Mick Jenkins’ 1967 Ford Mustang doesn’t radiate colors off of its normally glossy exterior. It’s a deep, dark silver, and he compares it to matte black, into which other hues disappear like quicksand. He bought it on Craigslist for $5,000. The 28-year-old Chicago rapper, whose music submerges itself in the political and social subconscious, estimates that he’s put $22,000 into pimping his ride. Now, he cackles as he relives the reactions he gets when he arrives at events. “When I pull up, I don’t give a fuck what’s out there,” he tells MTV News over the phone. “It gets the same love as a Maserati. People go crazy because you don’t see shit like that.”
You’d think by this adoration that Jenkins’s music would center around his accomplishments, but that’s not quite the story. Since his 2012 debut project, The Mickstape, Jenkins’s raps have explored his viewpoint of society through an evolving mind and through the lens of his Christian faith. He can expound upon the importance of drinking water and then flip it into washing away your sins with it, with God’s help.
For Jenkins’s latest project, The Circus, though, his car is at the center of its grand spectacle. While his previous project, Pieces of a Man, went inwards to squint at his id, The Circus casts himself aside (or rather, puts him inside his ride for a nighttime visit to a park) and instead focuses on the world at large, in all its frequent ugliness. “It’s about society,” he says. “We’re all performing for peanuts and being asked to do amazing things for people. We’re being robbed of certain humanities and our uniqueness is being exploited.”
The LP’s seven songs come together to paint a picture of society that Jenkins is complicit in: one that shows how we’re all acting out for the audience of smartphone cameras that record and chronicle our every move. The Circus treks through the feelings and experiences of processing that kind of surveillance. On opener “Same Ol,” Jenkins laughs at how nothing ever changes. “Game don’t switch, you know this, shit don’t stop,” he raps on the chorus, following it a line as certain as death and taxes. “Money gonna come, money gonna go, somebody catching it if it drops.”
“Carefree,” meanwhile, is a foreboding story about a police confrontation that finds Jenkins performing for an audience at the beach, “off the drugs” and “off the drinks” as he spits. The first verse sets a breezy mood underneath the stars. “Shawty never smoked kush like this, some fire-ass music playing, grinding on me / You know I had to push right back, reflex, respect,” he raps, recalling the good times.
After the chorus, Jenkins’s heart jumps into his throat when the police come to ruin the group’s fun. “Can’t even look me in my face,” he spits, disgusted at the officer. “So quick to shoot, no Devin Booker.” The song ends with Jenkins getting a ticket for his windows being too dark, which he based entirely in reality. “We really got rolled up on at the beach, crazy as hell, at 11:15 because the park closed at 11,” he says. This fear, this kind of confrontation, this spectacle put on display — they all dig into the layers of performances that we play.
On The Circus, Jenkins doesn’t have to play alone. The project’s lone feature comes courtesy of Earthgang, the eclectic rap duo signed to Dreamville Records that Jenkins has become close with. “They are so fire, and I’ve been working with them for a while,” he says about their collaboration, “The Light.” It’s the sole soul spot on the EP, which Jenkins says is part of “a ton of soulful stuff that I’ve been working on; it’s just not on here.” Earthgang’s presence is personal for him. “They showed me a lot of love before they knew who I really was,” he says. “We made a couple of records back then. I’m super excited to continue working with them.”
Wedged firmly in the center of the EP is “Flaunt,” on which Jenkins’s normally socially conscious music turns toward shit-talking. It’s him acting for the audience, chuckling as he shows off the fruits of his labor. Though he may sound like he doesn’t want to do it, Jenkins is flexing. “I love to humblebrag,” he says about the song. “I’ve got a couple of things that cost a couple of bucks.” In addition to his Mustang, his favorite material possessions he’s purchased in the last few years are his new Mamiya RB67 SLR camera and original artwork that he’s bought from artists that he’s “connected to.”
It doesn’t matter what he buys, though; he’s still in the center of The Circus, a project about the ways we put on for each other, told through songs involving putting on for listeners, for friends, and for Jenkins himself. There’s a lot to unpack, as its orange and maroon cover art reveals; on it, a cartoon version of Jenkins juggles on top of an elephant inside a ring of fire. For those who want the rest of the story — Jenkins calls The Circus “a direct prequel” to his next album — they’ll have to parse the artwork for details. “Whatever you need to know, it’s alluded to on the cover.” Before he can elaborate, he ends the call with a bow, signaling the end of the show. For now.