MIKE named his 2017 breakthrough album, May God Bless Your Hustle, after a phrase his mom used to say. If you’ve been listening closely to the rapper’s releases since then—which this year include resistance man, Black Soap, and renaissance man—you’ve picked up on the way family and close friends are an anchor of his songwriting. War in my Pen continues to furrow this familial tract: Across 13 songs, MIKE figures out relationships with kinfolk and expresses his thoughts via a malleable flow that’s often pitched down so it sinks into the texture of the production.
Right from the start, the clipped snares and woozy synths of “choco” host MIKE’s confession that his physical resemblance to his father drums up conflicting emotions in his mother. On “grabba,” he admits his mom might not agree with his path in life, but still strives to understand his choices. The viscous bass tones running through “October Baby” pair with the realization that “my papa wasn’t peace and I inherit his dreams,” while “UCR” features MIKE acknowledging the same guy bestowing him with life gems: “Papa told me keep an eye on who you let in / Don’t be riding with some Gs you gotta question.” The album’s intimate feel is enhanced by thoughtful guest verses from Medhane, Navy Blue, and King Carter, who take a cue from MIKE and weave references to family members past and present into their rhymes.
War in my Pen resonates as MIKE’s most open release to date—but its closing song suggests an emotionally sapping recording experience. “For You” is somnambulant funk coated in a layer of hiss; MIKE’s voice sounds drained, like he’s on the cusp of slipping into sleep as he repeats fragments about fighting demons, dealing with signs of success, and how it can all appear “hard to believe in.” Fathoming family can be cathartic—but it can also take a toll.