What is “love?” What forms can it take? How do you know when you feel it? These kinds of romance-based, open-ended questions are at the center of up-and-coming Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins’s debut album, The Healing Component, in which he channels gospel rap, recorded dialogue and pensive production in his search for answers.

It can go unsaid that love is a tired topic in music. It drives the ballads and the radio tracks and every third song on every album. But as artists do, Jenkins tries to put a new spin on an old concept in this album.

In some ways he’s successful. There’s a remarkable sense of candor here, particularly on the spoken word interludes. The album opens on one such interlude, as Jenkins and a female friend go back and forth over whether she truly understands “The Healing Component,” the album’s namesake. The laughs and pauses feel genuine — far less staged than the lion’s share of similar album antics. Most intriguing of these dialogues is “This Type Love?” in which Jenkins and presumably the same woman discuss whether you feel love differently from relationship to relationship. Jenkins is uncomfortable making a conclusive decision, even as the woman pushes him to give an answer. These are the kinds of talks for the quietest hours of the night, after the party has finally died down and everyone wants to be “real.”

Jenkins has no issue pointing that candor at big names in the industry, too. He questions Kanye, interpolating a line from Yeezus — “When the real hold you down, you supposed to drown” —  but turning it around: “Wait, wait, that don’t sound right.” And he takes shots at Drake for not giving credit to those who helped him, asking “If Drake ain’t holding down Quentin Miller why the fuck would I ever give any credit to you?” There are a number of genuine critiques on this album, bemoaning the lack of substance in rap today and begging to bring the culture back to something meaningful.

But it’s that self-righteousness that can get Jenkins into trouble musically. He has big ideas, and there’s an admirable ambition here, but there are times when that ambition stretches itself thin on The Healing Component, like a miles-long pool sinking only a few inches deep.

Take the album’s title: “The Healing Component.” It’s clearly a stab at a “concept album” (whatever that means anymore), but that huge, overarching thesis meant to drive the album seems more like a truism than anything else. “The Healing Component is love,” Jenkins says (it’s also quite obviously acronymic for THC, the main active drug in marijuana).

While that’s all nice and tidy, Jenkins’s “Healing Component” never dives deeper than that, and no further explanation is attempted. This kind of cliché preaching found throughout his lyricism can be frustrating at first, but becomes nearly galling when Jenkins sets himself up as a better-than-you figure in a number of the dialogues — “Like she’ll be tryna like … level the playing field all the time. I’m just like yo, reality is like, you not as stressed as me, you don’t have as much shit going on as me …” 

Thus, listening to the album front to back can be both tiring and unfulfilling — a product of occasional redundancy. Still, a number of tracks find their footing to walk the line between ambition and groundedness. “As Seen in Bethsaida” is an immediate standout, with Themind’s vocal hooks balancing out Jenkins biting verses. The track name is a reference to Jesus, but the actual lyrics are far more universal, not based in a single religion but on the wide-reaching struggle of Black Americans, and people in general. “Strange Love,” which takes shots at Tyler Perry (among others) for making the lives of Black Americans a minstrel movie, digs deeper than the majority of the album can manage. And “Daniels Bloom” is a brooding, dark track which remains potent listen after listen.

Missing, though, are the clear-headed, uncluttered efforts like “Jazz” from The Water[s], or the immediately arresting tracks of Wave[s], like the standout “Alchemy.” The result is that The Healing Component loses its memorability in Jenkins’ discography, a worrying effect for a debut.

Nonetheless, Jenkins shows enough promise to remain relevant in 2016. His sophomore effort, though, should hit a bit harder. 

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