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Mick Jenkins on his latest album 'The Patience'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mick Jenkins has been thinking a lot about how he makes music. On his latest album "The Patience," the rapper says he's finally come into his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MICHELIN STAR")

MICK JENKINS: (Rapping) Ay, speakers knock, but I didn't get in by my lonely. Lighters up, I got to burn one for the homies that forever stayed down since the only island that we seen was stony - water murky, that joint felt more like the Everglades.

SIMON: Mick Jenkins joins us now from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

JENKINS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You grew up in Chicago and in Huntsville, Ala. What do you think you learned from each place?

JENKINS: Yeah, quite the dichotomy. I was born in Huntsville, Ala. I was there until my parents separated and started their divorce. I think I was around 7 years old. I remember coming to Chicago on a Greyhound bus and just seeing - it was the immensity of the city immediately.

SIMON: Yeah.

JENKINS: The buildings reaching up to the sky - all of that was something that I had never really experienced before, especially coming from a much slower city where I think our biggest building at the time was a hotel (laughter), was the Embassy Suites - so, very different experience. Very early, my mother encouraged me to, like, explore the city on the train...

SIMON: Yeah.

JENKINS: ...And so - probably one of the biggest things that I learned that I probably still carry with me today as far as how I moved throughout the world.

SIMON: Yeah. You took the L?

JENKINS: Yes. Yeah, that was one of the first things I had to learn if I was going to be able to get around the city on my own - the L and the bus.

SIMON: We'll explain that although you rode the L as a youngster and a teenager, you're in a car now because you live in Los Angeles. So we're going to - we might hear some of the traffic noise. I have read that you discovered spoken word poetry in high school and this kind of set you off. What kind of connection did poetry make?

JENKINS: Well, my mother had always encouraged writing. She was heavy into journalism. I think she had an advertising job early on before she moved to Chicago. All I remember mostly is that she was a stickler for our writing in school. And so creative writing and all types of writing I was always interested in.

I found poetry through Def Poetry Jam on YouTube - hours and hours of watching that footage. And it connected to me as a writer just because that was something already that I was, you know, through my mother's instruction, becoming well-versed in. And I didn't have to write an entire essay to try to get a point across. I could be as funny or as flippant or as direct as I wanted to be. And I think that was very interesting to me.

I often let people know that the transition from poetry to full-on rapping was actually very subtle for me because of the people that I was around. It started with a group of guys that were in a poetry group that I was in called Art and Soul. A few of them rapped, and just being next to them and sharpening my pencil next to theirs is where I, you know, decided to write my first rap. And it didn't seem like such a transition for me. It just seemed like, well, this is what my other poet friends are doing. I'm going to try this form as well.

SIMON: By the way, that's a great phrase - sharpening my pencil next to theirs.

JENKINS: Yeah. Iron sharpens iron - in that case, graphite, graphite (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. Well, let me ask you about, for example, this song, "007."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "007")

JENKINS: (Rapping) Follow me, I got moose tracks. The right two cents is worth two racks. I talk that old jazz, a la Dave Brubeck. Push keys so dope, made you sweat. C notes so sweet under flames made brulee. Who let the dogs out? Watch n***** get maimed to death. Who left? We finna go all out. Albuterol gave new breath with pump action. Dodge the hate with the same two-step.

SIMON: Do I hear a little jazz influence in there, in addition to everything else?

JENKINS: Absolutely. I shout out Dave Brubeck, you know (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

JENKINS: It's where I started. We used a lot of jazz influence when I made "The Waters," and that has continued throughout my career. Why wouldn't it, you know? I think it's a...

SIMON: Yeah.

JENKINS: ...Great genre to experiment in naturally with some of the instrumentalists that we've had on the album. And it's definitely a great genre to sample and find inspiration from that way, which is something that we do. You heard the horn in the background. The more that I get turned on to, the more that I'm inspired.

And I think it's a big part of the attitude in my music as well. It's a big part of the way that I write - that perceived randomness with direction and splashes of things, that accent. I think that's a - it's definitely a way that I like to write as well. I tell people I love to create a pattern just to break it, and I think that is very much within the soul of jazz.

SIMON: Do you feel freer now than you did in some of your earlier recordings?

JENKINS: Absolutely. I was disgruntled in my situation for good reasons, and it affected my ability to do my best as an artist. You know, I think as an artist, we create from an emotional place. Our connection to our art is emotional. A lot of the themes that I push and messages that I'm trying to get across are bigger than me in my eyes.

And being in a situation where I'm uncomfortable - it's going to affect how I create. And it did. And anything that I could lump in that category is no longer what I'm dealing with. And it gives you a great breath of fresh air. And it gives me the space to be like, OK, now I can focus on exactly what I want to focus on.

SIMON: Let me ask you about "Smoke Break-Dance."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKE BREAK-DANCE")

JENKINS: (Rapping) And I keep rolling up. Weed blowing down. Weed blowing up. Hot air in me. We going up - still is. No feet going up. Fees going up. We pouring up. We throwing up gang signs. Trees going up in flames - find us a forest fire every smoke break. We opened up weak space, n****. We gave our hangtime. We trying to reclaim time. We finna rebuild - no Home Depot with us, people with us that come from the FaceTime. Low-key like the bassline, got smoke and I keep rolling up.

SIMON: What's the story of this song?

JENKINS: I'm a smoker. I'm an avid smoker. I'm in a weed-legal city, so I enjoy myself. I heard a smoking song, but I said to myself, not another smoking song - not another one, right? And so I then began to explore, all right, well, what can I do to pull out a theme here, right?

And I think it can be harmless, and it can seem harmless. But when you really start to examine why this is something that you continue to do, you might notice that you do have addictive behavior. And so in the video, we're actually not talking about smoking too much. We're talking about how young men can have ideas reinforced through their manhood that are destructive to themselves and people around them. But these are things that reinforce ideas of violence and how to handle conflict that aren't the best.

Just like smoking, the negative effects of that habit usually aren't seen until later - much later. It starts with that, what I say on the chorus - that I keep rolling up, I keep, I keep, I keep rolling up. And that's how I tried to attack the message of that song. But on the surface, you know, it sounds like another smoking song (laughter).

SIMON: Boy, but it's a lot more than that, isn't it?

JENKINS: Absolutely. I love doing that. I love having a thing for you to unpack, having something for you to listen to over and over and notice something on the 37th time that you didn't notice on the third.

SIMON: Wow. Mick Jenkins - his fourth album, "The Patience," is out now. Thank you so much for being with us.

JENKINS: Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKE BREAK-DANCE")

JENKINS: (Rapping) And I keep rolling up. Weed blowing down, weed blowing up. Hot air in me. We going up - still is. No feet going up. Fees going up. We pouring up. We throwing up gang signs. Trees going up in flames. Find us a forest fire every smoke break. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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