Album Review: MIKE - Tears of Joy

Born Michael Jordan Bonema, he, at all of 20 years old, performs simply under the name MIKE—stylized, like that, in all capital letters. Originally from New Jersey, he grew up in London before returning to the United States—spending his teenage years first in Philadelphia, then Brooklyn, then finally the Bronx.

Bonema began rapping in his early teens, and thanks to the ease of home recording and releasing things digitally via sites like Bandcamp or streaming on Soundcloud, his output has been more than prolific over the last four years, issuing a mix of singles, EPs, and six full length LPs—most recently including War in My Pen, which arrived digitally at the end of 2018 and saw a limited physical release via Ain’t Wet, and the just unveiled Tears of Joy, his most sprawling, dizzying, and claustrophobic effort yet.

Much like a number of other rappers and producers that I’ve been properly introduced to in 2019, Bonema is a member of the sLUms (stylized, like that)—a somewhat loose collective that also includes King Carter (sometimes referred to as King Carter Slums) and Adé Hakim among its ranks, as well as a number of others; if that weren’t enough, Bonema and Hakim are involved in a separate trio with rapper Medhane named Sixpress.

Both groups, collectives—whatever you want to call them, have been associated with Earl Sweatshirt, who was an early supporter, mentor, and eventual friend to Bonema, shouting out Sixpress on “Nowhere2go,” and mentioning Bonema himself twice on Some Rap Songs—once on “Nowhere2go,” and then again on “The Mint”—“I was in the kitchen with that ni**a Mike.”

Slightly over 40 minutes in length, Bonema’s latest full length effort, Tears of Joy, is a staggering 20 tracks long—the shortest piece on it runs just over a minute; the longest, nearly five. Released on June 21st, I downloaded it the morning it was released via his Bandcamp page (Mike Likes Rap), and have been sitting with it since then, listening to it almost every day, sometimes even more than once a day, in an effort to wrap my brain around it, and find an easy point of access.

The easiest way to describe Tears of Joy, aside from being ‘independent or underground’ rap music is that it is staggering in its brilliance, as well as in its difficulties—but neither of those things should be surprising for anyone who has listened to one of Bonema’s previous efforts, like War in My Pen, or Renaissance Man, or the album that is probably responsible for putting him into a slightly larger spotlight, May God Bless Your Hustle. All of Bonema’s music is dense and thought provoking, but he, and his group of producers, create such an impenetrable atmosphere, it’s a challenge to know where to begin.

Tears of Joy is both a dark record, and not a dark record.

It is not a jubilant album by any means, though at times, the cloud that overshadows a bulk of it breaks just slightly—enough for there to be a glimmer of what, I suppose, you could maybe call hope—but don’t get it twisted: this is not a hopeful record, either, by any means. Like so many other artists, making so many challenging and thought provoking records out there, Bonema asks a lot of questions on Tears of Joy, but by the time it finishes, there is little, if any, easy answers or resolve.

It’s almost all too easy to get completely lost in the environment created by Tears of Joy, as it is to get lost in almost any record that I have sat down with from Bonema’s growing canon—as it is to get lost in records released by his associates in sLUms or other outfits revolving around that collective, such as Jasper Marsalis’ Slauson Malone project. That is the ‘all encompassing’ nature these individuals have with the music they are putting out into the world.

Due to the length of some of these songs included on Tears of Joy, you’d think it arrives as a bit of a ‘sound collage,’ or that these come off as sketches—seemingly unfinished ideas. But that isn’t the case—there are times when, due to the near collisions that occur between the ending of one track, and the beginning of another, that Tears of Joy is reminiscent of Some Rap Songs, Bonema’s mentor and friend, Earl Sweatshirt’s dizzying album released late in 2018.

With that being said, because of how Tears of Joy is constructed, with songs coming one right after another with little to no time to breathe in between, the album is intended to be taken as a whole—there is almost no way to pick it apart and say one track is your ‘favorite,’ or find a song that could stand out as a single, because Bonema isn’t making that kind of rap music. Sure, there are tracks that may stand out a little more than others, or lyrics from one that might be more impactful or memorable, but from the minute you press ‘play,’ the implication with this is that you sit with it until the conclusion, and in that sense, it is an unrelenting, at times disorienting, and often wondrous album.

 A dark year followed by a hard month…..

Those lyrics come near the end of the first part of “Scarred Lungs,” the two-part track that opens up Tears of Joy. The thing to know about this album, aside from the fact that it is anchored in skittering, jittery, lo-fi production, and Bonema’s now trademark fragmented lyricism and deep, booming delivery, is that it was written in the wake of his mother’s passing.

Following his return to the United States as a teenager, his mother relocated to Nigeria, and in a Pitchfork interview from 2017, it stated he had only been able to visit her once due to ‘paperwork issues.’ Her death hangs heavy over Bonema’s already heavy subject matter (he is one of many in new crop of rappers who are comfortable speaking about depression)—“Looking through obituaries with your name in it,” he says, breathlessly, on the almost whimsical sounding “Whole Wide World,” then follows it up with “I’ma go another ten if you say finish. I seen ni**as losing sense, tryna gain listens—nothing changes when you working with the same vision.”

Even in the face of loss, through his stream of conscious style of writing, Bonema quickly regains his composure and promises to push forward.

He continues to discuss his family, including his father, and his fractured relationship with his sister, through fragmented, borderline ambiguous lyrics and imagery, as Tears of Joy continues—“My mama grave should say ‘Go ahead,’” he confesses in the album’s startling closing track, “Stargazer Pt. 3,” over bombastic, almost triumphant production courtesy of Sage Elsesser, another disciple of Earl Sweatshirt.

Musically, while there are a few outside producers included in the liner notes, a majority of Tears of Joy was put together by Bonema himself, under his DJ Black Power moniker—this gives the album an overall sense of cohesion, though there is enough variation from song to song to give things a ramshackle, kaleidoscopic feeling, as Bonema weaves snippets of voice mails and bizarre selections of tough to place dialogue with chopped up and almost unrecognizable samples, he creates an impressive, unique, comforting, and at times unsettling atmosphere.

I would stop short of calling Bonema’s delivery as being ‘laid back,’ but his lyrics arrive with a very deliberate pacing. His vocal range—or at least the cadence of his voice—is somewhat reminiscent of a young Notorious B.I.G., simply because of how low it is, and the breathless, urgent way with which he speaks; it’s urgent, but never abrasive, or obnoxious in its speed, and he is almost always brimming with energy.

It’s rarely an exciting time in mainstream rap music—I think the only major release this year that I paid any attention to was Lil’ Big Man from Maxo, and even though it was issued via Def Jam, Maxo’s connections to artists like MIKE, and myriad others operating independently, run incredibly deep. Despite the lack of excitement in the genre from larger names or major labels, it’s a very, very innovative and exciting time for the hip-hop underground, and for artists like Michael Jordan Bonema and his stable of collaborators and peers as they continue to push the boundaries of what you can do within the ever-shifting confines of ‘rap music.’

Tears of Joy, from beginning to end, is a claustrophobic, cacophonic listening experience—one that takes a very personal pain and darkness, and sends it out into the world so it may become something much larger than itself.   

Tears of Joy is out now from the man himself, as a digital download.