The first Mick Jenkins song I ever heard was “Value Village.” On the smooth, piano-laced track, Jenkins breaks down why he opts to shop at the local thrift store instead of spending hefty sums of cash on un-used, brand name clothing. What first caught my attention about the 2011 record was MJ’s ability to take such a simple message and convey it in a plethora of ways, all the while employing an effortless flow and crystal clear delivery. But what makes the record so special is that it accurately depicts a part of teenage culture that so many kids across the country can relate to. No offense to 2014 Grammy winner Macklemore‘s 2012 hit “Thrift Shop,” but Jenkins’ song is leaps and bounds ahead because of its authenticity. The video begins with Mick ordering Taco Bell drive-thru and cuts to him hitting up the thrift, a common weekday activity for many a high school student. You want real? Hell, the video was shot on an iPod touch.

Three years later, the South side, Chicago native is older, wiser, and even more polished as an emcee. Rocking a white v-neck and grey fedora hat, he performs in front of a sold-out Canopy Club crowd on a rainy night in Champaign. The set is highlighted by “Martyrs,” Jenkins’ breakout song which garnered him national attention and helped him land a 4/20 Smoker’s Club show with Joey Bada$$ in New York City. Near the end of the concert this past Thursday night, headliner Frank Leone calls Mick and fellow Chi-town spitter Saba (featured on Chance The Rapper‘s Acid Rap and hailed as one of the best live performers in the city) to the stage for a freestyle over Mobb Deep‘s classic instrumental “Shook Ones Pt. II.” Only one problem: Jenkins is deeply immersed in conversation by the bar and is oblivious to Leone’s request; so I tap him on the shoulder to let him know that he’s being corralled back on stage for an encore. At 6’5″, he’s easily the tallest person in the building, which makes for an even more imposing stage presence. Jenkins rips the freestyle, although as he admits to me afterwards, his buddy Saba may have gotten the best of him.

I catch up with Mick for a few minutes after Leone finishes up his set, and we touch on topics such as his new mixtape The Water[s], his upcoming collaboration with Bada$$, and the abundance of hip-hop talent coming out of the Windy City these days. Jenkins compares the ongoing, and well-deserved, countrywide recognition of Chi-town artists to a “scavenger hunt,” with “easter eggs everywhere.” Look no further than Chance and Vic Mensa, two artists featured on Mick’s track “Crossroads” that are now reaping the benefits of a nationwide following. Read our brief conversation below, and make sure to read until the end as Saba hijacks the interview to spark a fake beef with Jenkins.

UPC: First of all, great performance. I especially liked the Shook Ones freestyle that Frank brought you on stage for during his set. Was that planned out or was that just spontaneous?

Mick Jenkins: He told us to come up before, but I didn’t realize at the time that that’s what was happening. I was just in the middle of a conversation. Saba really killed that shit.

UPC: You put out Trees & Truths, a mixtape which I really liked. Like I mentioned to you earlier, even some of my homies from the East Coast really appreciate the music you’ve been putting out. And now you’ve got The Water[s] coming out pretty soon. Can you talk about the creative process that went into that?

MJ: At every level, we try to elevate what we’re doing, you know what I’m saying? Before Trees & Truths was just something where I recorded the first 13 songs and went ahead and was like, ‘Alright, this is the tape.’ I just want to take more care and time with The Water[s]. I just recorded a bunch of songs and chose from them — which I feel like is just a much better — it lets me form the story better, you know what I’m saying? It gives me drafts. When I have 15 to 20 songs and I’m only choosing 12 to 13. That’s something that I’ve wanted to do a lot more, and something that we did we The Water[s], as well as production. I usually would just get beats sent to me or rip them off YouTube or something like that. So I’ve really been taking pride in being able to go in the studio and work with producers and let them know what I am looking for, and then collectively and collaboratively coming out with a finished product, you know what I’m saying? And when I’m there from the inception of the beat, you know what I’m saying, from picking the sample to making the drums, I feel like it helps me capture the feel of the song moreso than if I just got sent the instrumental and I was just trying to write something to it. It’s just taking a lot more care. As I’ve grown in who I am as a person, the music is a reflection of that. And I want The Water[s] to show you how I’ve grown.

UPC: That makes tons of sense. So, when we were talking earlier, you mentioned that your next show is going to be in New York with Joey Bada$$ on 4/20. Talk to me about how you guys came to be in contact. 

MJ: The “Martyrs” video really did a lot for me as far as exposure and getting noticed by certain people. When I was in New York going around to like Billboard and XXL and shit like that, I ended up meeting him and then it just built organically from there. Everything that we’ve done so far, we’ve been blessed to be in a situation where it can build organically. So I met him and we chopped it up and I actually met the rest of Pro Era too and we just chopped it up. We tweeted back and forth a little after that, we’ve got some shit coming. And yeah, that show just ended up happening through my booking agent and that was a surprise to me. But I’m gonna ROCK that shit. It’s a 4/20 with the Smoker’s Club. I’m super excited about that, so yeah, I’m super stoked for that.

UPC: There’s so much talent in Chicago right now. Speak to me a little bit about the Chicago explosion, because that’s really what it is: an explosion of talent.

MJ: I think it’s cool, I think it’s exactly what we need on a creative aspect. From the ‘street music’ to the ‘less street music,’ I guess you would call it. I don’t think you would call my music ‘street music,’ but it’s real. The attention got turned here via “I Don’t Like” and after that it’s been a… a scavenger hunt for uncovering new talent… Like there’s easter eggs everywhere, you feel me? And I think what makes it crazy is the fact that we all have some type of camaraderie with each other. Even if I don’t know you personally, I know somebody that fucks with you. I know Pivot, I know a lot of niggas in Save Money, I know a lot of niggas in The Village, I know niggas in Treated Crew. It’s just everybody feeds off each other, so when somebody else… but it’s still competition, so when somebody else puts something dope out, you want to one-up them. It just keeps the competitiveness for the creativity alive.

UPC: It’s a sport. 

MJ: Yeah. And I think it’s exactly what we need.

Saba: There is no competition. You’re not fucking with me bro! You’re not fucking with me, G!

MJ: [laughs] And there you have it. I am not fucking with Saba of the Pivot crew.

UPC: Breaking news everyone: there is now beef between Mick Jenkins and Pivot Gang.

Watch the video for “Martyrs” below and download Mick Jenkins’ 2013 mixtape, Trees & Truths. Expect The Water[s] to drop in May.