Elephants in My Room: An Essay by Mick Jenkins

Mick Jenkins' 'Elephant in the Room' LP sees him confronting issues in his personal and professional life in order to grow. He shares more in this essay.

mick jenkins by bryan allen lamb

Photo by Bryan Lamb

mick jenkins by bryan allen lamb

As told to Alex Fruchter

I’ve never been in a situation to take my time in my career. After Trees and Truths came out in 2013, everything got warped and we were moving really fast. One thing that I hate, hate, hate doing is having a single out and we don’t have the next thing ready to go. We may have made a move on the board and we don’t know what the next four moves are. I hate doing that shit. I didn’t really allow myself to do that in this case. I didn’t want any content to be created for halfway done songs, I didn’t want treatments for anything that wasn’t absolutely finished. That in itself made the album creation process way less stressful because I wasn’t trying to meet a deadline I set before I started making music. I wasn’t trying to rush around and get features from people on a deadline. It very much left me to create what I like, pick what I like, put it together. I don’t think we had the album until June. I just took my time. I wasn’t in a rush in any shape or form.

I give a lot of credit for that to my home life. I feel like the pandemic accelerated some things that my wife and I needed to get through. It actually let me see how the work day keeps you from getting to shit that you could probably handle way faster if there wasn’t eight hours per day that you aren’t with each other. We were allowed to process and work through things that I’m sure would have taken us another year to properly address. Coming out of that, I feel like I had a lot of peace at the crib that absolutely determined how free I was when I stepped into the studio.

I know what it is to be in the studio while being upset with your girl. And that’s not really productive at all. I think I’ve only ever created one good song in that space. That’s such a hard space for me to be creative in, when my wife and I aren’t on good terms. The pandemic elevated some of our bigger issues because we had more time and space to focus on them and get through them. Coming out of that, I had these new tools for addressing conflict, certain things that hadn’t been addressed were being processed. I had a peace and clarity that I have to give credit to when I talk about the space I was in while creating Elephant In The Room.

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We talk a lot in rap about how the album artwork is an afterthought. Album artwork used to be an afterthought for me, and song artwork in general. Now I switched that perspective and started to use art. It gives me the opportunity to commission art and it gives me the opportunity to collaborate with artists that I never would have otherwise. I like people’s interpretation of my music, especially people’s opinion that I value or I care about. I think it gives a window into the exploration of my words, and how people receive them. That’s something I’m really fascinated by. When I’m writing, I take a lot of time to think about how people are going to receive what I’m saying. What did you actually get from the album versus what did I intend for you to receive? 

Letting Ferrari Sheppard sit with the music was also about how he sees this. How do you see it? What does it feel like to you? He had a very accurate interpretation of what it was I was trying to say. I thought the monkey on the back was genius. When people use that phrase, we’re usually talking about something that’s been there. We let it be there. That’s what the monkey on the back represents to me. You’re not constantly pulling at the monkey on your back, you let it be there and you say something about it, but you rarely do anything about it.

I remember him unveiling the cover to me and I immediately thought it was perfect. I worried a little bit about the fact that the album is called Elephant in The Room and there’s a monkey on the cover, but at the heart of the issue it’s speaking to the same thing. The monkey on your back is the elephant in the room in the sense that a lot of times when that’s how we feel, there’s a problem and we are not doing as much as we can do about it.

I was aware that I had things I needed to address. That’s something I’ve been aware of for a while, probably before The Healing Component. Just out of my own maturity, I had to learn how to deal with things like issues, trauma, and motherfuckers I don’t like. I had to learn how to deal with life, learn how to process what’s happened to me, and come out on the other side. I realized that’s something music has been doing for me anyway, without even being conscious of it. Once I realized that, my thought process was, “OK, how do I do this intentionally?” Pieces of a Man was me doing that on a large scale, I was really getting into myself for the two years before that album came out.

To keep a buck with you, I planned on creating a completely different album before Elephant in the Room. I look at Chance and Kendrick as a blueprint for cooking up an album. I know that blueprint has been used before, but these are the people that I can see to my left and right. They have a main person on engineering and sound, one who takes care of instruments and brings in other musicians or instrumentalists. They have a main person who chops up the samples. I feel like that would be a great home-base for cooking up an album. I’ve watched other people do it that way, so I was putting this team together and I had an epiphany. 

“I had to learn how to deal with life, learn how to process what’s happened to me, and come out on the other side. I realized that’s something music has been doing for me anyway.”

Why would I put all my time and effort and resources into making this grand album? Why would I make this an attempt at my best work, my magnum opus, so that a label could have 50% of my best shit? I’d be sick if someone had 50% of my Illmatic, 50% of my College Dropout.

I’m not about to set out with all the intention to do something like that so that somebody else can have a big piece of it. I pivoted from that idea and had to think—what else can I do that is still an impactful offering to people? That’s how Elephant in the Room came up, born out of that frustration of looking for what to do. This thing that I don’t ever talk about is how this label situation has stifled me. I literally don’t speak about this shit that much. Very wild shit has happened behind the scenes that I don’t talk about and I could really light motherfuckers up, and I think that’s kind of what brought me to Elephant in the Room. There’s a lot of shit that I feel like I am not saying that I could say, whether it be to the man, to the industry, to myself within my own life—there are things I see that I don’t ever talk about. That’s the inception of Elephant in the Room, and from there I was just picking a bunch of different topics that I felt would be good elephants in the room.

This album was pretty easy to write because these are all personal experiences. A personal experience that is more like a journey is very easy to write about because all I have to do is talk about what I experienced, figure out how to make it rhyme, and throw a bar or two in there. But the most poignant aspect of songs like that is the fact that this actually happened, so if I write it a certain way, people will be able to tell that it actually happened. I don’t need as many bars, I don’t need as many crazy rhyme schemes, even though that’s how I think.

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A song like “Scottie Pippen” is very easy to write. I was so in tune with what happened in that situation. It happened to me, and I had to process it for me, and for my wife. We had multiple conversations on how I offended her. By the time I was ready to write poetry about it, it was relatively easy to touch on things that I knew were going to touch other people, and tug at some of the heartstrings in that story.

“Reflections” was a super easy song to write. I’ve been dealing with the bullshit from my father for the better part of 20 years. Zeroing in on specific parts to write about is super, super simple. Something like “Is, This Cigarettes,” where I’m speaking to an idea about something that I really like that might be hurting, that’s not an idea that comes from one specific situation. That’s an idea that comes from an entire adulthood of perspectives and ideologies about the way that the world works, especially within the bounds of the internet. That’s harder to write. There’s a lot of bars in there. There’s way more playing with the rhyme scheme in there. I took my time writing something like that because I’m trying to pin this. I’m trying to be acrobatic. When I’m telling a story that’s so close to home, I can write it as I think it. But a song like “Is, This Cigarettes,” a song like “Stiff Arm,” a song like “D.U.I.” takes a little bit more time to do.

“Speed Racer” with Saba came because we were having a conversation about how we had not been friends like that, that we had drifted away from how close we used to be. How much we used to link up and how much we used to see each other. He was calling me kind of frustrated about it. I told him to swing by the crib, and we had an hour-long conversation. And then we made the song. I think a lot of times there’s a space with friends where we don’t really have any issues, but our friendship is not the same anymore.

For me and Saba, we both just started taking off. I took off, I broke national attention and then Saba broke national attention a year later. Then I go on big tours, Saba goes on big tours. I got a squad behind me, he’s got a squad behind him, we were just moving, we were busy, we were getting it. We weren’t on the phone with each other as much. There’s not any bad blood, we just had different priorities in this period of time. I see Saba two or three times a week now, but at the time it was, “Hey man, I don’t like the way our friendship is right now because of things and this is me saying something about it.” That’s how “Speed Racer” came together. I feel like that kind of thing is something we don’t highlight for ourselves or give the kind of urgency that it deserves.

mick jenkins by bryan allen lamb

I realized that I have to compartmentalize. There’s gotta be work and then there’s gotta be home. I think I realized it fast, probably the people close to me think it took a long time. There’s work and there’s home. A lot of times in the music industry, those lines can be blurred and that area can be grey. I think that balance is very important if you want to have a certain type of sanity and be successful. If you just want to be successful and you’re not really concerned with your day-to-day happiness and life and family, then you’re gonna look at it another way. If you’re concerned with your day-to-day life, happiness, and sanity, then there’s some things in the industry that you’re not going to be a part of. I think around 2018 was when I realized it was very important to have a very good balance of both. That was one of the biggest things I realized.

Coming up, I was around people that were really successful. People were really successful and really miserable. I’m watching you, you got this going, that going... but you don’t sleep, you’re always sick. I watch how people react to you, people don’t trust you, and I realized I don’t want that, even if it comes with success. I don’t want to be moving like that. I don’t want to be taking care of myself like that. I think there were a couple things that let me know really fast that I need to be worried about my own health and sanity and prosperity in this space. I need to take care of myself. I think that means a lot more than just looking out for myself.

When we first started talking about this album, my manager Jon B said, “You don’t have to refer to yourself as the elephant in the room.” I was like, “Whoa, I know.” I’m not really referring to myself as the elephant in the room, but his perception that I was speaks to how much I am frustrated, and how much he knows I’m frustrated with the respect or recognition or props that I don’t get from a certain part of the industry, while knowing that I’m one of the best writers here. The last song on the album, “Rug Burn,” originally ended with me saying “n***as is sleeping on me,” instead of “real n***as know.” In the original version I keep saying, “They sleeping on me, they sleeping on me, they sleeping on me.” And I was like, “Man, you sound like you’re bitchin’ at the end of the album. You want to end the album crying about how many people are sleeping on you? That’s kind of crazy.” 

I took it back and I can say “real n***as know,” because that’s the truth. I am in this position because those who recognize, recognize. They know. And that’s who matters the most anyway, the people that actually understand this thing called hip-hop at a certain level. Not the casuals. The people who really, really get it. Those are the only people who really mattered anyway. That’s something that I constantly have to tell myself as a competitor feeling like I write amongst the best. And they’re all the way through and through my peers, from age to ability. 

“That’s who matters the most anyway, the people that actually understand this thing called hip-hop at a certain level. Not the casuals. The people who really, really get it.”

One of the things that irks me is when another rapper is getting praised on a certain level for writing, and it’s not that crazy. But again, I feel like that’s not really the right kind of mentality to have, and I have to acknowledge that. Part of that is competitiveness, but part of that is jealousy because you feel like you deserve something. You feel like you should be something. Part of that is just straight up coveting what a motherfucker is getting—the type of attention, or the situation, or the money. I try to keep the right mindset about that shit. 

Whether or not people acknowledge me, doesn’t make me any less. All that really, really matters is how I feel about myself. I have to remind myself that I do this to reach out to people, I do this so people can learn from me, I do this for a lot of other reasons than just trying to show you how good I am, than just trying to be the best. It’s way more than that. I recognize that getting wrapped up in somebody not praising you, or who’s on this list, or who’s the best, or what people are saying is the best is not a good space to be in at all. It’s not really how you want to live your life as an artist. It’s definitely something that I have to remind myself. It’s super easy to feel like that when everybody’s singing “burn that fucking hard drive” and asking me if I heard what Kendrick said. Yeah bro, I took that personally.

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One of the other examples of conditioning that I had to get through is the shit that I was taught as a man. That has been some of the biggest shit that I’ve been unlearning. That’s why on “Scottie Pippen” I say, “You’re a brand new conditioner, I didn’t know that I was auditioning though.” I think that my wife has introduced me to many different things and the urgency at which they need to be addressed. I don’t think every single thing that I’m talking about was something that I was unaware of before she came into my life, but I think I was not clear on the urgency at which these things needed to be addressed or forgotten or unlearned. 

You may not hear it as much in the album, but the peace at home is what I feel like allowed the music to be made this way, to be able to write “Scottie Pippen” or “Reflections” with a clear mind and make something dope out of something that happened to me. A big part of getting to that space was opening up with my wife about money. I had a tough time borrowing money, or asking for money, or allowing her to pay for things for me.

Conditioning. It didn’t have anything to do with her. It didn’t have anything to do with how she acted or how she treated me. It had to do with what I was raised to believe about what it meant if you did have and could provide, and what it meant if you didn’t have and couldn’t provide. And what it meant if she had, and had to provide when I couldn’t. That’s something that we got through a lot over the pandemic when I could not work. I could not make any money, except via the internet which was a lot harder. Getting through that, getting past that, I don’t have any problems now. Me talking about that specifically isn’t so apparent on the album, but talking through that absolutely put me in position to be able to speak on this array of things the way I did.

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I’m pretty confident in this music. The way people have reacted to it, I know it’s gonna do what I want it to do. All I want is for people to be able to identify with one of my stories here. I want people to feel it. I want people to be able to connect with it. These are all elephants in the room. These are things that happen that we don’t talk about. These are perspectives that we see a lot of time and choose to be silent about. Sometimes it’s a thing that plagues us, sometimes it’s tearing down our relationships. “Things You Could Die For If Doing While Black” is just the way society works.

I had the thought while I was making this music, but reaction to it has only verified my thoughts. Yup, I know that motherfuckers know what this feels like. For “Reflections,” anyone that’s ever had any father issues at all, you’re going to identify with something I said in this song. “Scottie Pippen,” if you’re in a serious relationship, you’ll feel something that I said here. If you have a lot of friends, then you’re gonna feel “Speed Racer.” I was speaking to such personal and recognizable things that I know we all experience. I know there’s no way a lot of people aren’t going to feel this. I was really confident about that, and I know that’s what it is doing for people.

What’s coming next is a reinvention of myself. Not saying I’m about to switch everything that I’m doing, but I’m definitely stepping into a new space.

For myself, knowing that it was my last album on Cinematic, knowing that I pivoted from what I truly, truly want to do, the focus was was: make sure the music is good. I know how disconnected I am going to be. However it looks to people, I’m already well into my next shit. After I finished this joint in June, outside of playing it for people, I was moving on. My mentality was, “This is the thing that gets me out, and once I’m out, I gotta get to the next shit.” 

What’s coming next is a reinvention of myself. Not saying I’m about to switch everything that I’m doing, but I’m definitely stepping into a new space. I think that’s a part of why this album was so personal, knowing that this was going to be the last of this space I’m stepping out of, I need to be able to love it.

The idea of Elephant in the Room is a great and easy space to play with conceptually. The process was: find a thing you don’t really talk about and try to make a song out of it. My options and what I could do were limitless. I got out some really heavy shit. I feel really good about what I did. And I love the music! I feel like it did everything it needed to do for me. It gave me space to express some things and articulate some things that I needed to. I made a really good project. I think it’s some of my most cohesive production, and playing it for people and reading these comments from the first few days is verifying what I was really confident in already, that there’s no way this isn’t going to hit home for a good chunk of people. I’m super happy with it. I think this is the most complete project I’ve made for sure.

Overall, I’m in a good space. I’m already working on the next moves. I’m finally out of my deal. I moved to LA with my wife four months ago. I felt that I did everything I could do in Chicago short of the greats. I’m just happy to be able to stretch my arms and know that I’ll be able to do whatever I want to do.

mick jenkins by bryan allen lamb