There’s a lot going on… with Vic Mensa.
The 23-year-old is a fascinating individual who has extraordinary potential to make a significant dent in the music industry. During his brief time on planet earth, he rhymes like an elder statesman. He has a lot more to say in his rhymes and projects more experience than rappers nearly twice his age. But, lately, I’ve been a little perplexed by Mensa’s career trajectory. And his latest project perfectly demonstrates my concerns. This is an outsider’s critical analysis of a young emcee with gifts perhaps beyond his comprehension.
This is the curious case of Victor Kwesi Mensah.
The first time I heard Vic Mensa was as the emcee of Kids These Days before Traphouse Rock released in 2011. A fellow industry head passed their music along to me and advised I listen to it. I did and what I heard blew me away. For a group called Kids These Days, they sure didn’t make music like kids in this day and age. They eschewed the conventional simplicity of concocting music with auto tune and Fruity Loops. Instead, they opted to play instruments and create music with a certain density reserved for musicians far more advanced in age.
More importantly, kids these days (all of the puns intended) don’t rhyme like Mensa. On Traphouse Rock he carried a certain pensiveness that is reserved for weathered 30-year-olds who have already tried on multiple styles of rhyming and settled on something that they felt more fitting. Not Mensa. He’s advanced well beyond his age when it comes to maturity. Let’s get this out of the really quick about so-called “young” rappers…
There’s this built in excuse for rappers under the age of 21 who aren’t as lyrically inclined as older artists. “Oh, he’s just a kid” some will say. But I’ve always called bullshit because Nas was around 18 when he penned Illmatic and LL Cool J was 17 when “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” dropped. Rae Sremmurd’s style of rapping would be the same today or ten years from now. Some people are just built like that and age has nothing to do with it. But I digress…
Mensa rhymed way better than a majority of his peers and had this swagger as a rapper that revealed that he understood the music he was making and the world around him that affected how the ink spilled onto his paper.
Unlike many rappers, hip hop didn’t affect Mensa like life did. A lot of artists pick up their persona from what goes on in hip hop. Partially because they never experienced in real life what these rappers were talking about in their music. But Mensa, who grew up in the Southside of Chicago rapped about what he truly knew.
“I grew up around a lot of different races and a lot of different types of people. My first friend was a Jewish kid, I went to a Jewish pre-school, but it wasn’t all Jewish kids. It’s just like that in Hyde Park. Now, I live in a cul-de-sac of townhouses that’s one block away from gigantic houses, four or five blocks from Barack Obama’s house. And it’s also a block away from section 8 [affordable housing], and four or five blocks away to what would be the equivalent of the projects. So that’s how Hyde Park is and I’m somewhere in the middle of it all.” – Vic Mensa (Complex 2014)
Listen to “Don’t Harsh My Mellow” from Traphouse Rock or “Time Is Money” off Innanetape for evidence of a young man who is in touch with the world that surrounds him. There are heavy traces of an activist trapped in a rapper’s body. Sure, he likes to have fun, and indulge in things that men his age get caught up in, but he’s also invested in being a difference maker. Maybe it’s because of the dire straits of Chicago or simply because he’s aware and inquisitive of how the world turns. He’s also a man who was raised by a father who possesses a PhD in economics and a mother who is a physical therapist in the Chicago public school system. He’s an affluent African American; far different than one who grew up in a hopeless situation. But he’s also a hybrid of sorts who is an emcee but influenced by multiple genres of music and unafraid to allow it to permeate through his artistry.
“I think the idea of activism, more so a revolutionary mindset, is something that has been with me for most of my life, especially since I was about 16 years old. That’s when a friend of mine named Aja Monet, a really dope poet, started feeding my brain and gave me Malcolm X’s autobiography. I still have that copy she gave me. She also gave me Huey Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide and I got this Free Huey tattoo on my shoulder when I was 16. From around that time, I just started reading and started teaching myself. Those books shaped a lot of my world views. Also, that’s the same time when a black boy in Chicago starts turning into a black man in Chicago.” – Vic Mensa (Billboard 2016)
Vic is a new breed of emcee. I won’t go as far to say that he’s “privileged,” but his situation is better than most. He’s not the son of a single mother on welfare, but he still grew up as a young black man in Chicago. And for those that don’t know, that’s no easy feat. All the while, he was a student of music. From rock bands to the golden era of hip hop, Mensa soaked it all up like a sponge.
All of this could be heard on Traphouse Rock and his arguably criminally underrated INNANETAPE. The potential was there, but would he be able to permeate into the mainstream?
His signing with Roc Nation is reminiscent of J. Cole inking with the label. Both emcees were high profile signings but lived in the shadow of another artist that they were close to. J. Cole’s was initially overshadowed by Drake and Vic Mensa’s brilliance was peaking behind the massive mountain of momentum that Chance The Rapper created. Like J. Cole, Vic Mensa doesn’t have anything unique – like Chance’s delivery – and someone who isn’t aware might have called him “boring” even though he’s far from it.
While Chance’s career has exploded, Vic Mensa has been working a bit more low-key but still making noise, as evidenced by the millions of views his videos for “Down On My Luck,” “Feel That” and the Kanye West assisted “U Mad.” Those that know better were only waiting for Vic to get his opportunity to share his talent with the masses.
But something happened along the way. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly was noticeable.
Before we get into it, I want to note this unique sequence that is currently taking place with Vic, Chance, Jay Z and Kanye West. And when I say unique, I mean that it’s a really bizarre transfer of energy that seemingly has the biggest effect on Vic.
It’s a weird “circle of life” thing going on.
Ever since Mensa started working with Kanye West, his fellow Chi-town artist has heavily influenced his artistic and musical style. And when I say “heavily influenced,” there is no hyperbole. As a matter of fact, Mensa’s shift as an artist may be considered seismic, or, at it’s lowest level, drastic. Meanwhile, Mensa’s former partner in rhyme, Chance The Rapper adores Kanye West. However, it appears that Chance’s fingerprints are all over Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo. Kanye has called Jay Z his big brother but Mensa – who could be considered Kanye’s little brother when it comes to style – ends up signing with Jay Z.
Kanye’s transition from soul sampling and semi-socially conscious emcee to this weird experimental artist whose ego has annihilated any semblance of modesty in his music has taken almost a decade to take form. To his credit, Kanye’s shift can be credited to not wanting to be complacent with his artistic progression. He’s already written his legend in stone with a sequence of albums that redefined hip hop. But Mensa’s shift has taken far less time and is happening before Vic really takes off. It’s unknown if this is because he’s been yanked into Kanye’s orbit, but it seemingly has had an impact on both his music and his sense of fashion. It’s like the spell that Erykah Badu cast on Common that left him in crochet pants rhyming about an Electric Circus.
Am I the only one that has seen this?
When you listen to Vic’s performances on “Wolves,” “No Chill” and “U Mad,” his style leans a little too much toward Kanye West. From the production to the subject matter, it feels more like Vic is a product of Kanye West than someone who has made some incredibly dope music before he connected with West. Maybe it’s because critics said Innanetape sounded too much like an Acid Rap knockoff that Mensa is driven to distance himself from his “friend.” But more on that later.
I’m unsure if there’s an identity crisis or if Vic is just influenced by his idol’s work, but it makes his recently released EP There’s A Lot Going On an extraordinarily frustrating listen.
At times, he sounds like a byproduct of Kanye’s style over substance aggro-rap, where lyricism takes a back seat to projecting energy. That style has left his music lacking personality and if it weren’t for his pen game, you’d think he’s cut from the same cloth as Travis Scott.
“New Bae” is a side of Vic Mensa that is tied to this style. Yeah, it can be considered a “fun” song but it sounds an awful lot like Kanye’s verse on “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1.” And for a rapper trying to establish his own identity, this does more harm than good. Instead of this socially aware, yet tremendously dope emcee, he became a hard synth cyberpunk that bleeds into all of the other cyberpunks making music today. It’s not his lane.
That’s the frustrating part.
But then there are songs like “16 Shots” and “Shades of Blue” that set him far, far apart from his contemporaries. These moments make Vic Mensa feel significant. He’s tackling the Laquan McDonald shooting like no other artist has before him on “16 Shots” with a controlled anger that is remarkably powerful. “Shades of Blue” tackles the Flint water crisis with a more reserved approach but just as lyrically poignant as “16 Shots.”
This is where you realize that Vic Mensa has been through a lot over the past few years. And maybe what’s in between these lines are why he’s struggled with his artistic identity. Talent is one thing, but life is another. And Vic exorcizes his demons over the course of a six-minute therapy session. Maybe what he’s been going through mentally has everything to do with whatever this thing with Chance The Rapper is.
“The comparisons are there all the time. They are an ongoing thing. At certain times it has gotten to me. It has bothered me. But most of the time, when i’m doing what it is that I do, It doesn’t really affect me. If anything, It’s just a fuel to the fire. It’s not about Chance specifically.” – Vic Mensa (Complex 2014)
Is he harboring a little bit of envy and resentment toward the success for his SAVEMONEY brother? Not the malicious kind, but the kind we all have when someone we are close to gets ahead for reasons unbeknownst to us. Like when you and your friend go after the same girl and she chooses him with little rhyme or reason. You aren’t mad at your friend, you’re bothered by the rationale the girl used to choose your friend. The industry chose Chance before Vic. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one is better than the other, but for someone who has been making music before Chance, it can be frustrating when people compare the two emcees like Vic is copying off of Chance’s homework. He’s not a poor man’s Chance and shouldn’t be insulted as such. But hopefully whatever listeners have created isn’t truly having an affect on Vic and Chance’s relationship.
Whatever it is, let’s hope that it’s something that will blow over.
All of this to say that Vic Mensa is far too talented to be swept up in any perceived crisis of identity. He has something special that very few emcees his age would know what to do with. He’s nobody’s clone and shouldn’t ever feel the need to pander to an audience. Hopefully he’ll find comfort in who he is and stick with it because when we hear his remarkable freestyle over “Drug Dealers Anonymous” you realize that he can be more Muhammad Ali than Floyd Mayweather on the mic. And in this day and age, when Donald Trump is running for president, young black men are still being gunned down and the conversation on gun control is still being avoided, an emcee like Vic Mensa is needed.
“You said a lot of stuff that’s going to end up on the album is going to be political. What took up that mental space?
It’s not necessarily one point I’m trying to drive home with people. But I do think, even while being very personal, it’s important to me to see bigger than me, so I think that’s something that’s definitely represented on the music from Traffic. A lot of it is really graphically, blatantly personal shit, ups and downs. But I always try to — I was at the Wayne and Drake concert the other week, and they’re both dope as fuck, but I left the concert feeling like nothing happened there, nothing was said there, that was bigger than them. I just feel like what makes shit really special is when it’s more than you, when it’s colossal as you can be.” – Vic Mensa (Grantland 2015)