Image by Simon Jones
Title: Who Is Vic Mensa?
Dated: Feb 6, 2014
Timing, they say, is everything. When it's on an artist's side, he can ride that wave effortlessly upward; when it isn't, he's thrust to the sidelines, marginalized instantaneously. It makes or breaks careers. You could fill 200 iPhones with the music of rappers who couldn't deliver on their promise, no matter how substantial their talents. All because of timing.
At least, that's what they say.Maybe it's time to rethink the old cliches. Hip-hop fans have always focused on measuring success. It's no surprise; after all, you're talking about an art form where something was created from nothing, unheard voices alchemized experience into therapeutic autobiography, speculative fantasy, and floor-filling entertainment. This is why the gold chains make sense; the fruits of this invisible labor have to be substantial, or it may as well never have happened. There's an irrational, contradictory logic to this arrangement. On the one hand, if an MC records great art in a forest, does it make a sound? And on the other: whose fault is it that the rapper's art is in a forest in the first place?
Vic Mensa visited Complex the morning after headlining a workout of a show at the Knitting Factory last November. It was one of those lineups that only makes sense in New York, where three rising artists with substantially different fanbases—in this case, Deniro Ferrar, Ty Dolla $ign, and Vic Mensa—perform for the benefit of the media. Vic was supporting Innanetape, his celebrated 2013 solo record, his first since the break-up of acclaimed hip-hop band Kids These Days. In Kids These Days, he was the rapper and frontman.
Innanetape was produced primarily by Cam Osteen from Justice League, Peter Cottontale (best known for his work with Chance The Rapper), and Vic himself. The tape suggests Vic has a strong sense for songcraft, with smooth neo-soul hooks and beats rooted in an '80s funk/R&B tradition. It's shot through with experimental flavors (like the drum'n'bass-style groove on "Lovely Day") and features guests like L.A. experimental jazz-fusion bassist Thundercat and Neptunes-affiliated pop eccentric Kenna.
Despite some adventurous choices, Innanetape is musically tasteful, even serene—cuts like "Hollywood LA" and "Orange Soda" are relaxed and comfortable moments of family barbecue-friendly positivity. But Vic's live performance, at least at the Knitting Factory that night, had a serrated edge, amplified by stage dives, rock guitars, and a mosh pit. Going back to the tape after seeing him perform, the restlessness under the surface became more apparent; a barbed, nervous energy surfaced in his lyrics. On "Orange Soda": "Know when you want it, but just can't have it?/Especially as an artist, don't that shit make you mad/Just breathe... breathe... breathe, it's all in your head/Know these labels wanna sign me for an arm and a leg."
There's an elephant in the room here, and that elephant is Chance The Rapper, Vic's good friend and a recent Justin Bieber collaborator who has been propelled from Chicago's vibrant music scene to the top of the major labels' most-wanted list. For national listeners, unfamiliar with Chicago's deep bench, there's a perception that he did so in a lane that is a little too similar to Vic's own; as if there can be only one conflicted, thoughtful, skilled-yet-streetsmart backpacker.
Sure: Vic's a kid from the South Side who came up on rock music and hip-hop, and whose parents had high expectations—his father has a PhD in economics, and his mother is a physical therapist in the Chicago Public Schools. And like Chance, Vic gripped perfectionism, becoming one of Chicago's most lyrically creative teenage rappers, even as he bucked his parents' prescribed route in favor of an independent path.
Vic created this path, even before Chance The Rapper released a song. Before Chief Keef was signed by Interscope, Vic was 16 with a solo mixtape and being sought out by the major labels.
As a member of Kids These Days, he played Lollapalooza a year before Keef and two before Chance. But while Chicago was having its biggest moment since the arrival of Kanye West a decade earlier, Vic was caught up in the turmoil surrounding Kids These Days, the hip-hop band to whom he'd thrown his loyalty and several years of his life. While they spent a year gearing up to breakthrough within the proper industry channels, they felt the strain of internal tensions about the band's direction. While numerous Chicago hip-hop stars capitalized on the buzz, one of its most talented, most promising voices was on the sidelines, his group in stasis. But his story isn't anything like Chance The Rapper's—even though, to a national audience, he still has to prove it.
When Vic first arrived at Complex, he seemed tired and withdrawn—likely because of the previous night's late performance. As he spoke with Complex, while his friend fell asleep face down on the table beside him, he opened up considerably; he had a lot to get off his chest. An hour and a half later, when he left, it seemed like a weight had lifted. Open and honest about the internal turmoil that led to the break-up of Kids These Days, his frustrations, and his confident personal and musical philosophies, the conversation felt as much like a therapy session as an interview.
If timing is everything, though, Vic might have some hurdles in front of him. He is a prodigal talent; give him a space to create, and he'll fill every inch of that canvas, and do it with more color and more creativity and a stronger sense for an emotional truth than anyone around him. He's used to being the best in the room. But what happens if he's in the wrong room at the wrong time?
As Vic left Complex, the reality of an uphill climb was still ahead. But if anyone can find his way out of that forest, it's Vic Mensa.
What was your life like as a kid?My neighborhood is mad diverse and also divided. It’s called Hyde Park. On one hand, you have the University of Chicago. That’s a community in and of itself. And on the other side you have Hyde Park, which I separate. People classify Hyde Park based on the side they’re looking at.
My dad used to work at University of Chicago and I was born over there. Hyde Park—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.
What expectations did your parents have of you growing up?All parents have expectations. My dad especially, he’s from Ghana—super educated man. So education has always been huge to him. I never was too much into school, but I didn’t have problems getting good grades. School was easy for me. I always did well, but I always got in trouble, and as I got older the trouble just multiplied.
From the first time I got suspended in sixth grade, I just kept getting suspended, at least once a year until I graduated high school. It’s easy to cheat in school. And it’s also not hard to do the shit you have to do.
My parents wanted me to go to college and a lot of things that didn’t happen, but at the same time as those things were falling to the wayside, music was steadily rising. And it was something they could see and recognize. So they were understanding in some ways, but less understanding in others. They weren’t ever super rigid, like "We’re going to kick you out the house if you don’t go to college."
What are your earliest memories of music?I was heavily into rock and roll. That and African drums. I remember my father used to play African music all the time. The Beatles are probably some of my earliest memories from my mother, and Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis.
Backstreet Boys in first grade, I remember Backstreet Boys and N'SYNC and Spice Girls and shit like that. I wasn't really into the Spice Girls, but I was definitely into the Backstreet Boys. When I was in grammar school, up until like 5th grade, I didn’t really vibe with hip-hop. I just didn’t understand why niggas was so mad.
I think some of the first rap I liked before I started liking rap was Eminem, just because there was an African kid I knew that was older than me who knew my sister, who told me Eminem was cool. When you’re a little kid and someone tells you something’s cool, you just go with it.
I was really into Guns N' Roses and AC/DC and all of that classic hair-rock shit. And then I found out about Nirvana, and I was a gigantic fan of Nirvana around 5th grade. I found out about hip-hop through skateboard movies, because I had been skating since I was like 10. I really started fucking with rap off this Zoo York VHS tape. KRS-ONE, “Step Into A World,” that was the first rap song I remember finding myself, and being like, "I fuck with this heavily." And then I got put onto 106 & Park by my homie, so at the same time watching that—when Westside Connection and Destiny’s Child were on TV.
But I really got into hip-hop through skateboarding and breakdancing and graffiti. Me and my man Nico [Segal]—he plays the trumpet—we used to go to the hip-hop shop in his neighborhood. It was called The Bassment, and we would buy paint markers to write on shit. They sold spray paint under the table too. We would go there and get Run-DMC albums and fuckin' old shit like Grandmaster Flash and breakbeat records, and we’d set up linoleum in his basement. He would DJ and I would breakdance, or he would DJ and I would spit.
Do visit: http://www.complex.com/music/2014/02/who-is-vic-mensa to read the interview in its entirety....
For more info about Vic Mensa visit: https://www.facebook.com/VicMensa1