Mick Jenkins is an artist forever chasing the shadow of his own greatness. There’s zero doubt that the Chicago native is an incredibly talented musician. The rousing success of 2014’s The Waters proved that to be the case — but setting the bar at the stars is both a blessing and a curse for any up-and-coming artist. After the growing pains showcased in 2016’s The Healing Component, Jenkins took a huge step in the right direction with the mesmerizing Pieces of a Man in 2018, proving he still contained the skill required to be ranked among Chicago hip hop’s rising elite.
The Circus finds Jenkins at a pivotal point in his career. The positive reception around Pieces gave the rapper loads of momentum moving forward, but a groundbreaking album in 2020 would cement him as an unquestioned breakout star in the industry. I don’t expect this brief EP to be a conceptual masterpiece but I’m hoping it’s a promising introduction into the next phase of Mick’s capabilities.
Here are my rapid-fire takeaways after the first few listens:
3 Quick Takeaways:
Jenkins Juggles Many Topics But Never Overstays His Welcome
The Circus functions as a therapy session for Mick Jenkins — a 19-minute journey into the introspective mind of a man who just wants to get some thoughts off his chest. The Chicago emcee touches on societal struggles like police discrimination, addresses fake fans who only long for braggadocious bars and reveals his ultimate desire — to be carefree. Fame can become suffocating for those who prefer privacy and Mick craves a way to escape the circus that has become his reality.
For as scattered as his thoughts may seem, Jenkins keeps everything extremely focused on The Circus, opting for tightly-bound verses and brief runtimes instead of the multi-layered marathons that would populate his past offerings. Five of the seven tracks clock in at under two-and-a-half minutes and feature Mick never straying from his lyrical comfort zone. There’s a beauty to the brevity — a maturity from a hip hop veteran who knows how to confidently convey his concepts as efficiently as possible.
Legendary Producers Complement Mick’s Smooth Strengths
If you took one glance at the producer lineup before listening to The Circus, you might’ve expected Jenkins to shift his sound to fit the high-energy, earth-shattering beats those names are typically known for. Hit-Boy and Beat Butcha have a reputation for slapping you across the face with their beats and I was concerned the trap influences wouldn’t mix well with the atmospheric aesthetic Mick thrives in.
Luckily, the esteemed producers ended up taking a step back from their usual methods, crafting soundscapes that seem tailor-made with Mick in mind. On “Same Ol”, Hit-Boy puts his personal stamp on the production with drums that pack a punch, but there’s a haziness engulfing the beat that makes Jenkins’ deep, energetic flow feel right at home. Without the liner notes, I would’ve never guessed that the psychedelic “I’m Convinced” was constructed with the help of Beat Butcha. Black Milk, already connected to Mick after their work together on Pieces Of A Man, returns with a mellow bounce on “Carefree” that’s sparse enough for Jenkins to clearly unleash his elite storytelling abilities. Each producer flexes their own individual strengths, but Mick remains the star of the show.
The Circus Is An Appetizer But Feels More Like Dessert
In a statement before release day, Mick Jenkins claimed that The Circus is “a direct prelude to my forthcoming album.” Silent since 2018, the EP is Mick’s first opportunity to preview his next offering while also showcasing how he has grown as an artist since Pieces of a Man. So, what’s changed in the last 15 months? The answer is not much at all.
The Circus is Jenkins sticking to what he knows best: bars. The Mick that experimented with melodic hooks and bridges on his previous two projects is noticeably absent, but the thoughtful poet who can slay verses with stories or stunts is alive and well. While meant to provide a sneak-peek into the future, Mick chooses to tap into the past with this EP, selecting many songs that resemble the dream-like groove Pieces of a Man perfected. The energy may be turned up a notch, but it would be tough to convince me that tracks like “Carefree”, “I’m Convinced” and especially “Different Scales” weren’t among the final cuts for Pieces.
3 Best Tracks:
“Carefree” is the perfect concoction of everything that elevates Mick Jenkins on a track: effortless flows, compelling storytelling and Black Milk. Mick reminisces about a summertime night with his friends that takes a turn for the worse after the police show up and begin harassing them. Thankfully, the interaction isn’t fatal, but Jenkins spends the song longing for a peaceful life away from the circus of family members who won’t give him space, fans who won’t let him cook and cops who won’t let him breathe. “If you living carefree then you probably don’t look like us,” he spits, a cruel reminder of what African Americans experience on a daily basis.
“The Light” ft. EarthGang
“The Light” is the standout cut on this project, and not just because EarthGang’s Johnny Venus spends his first verse rapping to a gnat. IAMNOBODI creates a silky smooth soundscape with airy 808s and gentle keys that make you feel like you’re balancing on a tightrope. “Lately I been sober, chasin’ new highs,” Venus croons on the entrancing hook. Mick Jenkins and both members of EarthGang deliver stellar verses, stitching the song together with meditative bars and reflective imagery. I originally had high expectations for this track, a collaboration sequel to EarthGang’s 2017 cut “House”, and the song manages to exceed every lofty goal I had for it.
Housing some of the most technically impressive verses on the EP, it’s easy to believe “Different Scales” is Mick’s personal favorite song on The Circus. A master of alliteration and imagery, Jenkins reaches into his bag of tricks up and down the track, delivering quotables such as “You for the ‘Gram, we weighing this s*** on different scales,” and “Sup with the swine but wanna be goat, you really just sheep / you wanna be woke, you really just sleep.” Mick saves his finest bars for the final act of The Circus, putting a finishing flourish on the project.
The Circus is a re-introduction to the greatness of Mick Jenkins. The swift EP doesn’t take any risks, both sonically and thematically, but it doesn’t matter when Mick is rapping at the peak of his powers, doing what he does best. If the sound of this project is any indication, we are in store for a heavily rap-focused offering later this year full of the same storytelling and introspective poetics that Jenkins has consistently become known for. All praise aside, one thing is for sure: Mick Jenkins music is a nice way to kick off the new year.