chicago's rising hip hop star vic mensa is a young soul rebel
Anna Victoria Best
"I always thought I was supposed to be famous. I always kind of thought I was famous," Vic Mensa murmurs, looking distractedly at his handsome self in the photobooth mirror hidden in the lobby of east London fashion bolthole the Ace Hotel."I'm a poseur; that's why I want to be famous, so all my poses can be for a reason. I don't want to be full of myself for no reason anymore," he turns away from the mirror, cracks a devilish grin, and spins on his sandaled heel.
He might not be a household name just yet, but the 21 year-old Mensa who raps and produces, is most certainly nipping at the heels of Hip Hop's more left-leaning A-listers like Drake, J.Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Offering a completely unconventional take on what it means to be a 'rapper', Mensa's alternative upbringing, eclectic creativity and fluctuating influences inject his music with a sense of adventure, energy and true individuality." I don't really know how to…" he stops, searching how to describe the next phase of his musical genesis. "I'm lost as far as genres go. I don't know which ones are which anymore."
"I always thought I was supposed to be famous. I'm a poseur; that's why I want to be famous, so all my poses can be for a reason. I don't want to be full of myself for no reason anymore."
Born and bought up in Chicago, Mensa is the latest in a lineage of Chi-Town lyrists that includes Common, Lupe Fiasco, Twista, Chief Keef and Kanye West. Currently attracting attention from numerous news outlets, Chicago, or 'Chiraq' as it's become dubiously dubbed, is a city of two halves. On one hand, an impressive architectural ode to prosperity (and the setting for everyone's favourite legal drama 'The Good Wife'), on the other a violent indictment of post-recession blues. The murder rates are among the highest in the America, the gang problem increasingly endemic and poverty is soaring. Last Easter, 40 people, including six children, were shot over one weekend, leading to numerous 'Bloody Sunday' headlines.
"It's an amazing place, it's my favourite place in the world. Chicago is really fucking beautiful," Mensa begins. "What you hear about the city isn't exaggerated, it's the truth, but it is a media sensation so it is sensationalised. Shit happens all the time," he says, leaving the Ace to take a stroll around Shoreditch. "The thing about it is, it's not the be and end all of the city and the culture. It's an amazing city and I love it. Things are just fucked. There's a lot of drugs and guns and desperation."
While infamous drill rhymers like Chief Keef, Lil Durk and Lil Reece expound on the violence, riddling their rhymes with bulletholes and blood, Mensa has much more in common with another Chi-town rapper/producer Kanye West. "I admire Kanye's breadth of artistry," he points out, adding he's currently learning to play piano, bass and guitar in order to both be a better producer and to incorporate playing instruments into his live show. "I guess in ways I aspire to be Kanye but with different influences. In the way that Kanye so seamlessly built a sound - and sounds - out of '70s soul shit, I aspire to build a sound out of the rock and roll shit that I grew up on, but in a Hip Hop way," he decides.
Bought up in a middle class household in Hyde Park on Chicago's South Side, Mensa (born Victor Mensah) grew up sandwiched between mansions and housing projects; Obama on one side, the block boys on the other. As a seven year-old, his mum gave her son some drums, and he proceeded to pound the shit out of them. Via his artist mum and academic dad, he found the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and later, through friends he discovered Guns-N-Roses and Nirvana. He began to breakdance and he and his friend Nico - now a trumpeter for Chance The Rapper - would raid record stores for James Brown and the Jimmy Castor Band breaks on vinyl. "The first rap song I really got into though was KRS-One's Step Into A World which I found on this Zoo York Skate DVD, Skateboard 2. I started from the bottom - and now I'm here," he laughs. Kanye arrived via his friend Tyrone who bowled into school stating "He found Common on Limewire and slowly, painting pictures with words began to replace painting trains. "When I was a kid, graffiti was a real addiction - like how music is an addition now. Sometimes I keep my girlfriend up at night cos I'll be going to sleep and I'll have another idea so I'll pick my phone up and try and whisper it in so she doesn't hear it. Tattoo's, graffiti, music, it's all an addiction," he says pointing to the 'Superman' tatt on his right hand. "But I stopped fucking around with graffiti because being in a police station for writing isn't so cool."
"My ambition right now is to be better every day, that's my biggest ambition; be better than yesterday."
A self-confessed rebel, a young Mensa discovered skating and by proxy, graffiti, b-boying, rapping and tattoos. He and his friends would ride the trains after school "destroying the shit out them". There's been arrests - many of them - for petty crimes including, he grins, stealing condoms. "As a kid I was always trying to fight somebody, always ready to fight somebody, steal something, break some shit, do something bad - I was kind of temperamental," he admits. "Acting like that my whole life has led me to do things that haven't always representative of who I want to be, so through making those mistakes I think I'm more recognised now who I want to be and how I want to act. I want to be the best me I can be. I want to be a positive energy in the world, anywhere I go, I want to bring people up rather than be quick to beat somebody down."
At 15, he formed seven-piece band, Kids These Days. With Vic as frontman, a female singer and five talented teen musicians, the group began to gain traction, but split acrimoniously when they couldn't agree on a musical direction. He decided instead to go solo, like his mate Chance The Rapper, whom he had met when the two were both 14, and withwhom he formed Save Money Crew. The two - often compared but in fact musically disparate- are close. "That's my friend; I've shed blood for him, fought for him," Mensa nods. "We got into fights together all the time. About what? The same dumb shit; ego."
Vic's first solo musical offering was 2013's INNANETAPE, a bold, brave affair which unspools over 14 tracks of esoteric musings, zany funk samples and mesmerizing melodies that sound like everything and nothing you've ever heard of. Then there was the club nodding Down On My Luck while Feel That returned to the harder boom bap of beats. So, what kind of artist is he? With rumoured collaborations including Kaytranada, Duke Dumont (with whom he recently performed with in Ibiza) and Damon Albarn (with whom he recently performed with in New York), which direction does Mensa see himself going in next? "I don't know, really. I'm seeing where the music takes me," he shrugs. "My ambition right now is to be better every day, that's my biggest ambition; be better than yesterday, as a person and as a performer and a producer. I make music from a really personal place." What does he want to offer to Hip Hop? "I'm not so much out to introduce one specific thing to Hip Hop, I'm offering myself to the world, to music, it's all one to me," he points out. "But I do think that the things that I've been doing musically and the ways in which I incarnate rock and soul and funk and youthfulness is different to what's being done by anyone else, or has been done by anyone else."
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Anna Victoria Best