Vic Mensa has a presence. Even on the phone his voice carries the intangible qualities of stardom. Some sort of potent cocktail of terseness, mystery, and a touch of impatience. That’s not to say that he’s difficult to talk to – but he’s not one to mince words. I know this first hand, because I’ve interviewed him once before. Almost a year ago to the day. On that occasion our conversation lasted approximately eight minutes. It was a disaster. Vic seems frustrated at times, both as an artist and as an individual. His musical identity deals in truths – be they social, political, or emotional. To question them, even in a journalistic context, is tantamount to an affront. Conviction is a virtue, and it’s something that Vic carries in spades. When he does engage in discussion his intensity and focus is palpable. He speaks with a clarity that belies careful consideration. Pausing so long between answers that it feels as though his voice is relaying across the sea in real time. Vic doesn’t want to be misunderstood. In fact, radical transparency is a central tenet of his music – and his success as an artist.
The 22 year old rapper spent his formative years in Chicago’s Hyde Park. One of the city’s most diverse neighbourhoods in terms of race. “Hyde Park exposed me to many different sides of the world from an early age,” he recalls. “I lived five blocks from the Obama family home, and five blocks from one of the major warzones of the city.” Vic’s home life was stable, but there was an ever-present desire to explore. “I had a strong family upbringing, but I also had a strong connection to the streets. I was in both places at once.” He spent his adolescence enthralled by a sense of “rebellion and artistic expression.” This manifested itself in a twin love of skateboarding and graffiti culture. “This was before Lupe Fiasco came out with ‘Kick Push’, so no one was skating on the south side of Chicago,” he laughs. Vic’s pursuit of graffiti was born of a desire for more illicit thrills. “[It] was an insane rush, sneaking out of the house at 3am when I was 12 years old to climb on rooftops – it was the ultimate.”
These fledgling adolescent activities left an indelible mark on Vic’s approach to the world. “I completely take my skate and graffiti influences into music,” he states with conviction. It’s not hard to draw parallels between these anti-authoritarian, self-regulated subcultures and his approach to his musical identity. Aesthetically, Vic mines the history of rebellion for coded signifiers that he juxtaposes and remixes with more traditional hallmarks of hip-hop success. It’s a calculated jarring of cultural artefacts – a ripped tshirt partnered with a couture leather jacket. It’s an interesting dichotomy. Vic seeks to rectify a punk sensibility with designer aspirations – creating a performative tension that he revels in. “In relation to commercialism, it doesn’t dictate me,” he offers. “I’m wearing all Saint Laurent right now. It’s a double-edged blade, I’m as much in love with the things that at times I’m opposed to.”
The young artist’s musical influences were as diverse as the streets he grew up in – as much informed by classic rock as hip-hop. “I was into Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC when I was a little kid,” he recalls. This lineage would later manifest itself
in Vic’s role as front-man for Chicago indie outfit, Kids These Days. Formed in 2009, the eight-piece group’s sound married Mensa’s wandering cadence with horns and blues guitars. Their 2012 album, Traphouse Rock, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, garnered them significant critical acclaim. Although the group disbanded not long after the debut release, the project introduced the world to Vic’s presence. As a performer, he is antagonistic. Vic draws a crowd in, before an inevitable frenzied collapse or release – a sonic exorcism. It’s a tension that you find more often at punk gigs than hip-hop shows. Characterised by a volatile transfer of energy from crowd to performer and back again. Perhaps it’s not surprising to discover that Vic counts The Clash as his favourite band. “I love the ability of punk music to make a catchy song out of a striking concept. Something that’s not a love song,” he explains.
2013 was the year that things changed for the young artist. It was a compelling time for Chicago hip-hop, drill rapper Chief Keef’s anticipated Finally Rich released in December of the previous year, and Vic’s fellow Savemoney crew member Chance the Rapper caused a major online frenzy with his irrepressible debut, Acid Raps. Exactly five months later Vic unveiled Innanetape. The meandering mixtape is an exercise in exuberance, an unapologetic expression of youth. The release spurred critical accolades for Vic, including a coveted spot on the cover of XXL’s 2014 Freshman issue, and slots on numerous best of year recap lists. The tape showcases Vic’s lyrical dexterity. Featuring packed bursts of meditative reflection, coupled with freewheeling production. Hit-Boy, Christian Rich, and Michael Uzowuru are among the musical collaborators on the project. While Vic appreciates the attention that the release brought, he’s not prepared to let it define him. When questioned about the release he confesses that he doesn’t listen to it anymore. “I was still talking about real shit to me, I just don’t necessarily like how I was talking about it,” Vic qualifies. “I’m immensely grateful for all the love that Innanetape got, and I don’t want to be misinterpreted as hating on myself.”
With the forthcoming album, titled Traffic, the world will discover new representations of Vic Mensa. On it, he reveals facets of his personality that are perhaps closer to his true self. “This shit ain’t fun and games right now. It’s not all dark, aggressive, and angry – [but] it’s not ‘Orange Soda’ it’s not ‘Magic’, or ‘Lovely Day’,” he warns. Shades of this iteration of Vic are present on this year’s collaborative effort with Skrillex, ‘No Chill’, and more recently on ‘Danger’, the track that debuted at Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo album premiere. “People have no idea what they’re about to hear from me. It’s a very personal album, it explores my struggles and triumphs. With relationships in my life, with addiction, with police, with the ills of society and the world,” he confides. The scope of the album is expansive; “There’s anger and frustration, love, unrequited love, violence, drugs, sex, and rock and roll.” The project packs some surprises as well, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo makes an appearance on ‘Homewrecker’. The track is a dark account of the destruction of a relationship in the wake of fame. It’s a raw confession, infused with bleak humour. I can hear the excitement in Vic’s voice when he speaks on the vocalist’s involvement in the project. “Seeing Rivers in the booth singing on ‘Homewrecker’ and sounding like the guy I’ve been listening to since I was 10 years old was just crazy. His voice was like an angel,” he enthuses. It’s not hard to picture a younger version of the artist sitting in his Hyde Park home, poring over the liner notes for The Blue Album.
Elsewhere, Vic turns his sights of macro level societal issues. ’16 Shots’ is a searing indictment of the Chicago Police force’s role in the death Laquan McDonald, the 17 year old shot 16 times in 13 seconds by Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke was not charged until more than a year after the shooting – once graphic footage of the incident became available to the public. Vic was a prominent face among the frontline of protestors who took to the streets to express their disgust at this chain of events. The track is a sharpened blade piercing the public consciousness. It’s a focused polemic that rails against the establishment. This is not a peace treaty but a war cry – with lyrics that include sentiments like, “Fire in the streets / there will be death tonight / fuck the police / we want a riot.” Statements like these are sure to stir controversy, but Vic isn’t concerned about potential consequences. When questioned he fires back a definitive statement, “I fucking hate the police, so I don’t give a fuck.” His voice takes on a steely resolve when talking about social injustices, and he becomes animated on the line. “I’ve never felt protected or served by the Chicago police department,” Vic intones. “They don’t come to our neighbourhood to help, they come to hurt.”
As a musician, Vic seems committed to wielding his social influence as a force of illumination. “I’m trying to use my platform to influence change,” he states. But he is quick to temper the statement, “I’m not political, because I don’t believe in politics – I don’t trust it.” This willingness to speak his mind has placed him in the spotlight. Vic drew the ire of Twitter users in August last year when he compared the media’s treatment of Caitlyn Jenner to that of former Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur. He was critical of the inconsistency around preferred name usage when it came to the two women. Where the wider media were respectful of Jenner’s choices, they insisted on referring to Shakur by her government name. “She would consider that her slave name, not her real name, because it was given to her by a slave owner who raped her ancestors,” he states. “I got a ton of fucking backlash for that,” he recalls. “Personally, I respect the decision of both [individuals]. What I’m trying to say is that as a black person in America, you don’t have that freedom to decide who you want to be.” Just a few weeks after this incident he again courted controversy by arriving at the MTV Video Music Awards in a custom outfit designed by Franc Fernandez. The ensemble featured a ‘Free Assata’ print, alongside the anti-police statement ‘KKKops are the biggest gang’. While it’s tempting to dismiss these public statements as cynical media ploys, Vic insists that his motivations are pure. “I have a lot of platforms, and when there are things going on in the world that I feel strongly about – I use those platforms to speak on them. I never want to bite my tongue.” It appears that he’s committed to the cause. Part of the proceeds from his ‘black-out Friday’ clothing launch in November went towards the bail of those jailed during the Chicago protests.
Vic is at his most intriguing when he turns his focus inward. The lead single on the new album, titled ‘Rage’, reveals new and compelling dimensions of Mensa’s personal and musical identity. The song is an introspective cut produced with Kanye affiliate Mike Dean. It’s a redemption song of sorts. Inspired by Dylan Thomas’ 1951 poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, by way of 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar. The track is a plaintive, soulful exercise. Pairing soaring vocals with a thread of personal actualisation. “That song is coming from a place of wanting to live,” Vic explains. It’s an unflinching manifesto – at times so candid that it’s almost uncomfortable. Reflecting further, Vic reveals that he recorded ‘Rage’ during “so many external pressures and internal pressures. The addiction that I was going through, and the fucking tumultuous violent relationship that I was going through – so many things that at times just made me want to kill myself.” This isn’t a somber dirge though. It’s a celebration of making it through – battered and bruised – but whole. “That song was just coming from a place of blasting through all of that and staying on top,” he explains. It’s compelling to hear an artist be so candid about issues the cut so close to the bone. In the hyper-masculine hip-hop archetype there isn’t much space for soul-searching, much less admissions of doubt. While not a singular paradigm shift, Vic’s music is a step forward into the dark. “Count on me to rage,” he sings – a promise as much to himself as the listener.
There’s a sense that the public’s critical opinions of the forthcoming album are almost irrelevant. This is a project that needed to exist for the integrity of the artist. Traffic is an album willed into being by sheer necessity, the purest form of expression. Its creation is a byproduct of its author’s commitment to radical truth-telling. “In many ways it is a rebirth. In other ways it’s a return to square one,” he discloses. “My initial approach to making music was an uncensored, unfiltered, pure commentary of my life and the lives of those around me – and that’s what this music is.” It’s the same impulse that prevents Vic from being able to stay silent that fuels this project. “I have dark days, and I have light days. But I’ve had a lot of dark days,” he reflects. “It’s just real. That’s all I can do – speak my truth.”
Purchase the ‘Rebirth’ issue here.
‘Traffic’ will be available this year.
- Photographer: James W Mataitis Bailey