electronics. “Gwendolynn’s Apprehension,” produced by Black Milk, puts Jenkins over a riff that sounds teased from a Game Boy. The light guitar and organ of “Plain Clothes” summon the spirit of Minnie Riperton, and Jenkins comfortably shifts to singing. Though a versatile vocalist, Jenkins isn’t actually a Tier 1 rapper. His rasp can struggle when forced to take on too much, especially amid the prominent percussion and tough orchestration of something like “Ghost.”

But this is a minor gripe within a major scheme. Chicago rap is currently undergoing a multidisciplinary creative surge: Noname mixes diary pages with cosmic jazz; Queen Key makes murderous music you can chant in the club; G Herbo and Lil Durk offer visceral depictions from the trenches; Chris Crack has rapped over soul samples as well as anybody this year. Jenkins moves above these trends, claiming a corner of the city that’s all his own. The result is a gripping portrait of one human among Chicago’s 2.7 million.

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