The clock had just rounded one in the morning and the party was still going strong at an apartment on the campus of the University of Illinois. I had traveled south from Chicago to catch Chance The Rapper, arguably hip-hop’s breakout star of 2013, open his Social Experiment Tour. I noticed the Chicago emcee Vic Mensa leaning against a counter next to me, idly checking his phone. Looking around, I saw many at the party gawking at the 20-year-old rapper and quickly whispering to friends, as others aimed cell phones his way. Walking over, I asked Mensa, who an hour earlier had sent the crowd of college students into a frenzy with a guest verse on Chance’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” what it was like to be the most popular person at a party that no one seemed to talk to. Escaping the glare of his phone, Mensa’s eyes snapped up. “It’s hella weird, G,” he said. “It’s been happening more and more, and it just keeps getting weirder.”
For Mensa, the weirdness began when he dropped his breakthrough mixtape, Innanetape, last September. Following the release, the Chicago native traveled the country opening for J. Cole and Wale, performed live on national television, and has seen his face plastered on seemingly every blog in the hip-hop constellation. As the spotlight’s glare intensifies, Vic Mensa remains ready.
Several months after that party, I arrived myself to SoundScape studios on Chicago’s west side, to meet up with Mensa as he worked on a new song with his go-to producer, Peter CottonTale. Settling into a large leather couch in a dimly lit room at the back of the studio, I watched as Mensa crossed notes with Cottontale, scrupulously dissecting each note and bar, quickly adding, subtracting, and distorting elements to fit the sounds in his head. “Writing songs is what keeps the day going for me,” said Mensa, leaning back in his chair with his “URL” hat perched haphazardly on his head. “As a musician, I just try to keep making them better or making them different from the last one. I stay way more focused on that than the pressure, or anything else.”
The collaboration between Mensa and CottonTale is an important one for both. After working on Innanetape throughout the course of 2013, the duo has enjoyed watching the project find its way onto several year-end lists. As CottonTale added keys to the track-in-progress, Mensa popped up from his seated position on the right end of the massive soundboard. Pacing the room, he flipped through messages on his phone. Putting the phone in the pocket of his jacket, the young artist took a nostalgic look around the room. “Man, I’ve spent way too much time in places like this over the years.”
To be sure, Mensa has spent the better part of his 20 years in and around studios. Of the first of his generation in Chicago to take rap seriously, Mensa first spent late night sessions on city’s notorious south side as a 16-year-old, making early morning phone calls to his father, to navigate the city’s dangerous streets home. The result of those sessions was his 2010 release, Straight Up EP, which caught the ear of legendary producer No I.D.
As a sophomore at Whitney Young High School, Mensa, with the notoriety that Straight Up brought, teamed up with fellow classmates to start the seven-piece genre-hopping band, Kids These Days. With Vic as the frontman, the group would spend the remainder of their high school years touring the country, playing dates at Lollapalooza, and performing on Conan O’Brien’s talk show.
Then, in May of last year, Mensa shocked fans and officially announced the end of the band in an interview with XXL. Asking him about the experience now brings a hesitant, sideways frown. “It is what it is,” he says. “Some people wanted the band to stay together, I didn’t necessarily. Now it’s just a completely different creative process.”
Traces of his experience in a band that melded elements of funk, soul, rock, and hip-hop, can be found in everything from Mensa’s stage presence to the songs that make up Innanetape. The Cottontale-produced “Run” features a bass line from musical wunderkind Thundercat, and blends elements of hip-hop, juke, and synth-pop. The elements come together to form a uniquely upbeat track that sees Mensa doing his best Andre 3000 impression, singing in a mix of inflections over the frolicking beat.
With the track beginning to take shape, and a light haze forming above our heads, Chancellor Bennett, better known to hip-hop fans as Chance The Rapper, entered the room, greeting Mensa with a handshake and a brief hug. Settling into an office chair near the booth, Chance rubbed his head before snapping to attention. “What’re y’all working on?”
With production credits on both Innanetape and Chance The Rapper’s now iconic Acid Rap project, CottonTale has a unique view on both Mensa and his local counterpart. “Both Vic and Chance come from a very musical standpoint. When I think of Chance’s sound, I think of evolution. When I think of Vic’s sound, I think of transformation,” says the producer. “Due to Vic coming from a background in different genres than hip-hop, I was able to think outside of a lot of boxes, which made Innanetape a unique, multi-faceted project.”
Throughout 2013, Mensa has watched as his close friend ascended to the stardom on the strength of Acid Rap. Chance touches on the pair’s relationship in his song “Acid Rain,” rhyming, “I still get jealous of Vic/And Vic still jealous of me/But if you touch my brother, all that anti-violence shit goes out the window along with you/and the rest of your team.”
Proud of his friend, Mensa has set about carving his own niche in the music industry with a sound that is familiar yet unique, opaque yet refined, with an abundance of rhyme schemes to tie it all together. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of Chance The Rapper, Mensa is hoping to differentiate himself from the rest of the hip-hop community by making unusual choices and taking chances. That includes a 2014 tour with the breakout UK dance act, Disclosure. “This past year has been crazy and taught me a lot,” says Mensa. “I’m just going to keep building on what I’ve done. Just trying to continue innovating and creating something new. 2014 is going to be a big year.
Photography by Andrew Zeiter.