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Interview: Vic Mensa, “I felt like I was channeling something bigger than myself”

At 24 years old, Chicago’s Vic Mensa has lived through what seems like several lifetimes. His debut album The Autobiography documents his entire tale to date, offering the kind of insight and understanding that even his closest friends wouldn’t usually be privy to. Tragedy at times, comedy at others, it’s like he’s just invited the entire world into his private therapy session.

From his childhood and school years through to street violence and murder, to his flirtation – and, later, addiction – with drugs, alcohol and partying as a way to escape his inner demons and struggles with mental health. He reflects with remarkable candour and honesty about moments of near-death and even nearer suicide, before seeking help and searching for inner peace, empathy and understanding. The record ultimately concludes on a hopeful tone, with a passionate promise for a freer future.

The no-holds-barred openness of The Autobiography should come as no surprise, given the pre-emptive ‘capsule’ release The Manuscript, and last year’s powerful EP There’s A Lot Going On, a harrowing take on America’s socio-political turmoil from police brutality to the Flint water crisis, on top of his own struggles with drugs, depression, relationships and suicide.

Born Victor Kwesi Mensa, today sees Vic coming into his own as an artist, a young black man, a Chicagoan, a human being. He’s learning to be comfortable in his own skin, to address and analyse his own internal struggles, and in turn to find empathy and comprehend the world around him. Along the way, he’s learnt to put those thoughts on paper, set to the wonderful tune of hook-laden, rock-infused production, all big beats, wailing guitars and soulful samples. Having assembled a dream team of guest artists and producers (Pharrell, No ID, The-Dream, Syd, Chief Keef and Weezer among others), the final result is a stellar debut, introducing the world – in his own words – to “Victor, not Vic Mensa, the one you never meet in a XXL issue.”

While driving through Los Angeles on a Sunday night, Vic had a chat with Howl & Echoes about the album, his personal journey, rock music and more.

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Earlier today you tweeted out that R Kelly should be imprisoned “for a long time”. You also recently said that it still surprises you that rappers tout abusing women. It’s ridiculous we’re still having these conversations today. 

It’s baffling, but I do think that as a culture – hip-hop culture, black culture – we let R Kelly go. I am completely also at fault, I remember defending R Kelly to somebody when I was like 18, but I was wrong. We know he’s been abusing underage girls for a long time. It’s a shame that it takes something like the information just released, new revelations to remember the past, but we gotta get rid of him. R Kelly needs to be locked up. He’s a paedophile and he’s a sexual predator.

The Autobiography is so intensely personal for you. Now that it’s out in the world, do you feel like a weight’s been lifted?

It definitely does feel like a bit of a weight off my shoulders. the actual process of writing the music was something that was really therapeutic and necessary for me.

It’s cathartic to see the really positive response to it too. For a long time I’ve known the calibre of artist and writer that I am, but I was going through a lot of things that were really keeping me from creating to my potential. I was in some pretty dark times. I felt like the music I was making wasn’t reflecting me as a person, the real me. And so it feels really good to have music that I really feel proud of, and that’s honestly representative of myself as a man. I feel like it’s a step towards being more understood and less misunderstood.

Rollin’ Like A Stoner really stands out to me. It’s so important that you realised you were using drugs, partying and all that as an escape from yourself and your inner demons. Where did you find that self-awareness? 

I was always aware that it was pretty escapist – that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun though [laughs]. I’m in the middle of this shit, and at the same time cognisant that I’m running from something, but I’m also young and not realising the potential for hurting myself and others.

What I wasn’t fully aware of was that the buck stops. I didn’t know that eventually the drugs would stop working, that I would only get a comedown. I was doing molly so much, so fucking much, that even thinking about it right now makes my spine shiver. I got to a point where there was no serotonin left in my brain. I couldn’t get high anymore, I could only get that suicide Tuesday comedown.

After the high place comes a big crash, and the song is written from that high place. Coming off my first tour in Europe, I was pretty manic. I’d been taking antidepressants that I cut cold turkey, and I was drinking so much, and snorting Adderall all the time. I was in a manic state and a creative state – this is when I was working on the album I was making originally, Traffic, and I didn’t know I was gonna crash so hard, you know?

By the time it happened I just didn’t know what to do. I quickly slipped into a deep, dark, depressive place, but this was all happening at the same time as record labels offering me a million dollars. So I’m trying to blow up, but I also wanna blow my brains out.

That’s when I realised, I’m over my head and I don’t know what to do. It wasn’t really until I started to make this album, and I cut all the drugs out of my life, that I really was able to look back and be objective.

You’ve spoken a lot of empathy and I wanted to ask about Heaven on Earth, [the first verse is a letter from Vic to Dare, Vic’s friend, Killa Cam, who was murdered in Chicago, the second is from Dare in heaven to Vic, and the third is a letter from the murderer to Dare himself], the third verse in particular, in terms of finding empathy for Dare’s murderer. 

I felt like I was just channeling that whole song from somewhere else.

After I wrote it I played it for one of Dare’s best friends, it was uncanny how close my imagined sequence of events was to the real sequence of events. I talk about a bottle of Hennessy, and his friend told me it wasn’t a bottle of Hennessy, it was a bottle of Jameson. And he did just leave the liquor store, he just didn’t go in the direction that I said. Once I realised I’d somehow tapped in, I felt like I was channeling something bigger than myself.

I was trying to be real about the situation in a way that could help me to move past it. For me to be holding hatred in my heart for the man that murdered my homie, that’s really only hurting me. Hate is an emotion that I really feel harms us more than the people we hate. That’s something I have to go to sleep with and wake up with.

I’ll probably never know the man that killed Dare, so it was necessary for me in my own personal journey to empathise, and turn his killer back into a human being, so I could let go of that pain and hatred.

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I wanted to talk to you about rock music: you’re obviously a fan, in Heaven on Earth you’ve got Dare hanging with Kurt Cobain, Weezer feature on the albumother songs reference Sid Vicious and Dead Kennedys, Prince, etc. When did you first get into rock? What are you listening to these days?

I was definitely into rock ‘n roll before I was into hip-hop. When I was a little kid it was more, well, corny pop-punk like Yellowcard and Green Day, and then I got into hair metal bands like ACDC, Guns N Roses was my favourite band – Sweet Child Of Mine is still one of my favourite songs of all time. Then I got into Nirvana, they became my favourite band in like, fifth grade. Then I got into bands like Weezer around the same time I started listening to hip-hop. From there I got more into punk, I really, really fell in love with The Clash and The Sex Pistols.

Then I started listening to David Bowie and Prince, he’s one of the best fucking guitarists and singers of all time. The Descendants. Right now there’s a band, hardcore/hip-hop group Ho99o9, they’re fucking sick as fuck.

I’m always listening to Prince. But really, I would say now, The Clash is just my favourite band. They’re the best one.

So it must have been amazing to get to get Weezer on Homewrecker

It was so dope, when I got into the studio with Rivers [Cuomo], he loved the song, he was just a really cool dude, he gave me his email and invited me to some of his shows.

It was dope for me, because I was really able to marry the two worlds of music that are my home base, and to bring some new ideas and sonics to hip-hop. I feel like ‘90s alternative rock is some shit that we haven’t really explored in hip-hop, and a lot of times those worlds are really close.

We’ve been a lot of places in hip-hop, but that’s definitely one place we haven’t spent much time in. I like pushing the envelope a bit and contributing to the culture with something fresh.

Given the personal nature of the album, did you spend much time considering how the audience would perceive or interpret it?

With this album I was not considering the people listening very much [laughs]. Not that I don’t appreciate it. I really gave a real window into some of my most personal experiences and emotions so if somebody listens to it and connects to it, that means the world to me, it’s not like it’s any random shit that I did, this is like, really, really big.

But in writing it, I was just trying to be as honest and accurate and thoughtful as possible, more than thinking about how it would be perceived or what a person listening would think. I was asking myself, did I get this concept right? Tthere are certain songs with a story I tried to tell multiple times and might have written three, four or five songs all about the same thing. I had to nail every concept. I had to bring it to its most foundational level, so that the narrative was complete.

Vic Mensa’s debut album The Autobiography is out now.