Spiritual Evolution: Vic Mensa Interviewed

“There's great moments, triumphs and tribulations but the greatest things I have to create are still within me…”

Across the last decade and beyond, Vic Mensa has embarked on a spiritual journey. A path full of twists and turns, the rapper, singer and actor now comes full circle on his pivotal sophomore album, ‘Victor.’ 

The intertwining relationship between time and growth is, in its nature, an untouchable process that tailors itself to each individual journey. As much as one can steer the direction in which they head towards, there’s an uncontrollable element to the unknown that hangs just around the corner. Evolution, at this point in Vic Mensa’s career, is a critical point of reflection. “Dealing with many of the things that I have in the public sphere, and in a private sense as well, all the beef, controversy, being hated and villainized – that shit makes you look inward and take accountability for the role that you play and the mess that you’ve made.” 

The outcomes of personal struggle are fairly straightforward for the prolific Chicago rapper, singer and actor. “There’s things that can either drive a person to quit or evolve. To elevate, that’s the only option for me,” he says over Zoom. This isn’t the first time that CLASH has profiled Vic Mensa. He once featured on the cover of Issue #100, over seven years ago. Back then, we touched base with an artist who was surging for the top spot, yet to realise the extent of fame’s peaks and troughs. As the rapper’s story continues to unravel, the music he releases and the initiatives he builds all follow suit.

First stepping into the limelight as the frontman of Kids These Days, Mensa made his solo breakthrough with 2013’s ‘INNANETAPE’ – a sonically diverse mixtape that lends itself just as much to the influence of hip-hop as it does to rock ‘n roll and soul-tinged samples. Now lauded as an emblem of the early 2010s SoundCloud era, the project equally captures the rise of close collaborators and peers, most notably Chance The Rapper, whom Mensa has shared a friendship with since early adolescence. Later releasing his debut album ‘The Autobiography’ – a step away from its predecessor’s more playful, upbeat approach – the artist brought together a dense collection of tracks that opened conversations on mental health, addiction and the effects of ruptured relationships. The body of work cemented his relationship with Roc Nation, who have supported the artist up till this day. In retrospect, Mensa admits, “I learned a lot from that album. It’s some of my finest fucking writing – these stories would be 80 bars. I don’t think it gets the love or credit that it deserves, but perhaps it was just too early for such an in-depth revolution about my story.” 

To put a voice to topics which have, at times, been taboo, comes naturally to the trailblazer. Although attitudes within the music community are shifting, the artist warns against the cyclical nature of society as a whole. “Things change but human beings don’t. All the cosmetic solutions, those things change – maybe it’s alcohol or antidepressant medication, but the real key is to live a peaceful existence,” he says. Attributing hip-hop as a reflective genre, he investigates the powers of his own words, scanning through the past, present and future. “I have a chance to live this long life and hopefully put into the universe how this thing really works. Romanticising my addictions and my suicidal dreams, it’s so self-destructive, that shit literally kills you.” Taking a moment to speak for those who follow a similar path, he continues “we don’t know that when we’re young because we exist in a culture with so much pain. It’s all through the music, it’s a spell that we’ve cast, so I’m just lucky to be able to stay magic but cast a new spell.”

As we speak, the artist cruises down the streets of his city, one that he’s now returned to. Relocating is a core theme on his sophomore album, ‘Victor’, a milestone that has been preempted through a series of solo tapes and EP’s, including his pop-rock side project, ‘93PUNX’. Redemption, evolution and homecoming are the principles of Mensa’s new chapter. “Living in Chicago has definitely helped me to stay grounded; it’s helped me to re-establish a sense of purpose, intention and drive.” He ponders for a second before continuing, “…when I was living in LA I was pretty lost in a lot of ways. There was a lot of drugs, violence and negativity.” 

In conversation, the artist handles each talking point with a close attention to detail, fleshing out his perspective through a broad understanding of history, symbolism and experience. Across 18 tracks, ‘Victor’ similarly sets out to challenge global issues, whilst leaving room to serve up braggadocious punchlines over velvet, cinematic production. The result is a project that evades the limitations of ‘woke rap’, and instead permeates the genre on a deeper, more seamless level. 

Take the album artwork, a glimpse into the inspirations behind ‘Victor’ conceived by Chicago-based artist Terron Cooper Sorrells. Capturing Mensa through a rich colour palette, the painting reflects the Egyptian Book of The Dead and Osiris, otherwise known as God of the Underworld. As the myth follows, Osiris was killed by the people closest to him, his corpse torn and scattered across the globe until his wife, Isis and her sister, Nephythys, stitched him back to life. In Terron’s work, Mensa is sat by a windowsill, surrounded by three doves who weave his body parts together. Around the rapper’s neck is a regal statement piece, a chain that consists of brass West African beads cast in gold, carved with a fertility doll on its pendant.

Of the inspiration behind the iconography, Mensa waxes lyrical: “When I read that story, I learned that Osiris was 28 at the time. I was 28, making this album. I drew an analogy between Osiris’s resurrection and my own. The doves, those were Terron’s idea, that was how he represented Isis. I think it’s beautiful because the dove represents peace and I think that in pursuit of peace I have been put back together – I have become more whole.” 

Lyrically, the project hosts a distinct calibre of voices that flex their differing styles, from the likes of Thundercat to Ty Dolla $ign, D Smoke, Rapsody and the divisive Jay Electronica. The illustrative ‘$outhside Story’ features poetry from hip-hop veteran Common, a stark snapshot of the city in which they both grew up in. The track exudes a warmth and familiarity that seeks to educate its listener on the dichotomous nature of Chicago, described in vivid detail through Common’s opening lines: ‘A land of Gods, where the mosque towers above the ghost of Leon’s Barbeque / A city of contraband and contradictions.’ Speaking on their collaboration, Mensa details the intentions behind his lyrics. “I just wanted to depict an empathetic, realistic perspective of Chicago,” he says. “I wanted to turn somewhere that is often viewed as a one dimensional, dangerous and negative place into the three or four dimensional complex place that it really is. A place full of history and art, culture, worship, gangbangin’, violence and pain all at once.”

Elsewhere on the project is ‘Blue Eyes’, a track that routes back to Mensa’s first experience with ayahuasca in 2016, a plant-based hallucinogenic brew. Despite its early inception, the track would only come to fruition once the words had been found from within, revealing a poignant commentary on the long-lasting impact of racism and internalised trauma. Centred on the story of Mensa’s late Aunt, who lost her life to skin cancer after the prolonged use of skin bleaching cream, the rapper delves into his own search for identity across adolescence. Both greatly personal whilst honing a universal message, Mensa encourages a more profound discussion, a conversation of “self-love, acceptance [and] a rejection of Western beauty standards.”

At the heart of the record is ‘Law of Karma’, a momentous offering that discovers strength in confession. Layering straight-to-the-point verses over subdued, atmospheric production, Mensa tears into his past self, setting all prior sense of judgement or pride alight. In doing so, the rapper elevates his relationship with the listener, transforming the process of accountability into something raw, honest and necessary. Subject to the scrutiny of the public eye, he acknowledges the reputation that has come with his trajectory. “On the one hand I have this positive, world-changing spirit and actions to go along with it, but on the other, there’s a lot of toxic, really destructive behaviour that absolutely contradicts the positive things that I built.” Perhaps through a lack of empathy Mensa says he became “this fucking polarising figure.” Yet, as an individual who is more concerned with the reality of a variable, non-linear journey, Mensa leads with his head held high. “I can’t put my value in what the world says about me, whether it’s good or bad, because I know that it’s subject to change, it’s fickle…I just try to live in the real world and be appreciative, be grateful.” 

The world at present, in contrast to the internet, is a space that Mensa views as his priority. On a local level, the artist has become a key figure in uplifting his community through his non-profit organisation, SaveMoneySaveLife, founded in 2018. Across a series of initiatives – which include gifting almost one million dollars worth of shoes to children, offering career-focussed programs, and sleeping on the streets of Chicago to raise money for the homeless – the charity continues to strengthen the bonds between the city, the arts and its civilians. Elsewhere, the rapper has set up Illinois’ first black-owned cannabis brand 93 Boyz, which evokes time spent in his neighbourhood. “I’ve been selling weed since I was a little kid. So to be able to do it in a legal way is a dream come true. The goal is to expand and to use it as a vehicle to impact people and create culture.” 

Travelling across the map, Mensa, alongside Chance The Rapper, is developing a means to connect with the African continent. Following a period spent in Ghana, the artist noted the absence of American artists whilst touring, spawning the debut of Black Star Line Festival in Accra’s Black Star Square – a free-ticketed event that curates a range of live shows, panel discussions and exhibitions. This year’s gathering brought the likes of Erykah Badu, T-Pain, Jeremih and Asakaa Boys to its 52,000 attendees. Now, the plan is to to hit up Kingston Jamaica, where the pair can honour the work of political activist Marcus Garvey and extend the festival’s impact further. “I think it’s beautiful because many Jamaicans are ethnically Ghanaian,” he says. Envisioning his dream line-up, Mensa gushes over the island’s wealth of talent. “I love music in Jamaica so much. I love Koffee, Chronixx, Skillibeng. There’s an artist called Valiant who’s really dope. There’s just such a wealth of artists out there and we’ve been connecting with everybody from the people I just mentioned, to the youth, to the OGs like Sizzla and the Marley family.”

As our conversation draws to a close, Mensa looks to the future of his career through his uncle Frank Stella, whose work is photographed beside him. A highly-regarded sculptor, painter and printmaker within 1960s Minimalism, Stella demonstrates the triumph of patience and longevity. “Uncle Frank has been creating art at a high level for 60 years. It gives me perspective. My uncle is being recognised in one of the most massive ways of his life as an 88 year-old artist. Imagine if he was to cap his level of success to what he had achieved by 30.” Turning to address aspiring creatives, he echoes the advice that has propelled him further in his career: “Don’t put an expiration date on your success. There’s no one way that this shit has to happen.”

Vic Mensa has come full circle. As an artist, what drives him is a fierce ambition to evolve on a creative and personal level. But despite his position as a global rap star, he continues to invoke an underdog mentality. “It’s cool to be underestimated because people just don’t even know what the fuck you’re up to, they don’t even know what you’re capable of,” he says with vim. Hopping from continents to cities and darting back round again, it’s hard to predict where Vic Mensa will find himself in the next 24 hours, nevermind in the years ahead. Yet, there’s a gleaming energy that radiates from Victor Kwesi Mensah, as he ventures into the unknown. “Everything that I’ve done before this point is dope. There’s great moments, triumphs, tribulations and mistakes but ultimately, the greatest things I have to create are still within me and yet to come…”

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Words: Ana Lamond
Photography: Danielle DeGrass-Alston 
Hair: Lawrence Funk / Funk’s Barbershop 

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