"Love is my sword, and truth is my compass..."

Ten minutes before I’m scheduled to call Vic Mensa, an email arrives from his manager, Dan Weiner. “Vic wants you to hear this music in advance of the call,” it reads, along with three Dropbox links. On pressing play it instantly becomes clear that we’ve made the correct cover choice in Mensa. He undoubtedly did great work on his funky, soulful breakthrough mixtape ‘Innanetape’ - good enough, in fact for a fully formed artist. But when I first met up with the Chicago rapper two years ago in Manchester, where he was warming up for Danny Brown, I certainly wasn’t expecting as many creative twists and turns as we’ve witnessed from the phenomenal run he’s embarked on since. Maybe I should have anticipated it. I witnessed ‘Down On My Luck’ for the first time that day, stood in an empty room as he sound checked the track as if he was playing Madison Square Garden. He was fresh off a tour with Disclosure and the track seemed destined for pop greatness, but I couldn’t help feeling that his ode to Chicago’s house music culture was just a label-enforced grab for the mainstream before he returned to making tracks like ‘Orange Soda’.

It wasn’t. The track grew on me over the months that followed, and with subsequent releases like Kaytranada collabs ‘Wimmie Nah’ and ‘Drive Me Crazy’ it became clear that this was a new chapter; an artist continuing to level up creatively. Looking back, Mensa has always explored new territory with his music, and artistic rebirth isn’t new for him, having initially risen to acclaim as the front man of Kids These Days, a genre-defying band that also gave a start to Nico and Stix of The Social Experiment. It would be unfair to say he’s gone full circle, given the undeniable artistic growth that is clear throughout a string of releases and collaborations over the past 18 months. But a play through the band’s ‘Traphouse Rock’ and its interpolations of songs like The Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’, it’s clear that Mensa has taken it back to basics in order to progress. And we’re not just talking the rock ‘n’ roll fashion he’s adopted, with his bleached blonde hair, leather jackets and skinny jeans.

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“I’m never satisfied with anything,” Vic admits, of his defiance to sit on one signature sound like so many others. “It can make things hard for myself, but it also pushes me. Because there’s never a moment where I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve done it, I’ve achieved my mission.’ The things that inspired me as a kid, Jimi Hendrix, 2Pac’s ‘Dear Mama’, Nirvana ‘In Utero’ and ‘Nevermind’; they are just so meaningful - that music that really started my fire is just so timeless that I’m not comparing myself to a standard of Internet popularity and current music.” And the new songs - which will appear on his forthcoming debut album ‘Traffic’ - are relevant-yet-timeless, connecting from first listen and growing deeper on repetition as Vic soars over production that rebels against the trap-heavy turn-up anthems that have flooded the market lately. “The things that push me, and motivate me, are The Smiths and Morrissey, fucking Jay-Z’s ‘The Blueprint’, that’s the type of shit I’m putting myself next to in the levels of artistry that I’m trying to achieve - in my own way.”

Now 22-years-old, he admits that his own gargantuan expectations can keep him up at night, feeling a pressing sense of urgency as he considers the fact that a 19-year-old A Tribe Called Quest crafted ‘People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm’. But he recalls that at the age of 17, he fell 30-feet from a bridge and was electrocuted by 15,000 volts, trying to sneak into Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival. The odds were stacked against him, but he’s still here - there must be a reason, right?

After the Manchester meeting, the next time I’d see Vic Mensa would be completely by surprise. Kanye West - who at the time had only been working with Mensa behind the scenes - had decided to throw a last minute surprise show at KOKO in Camden. Building upon his iconic BRIT Awards performance, the one-of-a-kind show had Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music playing back-to-back with Boy Better Know, giving a single platform to some of West’s crew’s mammoth hip-hop bangers and our biggest homegrown grime hits. It was that night that Mensa would perform a then-unknown track called ‘U Mad’, rattling the entire venue and evoking a riotous response from the crowd, sealing Kanye’s interest in contributing a verse. “That was a whirlwind,” Vic reflects. “At that moment in time I was running around with Kanye, working with him a lot. And that was a new chapter. That show was an electrifying moment; you could just feel it. And nobody had ever heard that song before, but the response and the reaction, how crazy it was - that just set the tone going forward.”

Compared with what we’d heard previously, Mensa’s music took a darker turn. He’d been dealing with addictions, what he describes as a “volatile relationship” and a break-up, as well as contemplating the bigger picture. “The world around us is in chaos and there’s police who have been murdering black people systematically for generations that are now being exposed at the click of a button on Twitter,” he explains. “There’s no denying that we’re in a tough time as a nation, as a global community.” Mensa hopes that the new batch of music he’s preparing to release will wake people up and inspire them to start questioning things. An Illangelo-produced track called ‘Ring The Bell’, in particular, is designed for this reason: “Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times in the street in Chicago. We had Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice. ‘Ring The Bell’ is a call to action. Look at what the fuck is going on around us. We will not conquer that shit complacently; there is no possibility for a revolution without a fucking fight. It’s not just a march, it’s not a hashtag; it’s a global revolution that needs to take place in the streets, in our minds and in our communication.”

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There is no possibility for a revolution without a fucking fight...

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It was around his 21st birthday that omens would lead Mensa to the next level of his career. While his SAVEMONEY family member, Chance The Rapper, has been very anti-label, Mensa had been approached a number of times by Roc Nation A&R legend Lenny Santiago following his run supporting J. Cole on his ‘What Dreams May Come’ tour, and was invited to a meeting with the company’s founder and owner Jay-Z. “When I first met Hov it was brief - it was the same day that the elevator went down with Solange, so he had plans that day,” Vic remembers. “There were stars aligning at that time.” Rolling into the office with his newly bleached Super Saiyan hair, Vic played Jay album cut ‘City On Fire’, which includes the words “it’s contagious” in the chorus. Having just watched Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the previous day, Jay would draw parallels to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. “Nirvana is my favourite band,” enthuses Vic. “I have a Nirvana tattoo on my arm. It was my birthday that day and I went back to where I was staying in New York, and my girlfriend had bought me - two weeks earlier - a 1993 Nirvana Rolling Stone cover, and I was just floored. I was like, ‘That’s crazy, that he just brought that up today and then you give me this that you bought two weeks ago.’ I just felt as if things were happening for a reason, and that is the biggest factor in me going with The Roc.”

Of course The Roc - whether in its initial Roc-a-fella record incarnation, or Roc Nation through to this generation - has always been held in high esteem by hip-hop heads, and Mensa is no different. Having grown up memorising ‘Reasonable Doubt’ and with vivid memories of buying a clean version of ‘The Blueprint’ from the record store by his home in Chicago, Jay and Kanye were both major influences in his decision to make music. To share the news of his deal with the world he tattooed the original Roc-a-fella logo on his neck - an icon in hip-hop from the infamous chains that the label’s signees would proudly display around their necks - and take to Soundcloud to drop ‘Heir To The Throne Freestyle’. The track pays homage to when Jay, Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Oschino, Sparks, Young Chris and H Money Bags rolled through Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 show back in 2001 for a legendary freestyle session. Using the same instrumental - Notorious B.I.G’s ‘Who Shot Ya?’ - Vic showed that he was ready to go, spitting at an incredibly high level and reminding listeners that he was as apt an MC as anyone who repped The Roc before him.

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I will rap with anybody!

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In the weeks that followed he made several Soundcloud deposits, displaying a combination of artistic vision and technical rap skills that seem rare amongst a generation who tend to opt for either one or the other. “That’s me,” says Vic of the balance. “I started as a rapper first. Before I ever wrote a song I was writing 80 bar raps and I was studying Nas raps printed out page by page. That’s something I can never lose: my love for the art of rap. As I grew older and became more interested in song writing, it just pushed my possibilities further. I always have to have a foot firmly on the floor as a rapper, because that’s how I started. I will rap with anybody!”

One of the tracks, ‘All That Shines’, sees him stunting enthusiastically about his newfound position. “Now I’m with the big boys,” he raps on the first verse. “I’m with Hov out in New York City / In MIA wilin’ out with Diddy bumpin’ D’Angelo.” “That’s a good story!” he exclaims over the phone, of his adventures with Puff. “I never got to tell that one before.” The pair linked up when Diddy personally requested that ‘Innanetape’’s ‘Orange Soda’ was played on his Revolt TV channel. “He called me one day a while back and he was like, ‘Yo, I love this video, I personally requested it for Revolt.’ And I was just blown away, because I’m huge B.I.G fan, huge Ma$e fan, and just Bad Boy, you know; it’s classic, legendary,” admits Mensa, who would eventually catch up with the Harlem mogul in Miami during Art Basel at the end of 2014. “I went to his crib in Miami and he is Puff Daddy to the max. He’s in the pool, shirt off, talking on the phone with his chef cooking kale that tastes like chicken,” he recalls.

Their next meeting would be in LA, where they would - as the line says - bump D’Angelo & The Vanguard’s ‘Black Messiah’ album from beginning to end. “He had one of his people bringing us so many shots of DeLéon Tequila. And he had this crazy candy room in his house - we were going through these gigantic gumball machines. He had a bag of joints rolled up, like a gallon ziplock bag of joints rolled up. I was just faded as fuck in Diddy’s house and I raced him down his hallway,” says Vic of an experience that was memorable even when intoxicated. “Diddy is one of the most turnt up, but also incredibly intelligent, knowledgeable, insightful, powerful and inspiring people I’ve met. It was a stunt for me just because I come from being a huge student of this game. I was racing Diddy down his hallway - I was kind of fucked up, I think he might have beat me, which is crazy because I’m fucking fast as shit,” suddenly he changes his mind. “No, I beat Diddy in the race down his hallway. That’s what happened!”

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That’s something I can never lose: my love for the art of rap.

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But life with Puff Daddy isn’t all oversized confectionery and hallway athletics. “One of the most valuable things that I’ve taken from Diddy is to continue to put my whole life into my music, and be my own voice,” says Vic. “I played him a song called ‘Rage’ early in its conception, and he stopped like, ‘Yo, this sounds like nobody else.’ And my gift is that nobody can make a song that sounds like my song.” You don’t have to be Diddy to see the appeal of ‘Rage’. Equal doses stadium rock and hip-hop, it is well executed across both styles, a balance that rap music has struggled with since the Beastie Boys. “‘Rage’ is an epic about my life and my perspectives on my position in the world,” he says. “And overcoming gravity. Just fighting against gravity and trying to continuously rise upward. And it’s a message I want to give to people because kids commit suicide because they get torn down by the things that seem impossible to overcome, and I’ve felt like that a million times. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like ending it all. But ‘Rage’ is that light through the darkness.”

With hip-hop having taken over as pop culture in America right now, it feels like Vic Mensa, and ‘Rage’ in particular, is rock penetrating that once again - to continue the comparison made by Jay, it’s the hip-hop generation’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Produced by Vic himself, alongside Mike Dean, the track is a centerpiece on ‘Traffic’, and an important song for Vic’s career. “The themes that are explored in there, the addiction themes and the legal struggles and the violence that I’ve experienced in my life are all things that can tear you down, it could break you down. It can eat away at your insides and to keep its innermost power,” he adds. “The song is an expression of raging through it all.”

The bravery, creativity and skill required to execute the release of a track like ‘Rage’ hasn’t just been instilled by Diddy, but his other mentors too. “I learn things from Kanye constantly,” says Vic. “The way that Kanye’s mind works is a constant synopsis of different avenues that all run simultaneously. He’s always thinking about so many things, which is why he’s able to combine so many topics and sounds into one completely unique piece of music in every song that he makes.” He pauses while he deliberates on the most valuable thing that he’s taken from Jay, before landing on something poignant: “From Jay I’ve learned that there is a time for everything. I’ve had things that in the heat of the moment I felt like I wanted to do right now, and Jay is such a big picture person that he’s taught me timing is everything.”

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I think that all that can conquer so many ills of our world, is love...

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Recorded between Chicago and Los Angeles, free of features and with a host of producers including Mike Dean, John Hill and Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio, Vic Mensa intends ‘Traffic’ to be an articulation of himself as a 22-year-old man in America: “It’s my perspective on everything going on around me, internally and externally. This overcoming of my struggles with my personal struggles and my interpersonal struggles with addiction and with my relationship, and with - I wouldn’t say politics, I don’t give a fuck about politics - but with the real world, with the streets.” The title comes from a hell of a lot of travelling; planes to St. Louis, trains to Chicago... “It made me think about an album where every song was a train down a different track,” he explains. “And every song was a journey to another place, to a different story in my life, a different part of my life, a different place, a different experience.”

The three tracks he’s selected to discuss in this piece feel like just that. From the dense electronic call to action of ‘Ring The Bell’, to the sprawling expression of hope in ‘Rage’, the third and final song is an exploration of a relationship that is another central theme on ‘Traffic’. Describing a snapshot of the first real relationship of his life, it’s a song that means a lot to him. “I was with this girl for four years and we just loved each other to a point of extreme hate sometimes. It’s really crazy, you know. And that relationship and how volatile and at times beautiful [it was].” Delivered over a loop from the bridge of Weezer’s ‘The Good Life’ (Rivers Cuomo would later invite Vic to a studio session, hear the track, and love it so much he laid down some vocals at the end of the song), Vic tells the story of his lover breaking into his flat, arguing while he juggles hiding weed under the sink and a half-dressed girl in his bathroom as the police discover the commotion. “It’s just one of the craziest experiences of my life,” he reflects. “I have a real fucking life that’s tumultuous and dangerous and beautiful at the same time. I recently realised I’m a hopeless romantic, and it stresses me out but it gives me things to talk about. My driving force is love but it’s kind of at times in conflict with the wild shit that comes along with being me.”

Aside from waking his listeners up, that driving force is the second thing that he hopes to inspire through his music. “I think that all that can conquer so many ills of our world, is love,” he says earnestly. “Regardless of race, religion, creed, age, class, societal restrictions, people having a genuine love for each other, and a willingness to understand others.” A tattoo on Vic’s arm - a quote from Assata Shakur – reads: “Love is my sword and truth is my compass.” And it’s this statement that defines Vic’s approach to writing. It’s his ability to tell his own truths that he believes is his strongest attribute as an artist. From lyrics, to delivery, to production - every factor contributes to the overall painting. The music is daring without compromising skill, and calculated without losing that real human emotion. While the never satisfied 22-year-old will undoubtedly continue to reinvent himself as his career progresses, nothing tells the truths of Vic Mensa, and thousands struggling through the early stages of adulthood just like him, like ‘Traffic’.

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Nathanael Turner

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