Mick Jenkins had L’Astral’s crowd chant the motto that epitomized his come-up. “Drink more…” “Water!!” It is the central theme of The Water[s], the 2014 mixtape that put rap fans on notice regarding Jenkins.
The project was acclaimed for its thick, sub-marine production and Jenkins’s thoughtful, pithy lyrics. Held together by the concept of water as a metaphor for truth, it explained that both were equally necessary. The “drink more water” line that punctuated The Water[s] urged listeners to learn more and to seek more truth. Jenkins’s confident, astute delivery made for a gripping listen, promoting water while many other rappers pushed lean. “I pray it’s never too preachy but I’m preaching,” admitted Jenkins on “Martyrs.” The mixtape remains his most popular body of work.
Jenkins rose with what is now recognized as a new-school wave of Chicago rap. His friends and collaborators include Chance the Rapper, Noname, Saba, Smino and Joey Purp. The Water[s] was significant for Montreal as well. At the time, Jenkins’s manager lived in the city, and Jenkins would make trips every few months. “I think it’s very similar to Chicago, at least on the creative spectrum,” he said in his 2015 Montreality interview. He collaborated with Montreal hip-hop veterans Da-P and High Klassified on the title track of the mixtape. Jenkins also made an anthem for the city, “514,” that became iconic for his Quebecois fans, rapping “I’ve been in the 514, my French getting too clean / Customs is routine, eating hella poutine, I think I’ma buy one more.” Since then, he has released albums and mixtapes that stay true to his standard of quality and pensive, quotable style, but failed to capture the cohesive nature of The Water[s] that had internet rap fans in a frenzy five years ago. It seems then like there are two factions of Jenkins fans, those that discovered the The Water[s] and maintain it as his pinnacle, and fans that may have missed the wave but know him as an excellent MC for his newer work.
It was clear that both groups made it out to L’Astral last Monday the 28th, surely more of the latter than the former. When Jenkins came out after opening California R&B rapper Kari Faux, he was visibly frustrated in the face of the crowd’s applause; after having technical issues and fixing them with his DJ, he tore into some of his new material. Standing at a solid six foot five, he towered over the crowd while hitting the gas on the mic and never easing off. Hearing his aggressive, labyrinthine flows thoroughly backed by his full, deep voice was truly impressive. Watching his new Kaytranada-produced single, “What Am I To Do,” felt like watching his COLORS episode unfold in front of you. All of this was over live drums and bass. Jenkins was accompanied by his DJ, a drummer, a bassist and frequent collaborator theMIND, for vocals and a feature song. The result sounded like butter, but it’s hard to rap in a vat of butter, and Jenkins often drowned in the instrumentals. In a rap show that focuses on a vibe or on the crowd yelling the words, that wouldn’t be an issue, but Jenkins can be hard to keep up with on record. His potent lyrics were stunted by the venue’s sound. This caused a disconnect between Jenkins and the crowd. He kept his movement to a simmer for most of the demanding set, putting energy into his voice over his body. His mid-tempo instrumentals don’t quite lend to dancing either. Fans who know his material were awestruck, while less hardcore fans were low-key about lyrics that weren’t quite clear. The divide in the fandom was never more apparent than when “514” dropped. The anthem by a Chicago rapper for a city that rarely gets mentioned in hip hop got a lukewarm enough reaction that Jenkins stopped in the middle of it to hype the crowd up. “Are you sure y’all know this?” he said, and motioned to cut the song to his DJ. He started it again and diehards rapped along, but couldn’t overpower the Monday-night energy that took over the casual listeners in the audience. It was gutting to watch the crowd go limp on the climax of the set: a song about their city. Near the end of the set, chants for “one more song” turned into “514.”
Mick tried to level with the crowd. He demanded silence and got a drunk yell from the back. He got ahold of the audience and closed with “Social Network,” which finally put the crowd in the kind of frenzy that had me scared for my camera.
It seems evident that a blasé crowd can keep a good show from being great. Indeed, the few hardcore fans that dotted the room bounced and yelled the words to “514” and were still unsuccessful at getting the room moving. But Jenkins was ultimately unable to crack the subdued atmosphere that started with his earlier tech frustrations. He chose his lyrical integrity over getting wild and animated, like we expect of rappers. While we can’t know if Jenkins upping his energy could have won the crowd back earlier in the set, there was a certain pretension and expectation of reverence for his lyrics that, while justifiable, wasn’t elevating the mood. Bad crowds are plentiful, and it was hard to deal with one as divided as L’Astral’s, but in the face of divided attention, Mick powered through for a show that impressed but didn’t connect with the room. From a musical perspective, Jenkins put on a rock-solid set with a truly impressive performance, but the preaching tone held back what could have been a party in the 514.