Release Date: Jul 28, 2017
Record label: Roc Nation
Genre(s): Rap, Midwest Rap, Contemporary Rap
In the world of hip-hop, bragging is out and emotion is in. Vulnerability is the order of the day. Jay Z, a man who's spent the last 20 years boasting about his bank balance to anyone who would listen, just released the stunningly vulnerable '4:44', an album on which he lays his inadequacies - as a husband, as a father - totally bare. Elsewhere, rappers such as Vince Staples and Danny Brown are dialling down the machismo to explore what's going on in their heads and hearts.
Vic Mensa's life story unfurls on Memories on 47th St, a tour of the rapper's upbringing in Chicago. Lyrically dextrous, some of it is familiar from testimonies past: absent father, "kicked out of kindergarten", police brutality, tagging graffiti; someone HIV-positive shoots up. Then Mensa falls from a bridge and gets a huge electric shock sneaking into Lollapalooza.
Named to XXL's Freshman Class of 2014, signed by Jay-Z's Roc Nation in 2015, and nominated for a Grammy in 2016 (for co-writing Kanye West's "All Day"), Vic Mensa has been on a steady rise since he opened "Family," off fellow Savemoney member Chance the Rapper's 10 Day. Bearing a plainly descriptive title, the Chicago south-sider's debut full-length also follows a couple mixtapes (one with defunct band Kids These Days), as many EPs, a batch of singles, and a profusion of appearances on tracks headlined by a cross-continental, multi-genre crop of artists. Going by this large volume of scattered output delivered with a laser-sight glare, it's conceivable that the biggest challenge Mensa faced in making The Autobiography was corralling his lifetime's worth of experiences and greater number of thoughts.
Rap-rock is risky business. Aside from the few artists who have managed to defy the odds and successfuly fuse these disparate genres (i.e. Rage Against the Machine), there have been enough terrible examples over the years to discourage the current generation of artists from dabbling in this unholy alchemy. But Vic Mensa's new album, The Autobiography, is a lyrical, plainspoken hip-hop record that successfully taps into early-2000s alternative as it dissects Mensa's personal struggles and larger social issues.
A co-founder of increasingly visible Chicago rap crew Savemoney (Chance the Rapper, Joey Purp, Towkio and more), 24-year-old Vic Mensa has already worn many hats: the rhyme-spitter in groove-centric indie-rock band Kids These Days, the occasionally highly technical MC tearing through 2013 mixtape Innanetape, the political firebrand of 2016 EP There's Alot Going On. Now, his proper debut full-length might be letting you know who he really is. In the plainspoken, autobiographical style of songs like Kanye West's "Through the Wire," Mensa lays out his life, from the kid who was pulled off his bike by cops at age 12 ("Memories on 47th Street"), to the adult struggling with his drug and alcohol intake ("Rolling Like Stoner") and struggling with his relationships with women ("Homewrecker," featuring guest vocals from Rivers Cuomo, tweaks Weezer's 1996 "Good Life" until it sings like MC Lyte's "Poor Georgie").
It only takes a minute into his debut album for Vic Mensa to say "I told you so." The 24-year old Chicago rapper has been obsessing over this moment for years. He's actually talking to his parents and friends, which makes the moment all the more endearing in its lack of snark. It's goodwill he carries through the rest of The Autobiography, an unimaginative and over-promising title for an artist's first major milestone, but one that's not overly lofty in describing Mensa's album-length character building.
T hree years after his breakthrough with hip-house anthem Down on My Luck, Vic Mensa has apparently scrapped one album on the way to this debut - clearly aiming for the kind of grand rap statement that, a la Kendrick, unites the old and new schools. His candour about depression and drug addiction is arresting, as on the Pharrell track Wings, where pills turn him into "an armoured truck riding the rink"; woman trouble is amusingly, vividly rendered on Gorgeous, as he courts someone who "can detect a bitch from an eyelash". There are also some brilliant production flourishes, such as Homewrecker turning Weezer's The Good Life into a boom-bap ode to his baboon-bottomed girlfriend.
Ask any fan of modern rap: they'll swear we're in the middle of a renaissance. You could argue that the golden age of hip-hop happened well over a decade ago - or for more devoted fans, it happened well before the turn of the millennium. You're probably right, but to the deniers, the age of instant-gratification and Twitter trends acts as their proof.
Vic Mensa has had a tricky time defining himself as an artist since his early mixtapes at the turn of the decade. During this period, he was often compared to friend and fellow Chicago native Chance the Rapper, whose meteoric rise has somewhat overshadowed Mensa. If the constant comparisons to Chance weren't enough, the double co-sign from Kanye West and JAY-Z have only increased the expectations of his debut album.
Chicago’s reemergence as a breeding ground for rap talent may have been spurred in large part by the city’s patented drill sound, however, its extended presence on the national stage has been more the product of artists that would rather heal their hometown than glorify the violence that engulfs it. Vic Mensa, an artist out of that mix, is one of Chi-town’s more beloved scribes, as well as one of the city’s outspoken voices. This has resulted in his impact reaching far beyond the vocal booth, with his opinions on racial, sociopolitical and cultural issues all moving the needle.
Acid Rap was one of the best things about 2013; stunningly vibrant music that alerted us to the talent of Chance the Rapper. And in posse cut, “Cocoa Butter Kisses”, it shone a light on Vic Mensa too, who was able to match Chance’s word-play while keeping with Chance’s lyrical themes. Vic Mensa released his own mixtape that year, INNANETAPE, which contained a few tracks worth keeping (“Tweakin’”, for hearing Vic channel everyone from Earl Sweatshirt to Eminem; “RUN!”, for a sprinting beat and urgent hook to match the title).