vic mensa, hip-hop's ultra-creative rare bird, returns
The Full Moon Festival headliner tells us what’s written in the stars on his long-awaited debut album.
"This for all my fans that say they want that old Vic. I've grown too much to ever be the old Vic." These lines open The Manuscript, a clutch of four tracks Vic Mensa released last month. On Saturday, the Chicago rapper delivered them under the glow of a swelling, slightly sinister full moon. It was one of the more powerful moments of the seventh annual Full Moon Festival — the aptly-named Governor's Island outing Mensa headlined with an hour-long, energetic set. The lunar phase represents evolution, new beginnings, and a balance between darkness and light. It's a fitting analogy for where Mensa, now 24, finds himself.
The Manuscript (which Mensa refers to as a "capsule collection") arrived between There's A Lot Going On — the explosive, urgent EP Mensa released last summer — and his long-awaited debut album The Autobiography, which is due out on July 28th. Though it clocks in at just 15 minutes from start to finish, The Manuscript is a weighty testament to Mensa's ever-expanding sound. Since his early days in the late-aughts, Mensa has infused his progressive hip-hop sensibility with indie, house, soul, and punk flavors. The capsule's standout, "OMG" (a reunion between Pusha T and Pharrell), is nothing short of a lyrical blizzard. A few minutes later, on the anthemic "Rage," Mensa vocally voyages into Bowie turf.
"My album is such a continuous story, and I want it to be received as a full body of work. I didn't feel like any one song as a single really represented the whole album," Mensa told me backstage at Full Moon. "So that's why I decided to do a capsule collection of songs, to just give you a couple different views from a few angles of what I'm gearing up to release. As opposed to putting the weight of something that's an hour of real substance into three minutes and 30 seconds."
Below, Mensa shares more about the forthcoming full-length, his DIY style sensibility, and how Pharrell inspired him to keep skating.
Do you feel There's A Lot Going On impacted the way you approached making this album?
There's A Lot Going On is always gonna be something that speaks to me because I'm proud of being able to put that down on paper. Something as personal and honest as the song "There's A Lot Going On" maintains its relevance to me just because of how unflinchingly real it is. But to be honest, I was making this album when I made There's A Lot Going On. I didn't have all of the album, I just had some of the pieces that are now on the final [record]. But I wanted to put music out at that moment, because I was in a vibe and wanted people to see me in a little bit of a different light than they might have seen me with other things I put out — "U Mad," or whatever. So I decided to make a mixtape, which turned into the There's A Lot Going On EP. But it was all during the album process. So I was already in the vein of autobiographical writing that yielded There's A Lot Going On — that no stone left unturned honesty.
"Manuscript" invokes a handwritten quality. You seem connected to a DIY sensibility, whether through your sound or your style. How did that develop?
I've been into written-on clothes like this since I was in the fifth grade, when I used to write the names of the bands that I liked on my Chucks. I guess, in a way, the energy that informed me as a 10 year old still spearheads me creatively. A recurring theme in a lot of that rebellious, punk music is like, 'We did this shit ourselves.' And I think that's the same energy from which hip-hop was born.
Tell me about working with Pharrell and Pusha T on "OMG." How did each of them influence you coming up?
Pharrell was always a huge influence to me growing up being a skate kid in a black neighborhood. Nobody was skating on the South Side of Chicago. I remember being 10 years old and fucking frustrated; I wanted to quit. When I saw Pharrell with a skateboard, it was such validation for a little kid. It made me feel good about what I was into, and gave me broader context. Beyond that, N*E*R*D is just one of my favorite groups of all time. Pharrell is one of my favorite songwriters. The Neptunes are one of my favorite production groups of all time. They brought a lot of things into hip-hop that I resonated with — those rock and roll energies that Pharrell has infused with hip-hop since the 90s. It's always been a huge inspiration to me.
I've also been such a fan of Pusha's for a long time. I think of his delivery and how effortless it is — the way he uses space. How he says what he means, and not too much more. I always was inspired by that. It was dope to be able to connect with these two people who influenced me on different levels and bring them into my world. It was definitely a blessing and so awesome to work with them.
Throughout your career, you've discussed the issues impacting Chicago in and out of the studio. Beyond your own community, you visited Standing Rock, you made a song about LGBT solidarity in response to Orlando, and you did a lot of mobilizing around the presidential election. What galvanizes you?
When I can, I try to use whatever influence I might have to speak for those that don't get a chance to speak for themselves. I try to lend a helping hand; I think it's the right thing to do. And as a musician, I should make music and speak about the things that matter to me. It excites me a lot more than the shallow, materialistic industry shit, and it gives me a sense of purpose when I'm not really sure what I'm doing. Let me step back and see what's going on around me, and see how I can be involved to make this world a better place.
What advice would you give people who are frustrated with what's happening politically or socially, but aren't sure how to start impacting change?
Something I always go back to is the concept of empathy. So to someone who is unsatisfied with what they see around them: open up your emotions to be empathetic, and really try to see what other people are going through. If you try hard enough, you'll have no decision in yourself whether to act or not. If you really are opening yourself up to feel empathy for others, and you see people going through the things that marginalized people are struggling with all over this world, you'll find somewhere to fit in and help out.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Stanislaw Boniecki