Vic Mensa: The Mentalist

After spending time in Chance the Rapper's shadow, the gifted Chicago spitter is ready to reclaim the spotlight.

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Oct 21 2013, 3:00pm

Photo by Ryan Muir

Vic Mensa is not a big guy. Actually, he's pretty small. He doesn't turn heads when he walks into a room. When he comes onstage to perform, it's not to much fanfare or dramatic presentation. Lately he's been starting his shows in the middle of the crowd, where he blends in easily. His appearance onstage is sudden, and it takes a moment to process: Here's a dude who is rapping really well. Also: Here's a dude who seems to be overflowing with words, bursting with ideas that feel like they can't get out fast enough.

Vic, 20, is already an experienced performer, the product of four years as the rapping frontman of Chicago band Kids These Days, a precocious hip-hop fusion group whose run began when the members were all in their mid teens. The band broke up earlier this year, and now Vic's second, higher-reaching endeavor as a solo artist, his chance to follow through on all those ideas, is beginning.

"The only possible scenario for me outside of the band is to make an amazing body of work that represents me," he stated matter-of-factly during a recent phone interview. At the end of September, he released the mixtape INNANETAPE, a bold step forward creatively from his rapped output with Kids These Days. But he doesn't just face the challenge of distinguishing himself from the band—by his own judgement, his solo career has already gotten him farther in a few short months—there are other preconceptions for him to deal with as a rapper coming out of a crowded scene.

Even as the last couple of years saw Chicago experience perhaps its biggest blossoming of rap talent and industry attention ever, Vic was widely overlooked. Despite their popularity and prominence among the region's high school and college students, Kids These Days never quite broke through or connected with rap fans. Or, he was automatically grouped with his friend, collaborator within the loose artistic collective Save Money, and vocal sound-alike Chance the Rapper.

Given the latter's sudden and rapid rise in recent months, there's a temptation to assume that Vic's only getting attention now because of his relationship with Chance. But while Vic may scan in some ways as the Ab-Soul to Chance's Kendrick—the headier, less groomed-for-fame sidekick—he offers a different shading of similar sounds, bringing a focused intensity to his output that offers yet another idea of what Chicago's rapidly evolving rap scene might represent.

"[Chance and Vic] are bringing a style to rap that is so new, and they're the only two really doing it right now. So if you're a person who's never heard it before you're kind of forced to make the association," Cam Osteen, the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League-affiliated producer who has worked with both and acted as one of the executive producers for INNANETAPE, told me. He added, "It's the same process that you go through when you meet two identical twins. At first you can't tell them apart ... And then you forget what made them the same in the first place."

On "Orange Soda," a breakout solo track released in April, shortly before Kids These Days officially parted ways, Vic raps, "they made a list about Chicago rappers and they skipped me" before qualifying it with the retort "maybe 'cause I'm so much more." The song, a laid-back, soulful composition that just barely scans as rap due to Vic's melodic cadence, is also a standout moment on and mission statement for INNANETAPE, which aims high and casts a wide net stylistically, a solid bid for Vic to get noticed on his own merits.

The project finds Vic jumping way ahead of his past work, pushing his boundaries by switching from lighthearted, party-starting shows of dexterity to meandering stoner monologues to lush, triumphant funk anthems. Anchored by his sing-song delivery and stream-of-consciousness transitions in style, in many places it doesn't sound much like hip-hop at all. It's conversational, absurd and unexpected, with an overall effect that's a little bit like having a friend show you a bunch of their favorite YouTube videos back to back.

And with guest turns from people like Chance, Rockie Fresh, Ab-Soul and Thundercat, it's also got the right pedigree to launch Vic into a whole new realm of visibility and artistic prominence, something was already starting to happen before its release. Vic just came off a short tour stint with J. Cole and Wale, and early next year he'll head out for a series of shows with budding British dance music superstars Disclosure, with whom he has already recorded a collaborative track, due later this year.

“The thing that made me want to rap was not seeing rappers with Range Rovers and chains on '106 and Park,'" Vic says. When he was 15, working on music for what would become his first mixtape Straight Up with producer duo Nez and Rio, he used to get rides home with them from the studio, which was in a rough neighborhood.

"I just remember Rio being like, 'You not going to school. You not going to college. You know that, right?' And I just took that to heart," Vic recalls. He got his chance with Kids These Days, which formed in 2009. His close friend Nico Segal, whom he'd known since middle school, was forming a band with some of the other kids in the music program he was attending, and they wanted a rapper ("They wanted to do a funk/rap/jazz band or something," Vic said of the original concept. "I don't know what they initially wanted to put out."). Vic was the obvious choice.

The group gained traction quickly, its ambitions and raw talent immediately putting it in a class beyond the typical high school band. In 2010, Vic tried to sneak into Lollapalooza when he fell off a bridge and electrocuted himself, an incident he describes onINNANETAPE. The next year, Kids These Days played the festival.

They played South by Southwest that year and the following two years as well, skipping school to do so. In 2012, when Conan O'Brien did a series of tapings of his show in Chicago, Kids These Days played on air. That fall, they put out an album, Traphouse Rock, working with people like local musical celebrity Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. None of them went to college.

Then, this past spring, citing creative differences, the band broke up. "The band breaking up when it did, honestly, only pushed me further in the direction I was already leaning on a personal level," Vic says, later adding, "It's easy to get lost in ambition and forget why you really do what you do. Especially in music, rap music. You want so much, and you know that this can be a ticket to get it."

Photo by Ryan Muir

Although he grew up in the South Side university community of Hyde Park, the son of an economics professor and a physical therapist, Vic went to school all over and ended up at the competitive near West Side high school Whitney Young, giving him a diverse and widespread group of friends. Vic was a smart kid who did well in school, but he also had a knack for breaking rules.

Vic's interest in hip-hop first started as an interest in writing graffiti. He would sneak out to climb on rooftops to write graffiti with Nico or write on trains, often stealing the supplies ("I definitely had sticky fingers for a long time. I might be a kleptomaniac.").

From there, he got interested in break dancing, then digging for records, and, finally, rapping. "I didn't even like rap when I was younger," he explained. The first rap song he connected with was KRS-One's "Step Into A World," which he discovered on a cassette tape of old New York hip-hop.

He covered the costs of recording his first mixtape, Straight Up, in part by selling weed, although he eventually stopped because he felt guilty toward his parents, who were emotionally and financially supportive of his music. His sprawling friend group, which started going by the name Save Money (Vic's phrase, thought up during a handshake), has become known for its status as a loose creative collective that includes rappers and producers like Chance, Kami de Chukwu, Thelonious Martin, Caleb James and Joey Purp, as well as non-musical members like video director Austin Vesely. But its origins were less noble.

“It was just always a big ass group of us fucking shit up and causing mayhem and running around acting the fool," Vic explained. He added, "When there was a fight or there was a problem, we would just call everybody up and there would be niggas from all types of different schools getting off the train, fucking coming up to Whitney Young or going wherever to go scrap. Save Money was really just a big ass network of young niggas who all just kicked it.”

Last winter, Vic met Cam, a Las Vegas native who had come to Chicago for to work with Rockie Fresh. Cam showed Vic some beats, including one that would become "Hollywood LA," and the producer was immediately blown away by Vic's melodic style. Vic connected Cam with Peter Cottontale, whose arrangements and keyboard riffs have been key in defining the plush sound of an entire circle of Chicago artists (particularly Chance).

"Vic is such a great artist," Peter Cottontale, who, along with Cam, Vic and Om'Mas Keith, served as one of the tape's executive producers, told me. "When I say artist I mean just all around great ideas on how to put stuff together. A lot of the production on the tape was ideas that he had started himself."

When he describes his process, Vic talks about songs that come to him fully formed and just have to "manifest" themselves. Whether it's an instinct honed from years of working with a full band or simple intuition, Vic seems to have a holistic view of a song and a way of bending tracks to suit his needs. He piles rhymes on top of each other with remarkable density and lets others hover for a moment's pause to sink in—before taking abrupt left turns with both his flow and his subject matter. Listening to Vic rap is satisfying as both an intellectual and sensory experience.

"It just takes control of me," Vic explained. "It's one of the only true moments of freedom I ever feel. And so I use music to help me focus back on that. 'Cause, shit, days get dark sometimes."

"It's grown from being really good at rapping to now having like a voice and a style," Nico said. "That's the biggest evolution I've seen. Is just from being clever and having good phrasing and all that to really being able to say what he feels and say what he means."

"He sings like he gets into the song," Cam speculated. "Instead of just rapping on top of the beat, he kind of like embodies it, kind of like lives in it… he makes it his home, and he sleeps in it."

That instinct, the ability to tap into something elemental about the track and simultaneously turn it on its head, is ultimately Vic's secret weapon, the thing that will help him manage that complicated trick of staking out his own career. It's something he has in common with Chance, but their visions are entirely different, and Vic may be the slightly more polished straight-up rapper. He's had time, touring with Kids These Days, to get good, but also—and here's the thing, the piece that eludes many young artists—to figure out what he's trying to do with his music. Rather than taking the safe, middle of the road approach that ultimately held Kids These Days back, he's heading into unknown territory. Things are different out there in the world of innanet, and that's exactly what Vic's been hoping for.

Kyle Kramer is a writer living in Brooklyn. He's on Twitter - @kylekramer