It’s 2013, and Vic Mensa drops INNANETAPE, the first real introduction to the SAVEMONEY crew member – who at that point was best known for his affiliation with fellow Chicago artist Chance the Rapper. From there, Vic Mensa took himself through a process of evolution and finding his own personal sound, flirting with dance heavy tracks such as the Kaytranada-produced Wimme Nah single Down on my Luck, and cinematic, R&B tinged efforts like the extraordinary Future reimagining, Codeine Cup (Icarus Story).
Interestingly, it wasn’t until Vic began to collaborate with other artists that he truly began to find his own sound, notably including Kanye West on U Mad, appearing on West’s 2015 performance of Wolves (later finding its way to The Life of Pablo) on Saturday Night Live, and continuing on to collaborations with electronic artists such as Kaytranada (again), Flume and Skrillex.
Now, in 2016, Mensa has not only found his own sound, but his own identity, his own voice, and the freedom and confidence to put it all to record. With debut studio album Traffic due later this year, Mensa dropped new EP There’s Alot Going On on Apple Music on June 3, sharing that voice with the world, and showing us exactly why he’s worth the hype.
Howl & Echoes editor in chief Lauren Ziegler and I tackled a joint review of the groundbreaking project.
LZ: “There’s a lot goin’ on – but this the dynasty,” Vic begins. The instrumental immediately sets the tone, brooding and bulging, momentum picking up on each line. As an introductory piece, the scene is set: a gritty Chicago; a young Vic, thinking about his childhood, his hip-hop contemporaries (the name drops and references are constant throughout); he’s got a new girl, he’s got Roc Nation behind him, he’s ready to rock and roll: “Like George Bush searchin’ for weapons of mass destruction, think I’m about to blow.”
Dynasty is rife with these comparisons, from describing Jay Z as Obama, from being the Holly Holm to Ronda Rousey and similarly, Akeem, likening himself to Motown’s Berry Gordy and even Hermione Granger. He obviously didn’t know this at the time of writing, but referencing Muhammed Ali holds particular significance upon its release, following the legendary boxer’s passing today.
Truthfully, this is my least favourite song on the album, or perhaps just the least impactful, if only because it serves as an introduction, while the following six are powerful and hard-hitting in their own diverse, incredible ways.
JS: “Livin’ childhood fantasies, dealin’ with grown problems,” Vic offers up, profoundly hitting home only a few lines in. I like this in terms of it being an introduction, a reminder that the uninformed are late to the party, and keep them an eye on the future – which belongs to him. “They should call the rap game my name, this is my game, Vic!”
I’ve got to agree with LZ that this might be the weakest on the EP, but it is still a truly great introduction to the body of work, and segues in to the thematically heavy 16 Shots. But, beneath the surface and between the lines, Dynasty is also an introduction in to the violence of Chicago streets – something close to Vic Mensa’s heart, and naturally a recurring theme through the EP.
JS: When Vic dropped this track on Beats 1 the day before the EP, he made it clear that it was both about the death of Lacquan McDonald at the hands of police in Chicago, and the subsequent unrest felt in the streets. In that sense, the track is a kind of remarkably accessible, extraordinary protest piece. “He never had a chance, and we all know it’s cause he’s black,” Vic raps. This is powerful. It’s an anthem for the unrest, a soundtrack for the protest against street injustice and police brutality, almost militant in a beautiful way. Raw, and somehow refined in equal measure, it tells a story. For me, when Vic makes way for a vocal recording speaking on the details of McDonald’s death that the song is truly goosebump-inducing.
While it’s becoming more common for hip-hop artists to speak up on the racial injustice still prevalent in America – they have no real choice – it isn’t quite so common is for those artists to actually say something. Here, for 16 Shots, Vic Mensa has set out to prove that he actually has a lot to say, and that there is great power behind his voice in doing so.
LZ: This song has an immediate, fierce impact; there aren’t many songs that so specifically address police brutality, and it hits hard in a way that informs, teaches and incites real anger, all done so atop phenomenal production.
One of the most powerful lyrics here is, “fuck a black cop too, that’s the same fight. You got a badge, bitch, but you still ain’t white.” – It’s not a race division, but one of power and title, and the fact that he’s pointing this out is of extreme significance.
The end statement, a recording of McDonald’s lawyer describing the event, is one of the most powerful moments in any song I’ve heard in a long, long time. I was left speechless and I doubt I’m the only one.
LZ: Danger emerged earlier this year, and perfectly embodies what I love about this release: even in its wildest moments, with Vic as the party-loving, sex-hungry hooligan, it’s just so real. There’s an incredible self-awareness on this track; he knows what he’s doing won’t last, he knows it’s risky, he knows it’s not always right. Only here, he does it anyway, because he loves it and he’s willing to deal with the consequences – and I think that many among us can totally relate to that.
One of my favourite series of lines on the whole mixtape is on this track: “Shout out to my niggas on 8 Mile, shout out to my niggas on Flatbush, shout out to my niggas up in K-town.” I’ve pondered the geographically-based divisions in hip-hop for years, especially as someone so geographically removed from it all. This line is a breath of fresh, fresh air.
JS: Danger was the song that Vic Mensa played when Kanye West handed him the AUX cord at Madison Square Garden (there’s your hip-hop trivia), and after its huge response, he later dropped it on Soundcloud (by the way we still haven’t heard the song Young Thug played at that event, and I’m mad about it). Being an enormous fan I immediately downloaded it, and honestly didn’t expect it to actually land anywhere (Vic has a history of dropping random tracks with no home, eg. I BEEN). I just love this track, I really do. It’s not your ‘typical’ example of a hip-hop party song, it’s too honest for that. As LZ said, it’s raw, it’s Vic exploring his wild side but admitting that the same wild side can prove to be dangerous. Too real? Fuck yeah, but how refreshing, right?
My favourite line is, “I tell Steve Aoki he look like Towkio” (of Vic’s SAVEMONEY crew), because it’s funny. Vic might have a lot of serious, very important things to say in his music and on this EP, but he also shows that he can laugh too.
JS: If this EP has one track that might find its way to club playlists, it has to be New Bae. The bass on this song is just so joyful. It’s funny, Vic Mensa makes mention of his ‘new bae’ being from Australia, and both LZ and I remarked to each other that we wish that Australian girl was us. Figure that one out! Honestly, this is just an extraordinarily listenable track. New Bae is Vic Mensa at his most charismatic, and charming. It seems partly tongue in cheek (after all, at one point Vic raps “Fresh out the shower, I’m licking your asshole”), but that bassline is so suggestive of something deep below the surface. But then maybe Vic is moving all of this along too fast, being a little too forward with what he wants from her. Oh, wait, he has that covered too – “Who cares? You’re my new bae.”
With all the heavy subject matter on the EP, Vic can be excused for wanting to make a fun song, especially when it really is this much fun, and this good. It’s worth noting that our friends at Kiss FM’s hip-hop show Back to the Future would seem to agree, since they played this cut on their show a day after it was released. I’m telling you now, Vic’s coming for you.
LZ: I love this song, I love it. To be frank, I love that among the darkness and seriousness of this record, there’s an explicit, hyper-sexual track that borders on 2 Live Crew-level pornographic. In a completely different context I might find it gratuitous, but honestly, it fits right in (although the line about marinating is definitely gross).
JS made all the main points, but I really do love how fun and sexual this is among all the darkness. It provides an incredibly catchy, and kind of hilarious, recess from the solemn gravitas generally felt throughout this EP.
LZ: My favourite thing about this release is its diversity. In thirty-three minutes I find myself hating police and faced with a very blunt depiction of police brutality and injustice, thinking about sex and partying, and later, reduced to very real tears on the final and title track. It’s an uncannily accurate and relatable cross section of someone coming of age and coming to terms with the darkness of the world around them while still wanting to party and live dangerously.
Upon first listen, this track felt like one of the most light-hearted on the mixtape, but now that it’s sunk in, it’s just as glaringly real as the rest. Liquor Locker allows a scarily familiar insight into exactly what happens when you get too drunk to make good decisions. This is without doubt his Swimming Pools.
On a musical level, this track is gorgeous, too. The acoustic guitar is a beautiful respite, as is Ty Dolla $ign’s melodic guest verse. In all of rap’s glorification of excess, a line like “Feel all on your body, fuck all on your body, too many drinks and all these drugs, way too much, way too much, so please get off your Samsung, and let’s do this while your man’s gone,” could not be more all-encompassing if it tried.
It’s really interesting to note how many songs have been released of late which address drunk texting and late night relations. From Rihanna to Drake, to SZA and now Mensa, there’s so much to be said of those late night faded moments of emotional vulnerability.
Also, Liquor Locker is an actual place, and I can only imagine this song will have a similar impact to that which Formation had on Red Lobster.
JS: It’s funny to me that this song features Ty Dolla $ign because it instantly reminds me of the song Solid from Ty Dolla’s album Free TC.
This song hits me in a surprisingly visceral, real way. There’s no glorification of alcohol here, this isn’t a party anthem about popping bottles, this is a track where Vic steps out to say “Free alcohol at the club, that shit’s overrated.” There really isn’t any excitement attributed to alcohol here, it’s more about what an excessive amount of alcohol can lead to – which isn’t a particularly positive thing. As LZ said, it’s a scarily familiar insight. It might even be particularly so for me, at 23 years of age with an alcohol problem in my past, living in a culture where alcohol is handled with such carelessness and which often perpetuates miseducation about alcohol. That Vic has made special effort to not continue that skewed, and reckless, narrative, but instead shine a spotlight on the negative aspects of alcohol is, to me, a joyous revelation. And an ecstatic triumph.
Shades of Blue
JS: The hypnotic opening throws me all the way back to College Dropout. Here, Vic takes the opportunity to address the ongoing water crisis of Flint, Michigan, where citizens don’t have proper access to clean water; “I read a story about a woman with her daughter in Flint, she got lead poisoning from showers in the morning.” Like 16 Shots, it also addresses racial imbalance in America, with brilliant lyrics like, “They got Damn Daniel distracting you on Instagram, back again with the all-white media coverage” not only profound, but a line which shows Vic really flexing his lyrical ability, recalling the ‘Damn Daniel’ viral videos (which I’m intentionally not linking to out of respect for Vic’s message here).
If you’re wondering whether Vic isn’t self-aware or capable of realising his own faults, you would be wrong, as the song ends with “Now here I am talking ‘bout a revolution, and I can’t even spare a dollar to the movement, but I’m in the strip club spending dollars on that movement, I guess we all got room for improvement.” This is substance. This is who he is.
LZ: While we have predominantly focused on the lyricism of this release, this feels like the right point to talk about the music, too. Shades of Blue opens with a gorgeous, heartfelt piano ballad, setting the tone. The understated instrumental and melodic smoothness of this tune, in particular the very Drake-y hook, and the wailing guitar toward the end, are heavenly.
As JS described, the very fact that Mensa has dedicated one of only seven tracks on this mixtape to the Flint Water Crisis not only highlights how crucial this crisis is, but how vital he is in today’s musical climate. This is exemplified so perfectly with the line, “That’s why I give ‘em that truth, cause they don’t get it enough.” One of the most spectacular lines on this tape is found on this track in the form of, “Now here I am talking about a revolution, and I can’t even spare a dollar to the movement – but I’m in the strip club spending dollars on that movement; I guess we all got room for improvement.”
There’s Alot Going On
LZ: It’s hard to talk about this song and I’m going to save most of my thoughts for a separate article dedicated to it. To start with, I can absolutely say that this song – which I’ve now spun 10-15 times since its release, has had more impact on me than any song in recent memory. You know that phrase “it floored me”? This track quite literally forced me to stop what I was doing, lie on the floor and listen to it on repeat.
This track traces Vic’s entire career up until this point, with the level of detail that you could essentially paste into a Wikipedia page and it would suffice. And while I may not have lived those moments, like a four-year relationship reduced to faded physical violence, nor a meeting with Jay Z on my 20th birthday, nor meeting Kanye or jealousy from friends because I performed on SNL, I have certainly lived the emotions and mental illness bubbling and brewing in the backdrop. And the fact that Mensa can open up about this, and can relate to not only myself, but undoubtedly countless of his listeners on this base level, is extraordinary and sobering on so many levels.
This line in particular: “Isn’t that ironic? I was feelin’ so psychotic, with the whole world excited for me and my idol sayin’ I got it,” encapsulates this. Essentially revealing that he’s adorned a bulletproof mask, hiding a severe depression beneath it, trying to conceal feelings of hopelessness and bare, stark sadness while the world around him talks up this bold, upcoming talent, brought very real tears to my eyes and very real pain. It is only moments later that he reveals that he came close to suicide.
The rest of the song journeys through his single releases, his growing relationships within the industry, and his realisation of the need to clean out his closet. Again, while most of us can’t relate on a literal level, the message and the emotion behind these actions is incomparably poignant.
“If you learn one thing from my journey, it’s don’t stop believing; When this shit got so suffocating, I could barely even keep breathing. Wrote my wrongs, all in this song, Now I’d like to welcome y’all to my season.”
JS: I think that this song perfectly legitimises my personal relationship with Vic Mensa as an artist. It feels as though more than just a case of my being a fan of his, as though there exists within me an emotional connection to the man himself through his music. That alone is extraordinarily profound.
“Medication for depression that I cut cold turkey, had the kid manic,” Vic raps, speaking about a volatile relationship he had shared with a woman. Having experienced a similar type of relationship, this speaks to me, particularly in the way it approaches mental illness. With that, my own depression, I’m 23 now, I was diagnosed at age ten. Listening to this song, I somehow feel as though Vic already knows that.
“The violence and the lies slipped suicide into my mental health, I did acid in the studio and almost killed myself,” Vic continues on, tapping in to an extraordinary depth of catharsis and raw honesty. I recognise it, and it speaks to me. I remember the suicide attempts in my own history, and I connect with the way he speaks of his struggles, and how music saved him. It’s incredible for an artist to speak cathartically about their struggles, communicating and connecting with anyone who might be experiencing something similar. But it doesn’t end there. It’s only just beginning.
“Cleaned out my closet, I got rid of all my demons, if you learn one thing from my journey, ni**a, it’s don’t stop believin’”. Musically this matches all others in how listenable it is. But in terms of content and story? I wish I could bottle the tear that cascaded down my cheek, and I wish I could recreate the warmth that fell over me, as my first listen to this tremendous track came to a close. I can’t, but the song doesn’t need me to anyways. It speaks for itself. It speaks for Vic Mensa. This is no throwaway, and he is no throwaway act.
This is one of the single best releases of this year, and Vic Mensa isn’t going anywhere soon. Having been a fan of Vic from INNANETAPE to here, all I feel I should say is how rapturously overjoyed I am for Vic. Not for the success that looks set to come his way, but for the majesty of the art and the emotions he has tapped in to. That’s the real achievement that will come from this EP, or rather does come from it. For Vic, for myself, for music fans everywhere – I couldn’t be happier.
Image: Rap Up