Twenty-year-old New York rapper MIKE doesn’t make “conscious” rap—he makes rap for achieving higher states of consciousness. Since he was just 17 years old, Michael Jordan Bonema has been releasing music at a frenetic pace that moves at a similarly frenetic pace, each album or mixtape flowing at a similarly dizzying clip, with one two-minute track flowing into another as if he were freestyling over a hazier, wobblier Donuts. His delivery is low-key, his enunciation less than precise—he doesn’t so much spit bars as drift in and out of them, riding a wave of psychedelic surrealism like a spectral, half-remembered broadcast interruption at 3 a.m. Every MIKE record is like a hallucination in the best way, which makes it all the more disarming when he uses his latest record as a means to open up about some deeply personal experiences.
Tears of Joy, MIKE’s sixth album—or mixtape, the distinction is arbitrary anymore—opens as dreamily and otherworldly as ever, with a backing track whose instruments are tricky to place (flute, maybe?). Blissful though it might seem, once MIKE opens up, it’s a subtle but devastating expression of grief: “The feeling when you got robbed/Somebody playing with my mom, hope it’s not God.” Between the hazy filters and trans-dimensional shift, MIKE infuses his latest record with deeper meaning and heavier emotional weight. Over the bubbly, lounge backing from Ohbliv on “Whole Wide World,” MIKE puts into perspective a rap career in a grander scheme: “Shit scary, but I stay spinning/Looking through obituaries with your name in it…I seen niggas losing sense tryna gain listens.” And on “memorial,” he finds grief interfering with his creative process, lamenting, “I couldn’t write much because it hurt mind/Why does trying seem to buck me at the worst times?”
As much as Tears of Joy is an emotional album, it’s just as much a feast for the senses—if not more so. Time was, you were either earnest or weird, but rarely both. MIKE makes a strong argument to the contrary throughout this album’s 20 tracks with a long list of producers stitching these tracks together in a seamless flow of sublime hallucinations. Echoing keyboard sounds give “summer 17″ the feel of being underwater, while “Ain’t no love” is warmly stoned soul of the highest (cough) order. And closing track “Stargazer pt. 3,” arguably the album’s peak, swirls some crackly ’70s horns to create an acid trip underneath Vegas marquee lights.
Tears of Joy is a more personal journey for MIKE, one that gives us a chance to understand his own personal grief, his ambition, his fears and anxieties. But it’s never overwrought or melodramatic, just a glimpse inside the mind of one of the best young rappers today. And it’s all set to a soundtrack of surrealist, otherworldly beats that take the material outside of hip-hop and through a vortex into unknown worlds.