Jul 26, 2016
Vic Mensa’s Controlled Chaos
Lights faded, crowd excited, and music fully blasted to keep his headlining crowd at bay, Vic Mensa ran out from backstage at 9:55 sharp on Monday night at the Brooklyn Bowl, jumping directly into “Dynasty,” the opening track on his newest EP that came out in June. Despite the energy in the room literally making the walls vibrate, the accompanying speakers weren’t quite as cooperative, as a hint of static sound distortion eventually became full-on audio crackling. Dismayed but unflinching, Vic turned, microphone still in hand, looked right at touring partner and main producer Papi Beatz, and transformed himself into a human ‘shrug face’ emoji.
Just as the 23-year-old rapper began to embark upon “16 Shots,” his “Fuck Tha Police”-esque anthem about the needless and tragic shooting death of Chicago teen Laquan McDonald, the audio gave out. Luckily, Vic had a key ally: the crowd, who had no interest in letting these bygones be bygones. Immediately those in attendance were chanting the song’s politically-charged refrain: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, Fuck 12! After about ten seconds of realizing what the crowd was doing, Vic Mensa was at the front of the stage, leading the chant himself without the benefit of a working microphone. Once again, Vic had proven his talent in what he’s done so well in the years since his solo emergence in 2013–adapting.
The Windy City native’s most recent 7-song EP is titled There’s Alot Going On, and boy is that title ever true. Between signing with a legend’s record label, collaborating with modern music superstars, crawling across the stage of a massively-viewed television special, developing a key voice to be heard on social issues, and finally releasing his own new music, there has certainly been a lot going on in Vic’s life. Particularly, a lot has happened in the years since 2013, when his band, Kids These Days, broke up, and he released his first major solo mixtape, Innanetape.
Kids These Days was a fast-rising band out of Chicago, who famously performed at Lollapalooza only a year after Mensa attempted to make his way onto the festival’s grounds by jumping the fence–during which, he was electrocuted–an event that served as the impetus for his frequent use of the phrase Still Alive, which is tattooed across his stomach and has become something of a personal slogan.
The group made only one album, Traphouse Rock–which was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, a Second City legend in his own right–before disbanding, citing creative differences. Prior to Kids These Days, however, Vic formed another collective–SAVEMONEY, which houses a few names that may sound familiar: Donnie Trumpet, Towkio, Joey Purp (who opened Monday night’s show with a vibrant and enthusiastic set of his own), and world-conqueror Chance The Rapper, among others. Several members of the collective would appear on Innanetape, which would serve as Mensa’s first foray into the solo game.
Joey Purp performing at Brooklyn Bowl last night
Innanetape was well-received by fans and critics alike, and it represented a smorgasbord of styles, with fun tracks like the catchy “Lovely Day” or “Orange Soda” joining eccentric stuff like the Chance-featured “Tweakin’.” The tape made several year-end best lists, and eventually caught the attention of Jay Z and Kanye West, who would become boss and mentor, respectively, for the young rapper.
Fast-forward to the present day, There’s Alot Going On has been out for a month, and for the most part, there’s nothing in Vic’s music about any Lovely Days or Orange Sodas. If Innanetape displayed the wide range of styles that Mensa was capable of–from soul to jazz to rock–then the new EP locks a single tone down, focusing specifically on a conscious tone.
What happened in those three years? Where did this dark cloud over Vic come from? The answer is really quite simple: like myself, Vic Mensa is 23 years old. Did I know what was going on in the world three years ago? Fuck no. That’s something that people forget a lot about of young musicians–they’re fucking young. In the time between the release of these two most recent projects, Mensa bridged the gap and provided a peek at his bridge to adaptation with a trio of popular singles: “Down On My Luck,” a house-infused, infectious dance-along, “U Mad,” a club banger that features Kanye West, and “No Chill,” a joint venture with Skrillex.
“I think he’s just expanding–not really changing, or evolving–to a certain extent, to becoming more direct,” producer and songwriter Peter Cottontale, who worked with Vic on Innanetape, There’s Alot Going On and “Down On My Luck” told me. That directness is evident in the EP, ripe with references to various social issues, including the unfortunate, ever-timely discourse of police brutality and shootings. If ever there was a time for a song like “16 Shots,” or “Shades of Blue,” which also deals with government corruption, it’s now.
After signing with Jay Z’s Roc Nation in 2015, Mensa moved to Los Angeles before joining forces with producers Beatz and Smoko Ono. According to Ono, in the presence of these two, Vic developed a strict and intense songwriting process for himself: every day, along with Ono and Beatz, he would make a song, and would have to finish a verse, two verses, and a hook–and wouldn’t allow himself to leave until it was done.
“With that process, it’s like, if you do that every day, you’re bound to at least get 15 good songs,” Ono said over the phone on a quick break from filming a video for Towkio, a fellow member of Vic’s SAVEMONEY collective. One of those songs, surely, was the eponymous track on There’s Alot Going On, an open and honest reflection from the young MC that takes the listener on an autobiographical journey from the start of his time with Roc Nation and into the present moment. As someone who knows the value of a good autobiography–Mensa cites Malcolm X’s as his favorite book–he’s certainly managed to find a way to portray his own story well, capturing the story full of regret, addiction and writer’s block in a single take for the video.
When Vic closed his set Monday with “There’s Alot Going On,” he brought the same personal narrative and sense of reflection directly to the stage, as the set, which was earlier filled with jumping and shouting, came to a head with the star simply seated on a stool, lit solely by a single yellow fixture behind him. While the feverish crowd crooned along with Mensa’s hook, silence overtook the room whenever it came time for a verse. Fully attentive, the audience was spellbound listening to this young man tell his story. It was unlike anything I’d seen at a hip-hop show–more poetry slam showcase than rap concert–I’ve never witnessed a crowd afford a performer that kind of silent attentiveness before.
Vic’s music continues to be inspired by what happens around him. Just as visiting Flint, Michigan for a fundraiser run by Creed and Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler inspired his writing of “Shades of Blue,”–he told the crowd, “I don’t know where the river’s at in New York City, but I know you can’t drink out that bitch,” detailing his understanding of the crisis.
Whatever happens in the future, the rapper will continue to be inspired by current events on his much-awaited debut album. Just last week Mensa visited Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the aftermath of yet another senseless police killing, this time that of Alton Sterling, a husband and father of five. “He’s out there with the people, and he just gains a lot of inspiration from all that,” Ono said. “He’s all about justice for the people. There’s a lot of fucked up shit going on, and he’s out there on the field, on foot with everyone, trying to see where people are coming from.”
Cottontale said he sees the same fire in Vic’s eyes, and knows that he’s out there trying to make a real difference. “There’s a lot of action involved there,” he said. “His music uses a lot of verbs and a lot of calls to arms. He’s not speaking in any type of violent way, not to speak in any type of a specific way, but he’s making ‘get up off the couch, go outside, and look around and do stuff about it’ music.
Having Jay Z’s ear–the two are in contact about music very frequently–and assuming his role as crown jewel on Roc Nation could weigh heavily on some–but not on Vic. Considering how high expectations are for his full-length debut, it wouldn’t be shocking to hear tales of constant tinkering, to hear leaks, and releases that essentially run real-time focus-groups on the public’s reception. But that hasn’t been the case for this album, which according to Ono has gotten “pretty good feedback,” and seems to be either finished entirely, or getting really close. Yet Mensa is so in-tune and influenced by what’s happening in the news and current events, that anything could inspire his next song, and at a moment’s notice, too. Ono noted that “if it happens today,” and an event spurs an idea, Vic is promptly in the studio, recording like clockwork.
Just a few weeks ago, around the time of the horrific attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Vic, Papi, and Smoko put out “Free Love,” a song dedicated to someone close to him who recently came out as queer. As a young person still learning to understand the world around him, the song is a thoughtful look through his lens–one that is continuing to adapt with time and experience. This song, I may add, is touching in a way that his music hasn’t particularly been focused on before, embracing those within the affected community and incorporating queer artists like Halsey and Le1f along with the Based God, Lil B, and rapper Malik Yusef. On top of all that, it’s just a good old-fashioned earworm of a tune–no assembly required, the song is a fun listen from the first spin.
So, as he so often and so aptly has, Vic has continued–and is continuing–to adapt to his surroundings. With his debut due later this year, Ono said that fans who dig the style of There’s Alot Going On are going to be thrilled with the album, which he described as “the EP times 20.”
Vic allowed consumers to download his EP for free with a pledge to vote–and is very vocally Anti-Trump–which makes sense given the continuing ridiculousness that unfolded at the RNC last week. As the election unfolds, there should plenty of ammunition for Mensa to keep his creative streak going.
Cottontale said that he thinks there’s more than just stellar music in the cards for his frequent collaborator: he told me that he thinks there could be a spot in the history books, teasing one word that he thinks could eventually describe the 23-year-old from Chicago’s Hyde Park: Legend.
“And I’m not talking about rap, or anything,” he said. “Just somebody who was able to bring his music to life and influence a culture at the same time, and be artistic with it as well.”
There may be a lot going on, but for Vic Mensa, the chaos is all part of process.
Vic Mensa plays a sold out show at the Marlin Room at Webster Hall tonight.
All photos courtesy of Max Branigan
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