By most actuarial metrics, Vic Mensa shouldn’t be alive. He shouldn’t be collaborating with Pharrell, Kanye West and Weezer. And JAY-Z, his Roc Nation label boss, shouldn’t be raving to roomfuls of industry VIPs that the 24-year-old from the South Side of Chicago is an “incredible once-in-a-lifetime artist.”
But Mensa, born Victor Mensah, isn’t supine in a pine box, as stiff as the Joey Ramone leather jackets he sports. He’s vibrantly alive, prone to swift, panther-like movements and spasmodic festival-crowd incitement. He’s passionate enough to publicly indict YouTube star DJ Akademiks for mocking the violence that has plagued his hometown of Chicago. After half a decade of hype, the biracial son of two educators is finally on the verge of stardom, and his debut, The Autobiography, chronicles the obstacles that nearly caused permanent derailment.
“I don’t feel lucky as much as I feel predestined,” Mensa says. “I’ve been putting energy into the universe for some time from an honest place, and I’ve done it with good intentions and a lot of determination.”
The South Side native’s talent has taken him further than almost anyone could have predicted back when the teenage Mensa formed the SaveMoney Crew alongside childhood friends Chance the Rapper and Joey Purp. But whether you call it destiny, providence or just random chance, Mensa survived a streak of freak accidents that could have laid Rasputin to rest.
At 17, the skateboarding and graffiti-writing rebel attempted to sneak into Lollapalooza, only to fall off a 30-foot bridge and land on a fence charged with 15,000 volts. As he raps on the elegiac “Memories on 47th St.,” “The doctor said I should be dead, still alive and still ain’t scared / In the hospital bed, writing these rhymes in my head.”
Two years later, when he was the lead singer for Kids These Days, Chicago’s much buzzed-about genre-straddling ensemble, Mensa totaled his mother’s car on the expressway after he clipped a pole and sent the vehicle spinning out of control. With their debut album slated to be produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the group subsequently broke up just as they were about to sign a lucrative major-label deal.
Then there was the toxic relationship that came to an unusual end when, Mensa says, an ex-girlfriend broke into his Los Angeles house, went after another woman who was there, destroyed property and had to be escorted out by police.
“It was a soap opera, 100 percent,” he says.
Mensa spun the incident into The Autobiography’s “Homewrecker,” whose refrain “I should’ve known better / But who’d’ve ever thought you’d be the wifey and a homewrecker” uses the titular word in the most literal sense. The song features Rivers Cuomo crooning a hook that lends the feeling of a Love & Hip Hop version of Pinkerton. Raised on 1990s alternative rock and rap, Mensa counts Weezer and Kurt Cobain among his most prominent inspirations—hence the Nirvana tattoo on his arm.
“When I played Rivers the original demo, his reaction was, ‘Wow, I need a girlfriend like that,’ ” Mensa says, laughing.
None of this accounts for the most crucial biographical statistic working against Mensa: He’s a young black man raised amid the internecine street warfare and political hysteria of Chicago. During this past Fourth of July weekend alone, more than 100 people were shot—nearly all of them people of color living on the city’s West and South sides.
“This album deals with the trauma of losing people in the street,” Mensa says. “Chicago violence is sensationalized and used as a headline for everyone’s benefit except the community itself. Our people are depicted as animals. I was trying to humanize us.”
The numbing body count takes the form of Mensa’s slain friend Cam, a.k.a. DARE, on “Heaven on Earth.” The ghost of another murdered friend, Rodney Kyles Jr., casts a similar pall over the record. But what helps give the album its power isn’t merely these canticles for the deceased but the way Mensa depicts the subtle ramifications on his psyche.
In an effort to cope with fame, industry pressures and grief, Mensa developed a debilitating drug addiction. Switching from psychedelics to MDMA to Adderall, he became dependent on illicit substances to fuel his creativity and ultimately burned out. Last year he went clean.
His debut record strikes an equilibrium between the roiling chaos of those first 23 years, the sober focus of the past 12 months and the madness and tensions engulfing the zeitgeist. After innumerable brushes with the end, Mensa is finally ready to begin.
“People often misinterpret me as being mean or angry all the time—or maybe they think I’m a thug,” he says. “But honestly, I’m just trying to put as much of myself down on record so I can be interpreted for the man I am. Sure, I’m angry sometimes about what’s going on around me, but I’m angry for a reason. I’m a product of my environment. And I’m trying to make that environment better.”
Vic Mensa on his favorite albums of 2017 (so far)
“OK Computer was already one of my favorite albums, but to hear songs like ‘Man of War’ and 'Lift’ from those original sessions is just incredible. I’ve been singing them all on repeat.”
“I’ve been a fan of Hov for about 12 years, and 4:44 is revealing in a way that he’s never been before. He’s always been so veiled with fast hand movements and slick talk, but this album is less coded and a lot more personal and honest.”
Ho99o9, United States of Horror
“Just a dope-ass hardcore rap band. Their album is powerful, energetic, honest, political and strong. I went to the live show and was in the mosh pit. Love these guys.”
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
“Kendrick’s albums hit you like an extended-release pill: You take it, and after however much time it takes, you really start to understand it. It’s interesting how much it unfolds and spreads and starts to take shape as you keep listening.”
Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
“I wasn’t expecting the electronic production, but I think it’s really strong. It’s dope how he takes his stories—which are always from the perspective of a Long Beach Crip—over that type of musical backdrop.”