Ryan Meaney follows the city, he never sleeps.
If you search hard enough, there is a twelve-minute documentary on YouTube about the history of slums, a youthful DIY rap collective from New York. During the clip, the group consisting of King Carter, Sixpress, Jazz Jodi, Booliemane, and MIKE, take turns dishing out the groups history while at the same time spitting sage proverbs of life and the hustle. It is easy to see the glimmer of motivation and desperation to succeed in the eyes of the young MCs, and as the casual viewer you want to root for them. At the same time, it is easy to be the skeptic that sees the incredible burden that comes with the desire to be “next.”
MIKE is only eighteen years old, but he has lived a life filled with enough experiences and hardships to double that. Born in northern New Jersey, Michael Jordan Bonema found himself shuttled across the Atlantic to England, where he lived with his mother and sisters in various locations. It was here he developed his fascination with hip-hop, following the UK’s Grime scene with a close ear to the television.
He was soon shipped back to the states, where he lived in Philly before settling in the Bronx. His mother, who has been a major influence on MIKE and the music he produces, has been stuck in Africa with visa problems and hasn’t seen her son in years. This instability is an obvious jumping off point on the psyche of MIKE, a kid who hasn’t been able to put down roots or settle into himself.
May God Bless Your Hustle is an autobiographical account of the depression and insecurities of someone still trying to find their voice. Through muddy beats and a low-slung drawl, MIKE takes us on a tour through New York, his adopted city where he found his creative hive. From the opening track “Somebody Please” it is clear MIKE is willing to lay himself on the line, rapping “Bust my ass, bust my head/how I’m supposed to trust the path/that’s been doubling the stress.” He doubles down on these feelings of self-doubt by reaching out to his mother, “There’s no percent on my phone/I should use it to call mama/tell her I wish she was home.” There is this juxtaposition of youthful braggadocio and self-effacing fear that permeates the tape, reminding listeners that we are still listening to a kid reaching out for help and support.
The production on the album, handled by a cast of characters including slums’ Sixpress and MIKE himself, is as muddled and fickle as the mind of its artist. Reminiscent of early Wu Tang and classic New York boom-bap, sounds warp and fade into oblivion as the mixtape meanders along. “Rainforest” chugs and shunts like the L Train, moving at rush hour speed as a ghostly voice haunts the track. “VICTORY LAB” contains soulful horn flourishes and syncopated drums, allowing MIKE to double time his flow like an Acid Rap Chance. The black and white soundscape that May God Bless Your Hustle creates is as mysterious and eerie as the city it describes, ultimately becoming the star of the show.
MIKE’s stated influences are easy to hear; the monotone distichs of Earl, the soul sampling creep of Doom’s production. All of these elements are present on MGBYH, but there is an element of danger and apprehension missing that it so desperately needs. Listening to songs like “Faucet” or “Bistro,” you can feel the distress dripping from the speakers. It’s enough to make your skin crawl, an extra element of pathos that MIKE is grasping for. It is difficult to find a moment on the tape to grasp onto, a moment where MIKE outshines the backdrop he creates. It is a problem that can be solved with experience and time, something MIKE has heaps of.
All of this is to say that, while a very good and evolving artist, MIKE should not carry the ridiculous burden of torchbearer for one of rap’s geographic hotspots. The idea of letting an artist develop in the “succeed now” era of social media seems like blasphemy, but the reality is is that letting an artist marinate in their art leads to longevity.
MIKE does not have the persona to lead a youth movement like a Lil Yachty or 21 Savage; his art needs to be what speaks for him. May God Bless Your Hustle is a snapshot into the mind of a rapper still developing, still studying his heroes to find his sound. He’s certainly not the King of New York, and he shouldn’t want to be. MIKE is wise beyond his years, able to call on experiences and ideas that most his age will never be able to. He has a story to tell, let’s let him take his time to tell it right.