Words by Jake Krez
Photos by Keeley Parenteau
In the early morning hours of a brisk Los Angeles February 2018, Vic Mensa sat in his car on Mulholland Drive wondering if he should drive it over the edge. Seemingly on top of the world, with a Kanye cosign, Saturday Night Live appearance, and all the shows, followers, and attention one could want, Mensa was ready to call it.
The drugs, the women, the fast life had become too much. It’s not easy to reach your dreams before you can really understand them. Feeling attacked, misunderstood, and uninspired in life while dealing with all the addictions possible, he gripped the wheel, moved his foot off the gas, and took a deep breath.
“Everything was magnified and that shit just got to be too much where it was like I didn’t love it. I remember I was sitting in my car and I was like man I’m driving this bitch off the cliff,” Vic said, explaining his thinking at the time. “ at that time resistance was kicking my ass and whenever I felt resistance I would just go snort some pills or some goddamn molly or drink and fuck some pornstars, do a club appearance. But I was doing everything except for honestly and satisfyingly expressing myself, doing what I love to do.”
A while back Mensa got“Still Alive” tattooed across his stomach, a personal mantra that kicked in when he was at his lowest.
“I was like man I’m driving this motherfucker off the cliff and then the next month after being really fucking low I got through it.”
Four years later, we’re standing in a field in Bronzeville behind the building housing his community action initiative, SaveMoneySaveLife. It's an area pockmarked by empty lots and sprinkled by debris and garbage. In the distance, a car stereo blares Elton John’s classic from The Lion King loudly. It immediately seems out of place.
Vic and I stop our conversation, looking confused in the direction.
“Man, fuck the circle of life and I’m right back at 47th,” Vic said, laughing. “Maybe it wasn’t all worth it. I started out in a dirty field off of 47th and now I’m right back here.” It’s a joke, but it took a lot to get to where he is, as he is now, just down the street.
After over a decade of being a professional musician with after all the highs, lows, and in-betweens, it appears that Vic Mensa is finally happy, and right back where he started.
“I’ve been having a great time, definitely more happy and far more peaceful, “ he said, a smile across his face.
That smile was earned.
His latest releases, V & I Tape are a post-mortem of Vic learning himself through the lens of his early 20s.
To understand what it took to get there though, you have to trace his evolution as a person and an artist back to the beginning.
By his junior year of high school at Michelle Obama’s alma mater, Whitney Young, Mensa was a person to know in the city. His debut project, Straight Up EP dropped in 2010 and caught the eyes and ears of folks like No I.D. who offered a record deal. He turned it down, preferring to work alongside his group of close friends who operated under the banner of SaveMoney and join a band, Kids These Days.
The band was a revelation. Made up of close friends like Nico Segal, Greg Landfair, and more, they toured the country, played Lollapalooza, and performed on Conan. By May 2013, a month after Chance The Rapper released Acid Rap, it was all over. Emboldened by the band’s breakup, Mensa went on his own and created his re-debut, Innanetape over the course of five months while finding new footing on his own.
Innanetape sounds hungry: an artist making sure to plant a memorable flag in the scene following a band breakup. And it had the desired effect, landing as one of the top mixtapes of the year and opening the doors to a world without guardrails or limits, and he was eager to experience it all.
“When I was doing Innanetape I was like I’m doing nothing but this, I’m just writing and recording and any time I get to rap, that's all I'm doing,” Mensa said earlier this summer at a Pilsen music studio he co-wons, Jungle Lords. “I've never been the person who just comes to the studio a couple of hours every weekend and makes things happen. I’m the motherfucker who’d just skip out on the guys hanging on the corner and go to my mom's basement because I want to make sure hell or high water I write raps for 3-4 hours every day.”
He’d embarked on his solo journey in the middle of 2013. By 2015 he was signed to Roc Nation and crawling along a floor with Sia and Kanye West on national television. He had a hit single out with West as well, “U Mad” that channeled the inner angst and honesty that Mensa was building a brand on. Life was in fact, a blur. As someone who isn’t known for biting their tongue or holding back an opinion, the stages and audiences he was doing so with became larger and larger.
Instead of dealing with his problems at the time, he fed them. Late nights turned into early mornings, arguments to fights and he found himself often dealing with the consequences and fallout. As he prepared to fully become himself, Vic was surrounded by a world he’d only dreamt of to that point.
Despite all the early success, old demons continued to haunt Mensa as his star grew. He battled hosts on-air, spoke his mind to a fault, got in fights, and had bounties on his head. As crazy as times got, much of it was sparked by three distinct aspects of his life he’s identified through time.
One is the duality he has felt his entire life growing up with a white mother and a black father from Ghana. For much of his younger years he describes wanting to “fit in”, to “be just one thing”, he was a young man just looking for acceptance. It's something he still talks about as part of his own understanding of himself.
The second is a theory he’s developed from reading that explains the idea of “the second question.”
“I’m obviously 100% completely cognizant of how much of a price I have paid for overly honest comments. It’s like you’re telling too much truth,” Mensa said. “The first question: does this need to be said, second question is does it need to be said by me?”
The third aspect that’s contributed to times of craziness, or as Mensa describes it “getting in his own way” is perhaps the most simple yet complicated: he’s a Gemini.
He’s not an astrological guy but concedes he fits the mold of the sign that also claims names like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Donald Trump. They possess an ability to switch gears at a moment’s notice, start and stop projects often and generally be pretty unpredictable, and be honest to a fault. As Mensa explains it, he checks all the boxes.
“I’m a Gemini man. We’re crazy,” Mensa explained. “I saw a meme of all the different traits: things they regret, joy of starting something you might finish, overly honest comments, superior ability to remember lyrics, and that shit was so funny to me because it made me think.”
All of these pieces of a man coming together during formative years with money, fame and the extra fire lit by watching friends and colleagues make it on the national scene can make for a difficult reality. Especially if not being thoughtful and aware of them. At the time, Vic wasn’t.
Listening to his music only serves to underline that honesty. We're in a time where virtue signaling and cancel culture often collide. Gen Z and millennials can somehow love acts like Kodak Black, XXXtentacion, 6ix9ine, and others while ignoring the reality of terrible actions those performers have committed, covered up, or lied about. By contrast, Mensa puts it all out there, unafraid to tell his story from a based perspective and strong enough to stand by it, maybe to a fault. And he definitely means everything he says.
The combination of his own insecurities, amplified by vices and access had Mensa spiraling for a while, awash in drugs, alcohol, and women. His life began to reflect a rock star experience and, as it often does with him, so did his personal life.
The taste of fame can change some people. For others, it can amplify small fires into larger ones. Vic fell into the latter, covering up insecurities and feelings of inadequacy with a menagerie of booze, drugs, and, well - menages. For an artist who was at the forefront of his peers for years, he watched a close friend and collaborator Chance The Rapper blew up into a national force just as Kids These Days broke up. Always supportive of his friend, it had to be an ego blow for anyone in that position at that age.
Mensa, meanwhile, was scattered creatively. Following a successful run with dance-heavy music which garnered him hits like “Down On My Luck” and “A Fire Starts To Burn“, Mensa opted to grow his hair out, become more militant, wear more leather. Before long, he went full punk, trading in his Nikes for combat boots while rocking a safety pin through one earlobe. To follow Vic for years at a time is to see inside his mind’s eye. He was searching for something both in the world and within himself. And as it often does with deep male thinkers of the modern age, he eventually ended up in a dress.
And then somewhere in the midst of all that, Mensa became public enemy number one by Gen Z and the Soundcloud rap community. It was mainly over a mix-up at the BET Awards wherein because of a line in a freestyle, many thought he was openly dissing the late XXXtentacion in front of his own mother.
“I couldn’t have known that timing but people don’t know that either. They’re all like damn this dude got on stage and dissed him to his momma. It's like we actually film these things like a month in advance and the funny thing about it too was that they didn’t tell me I was on the goddamn cipher until the night before,” Mensa said.
He was simply missing the mark, drowning in his own vices he was easy to dunk on the internet and the experience is central to his recent single “Dirt On My Name”.
Even with the lessons understood in hindsight, at the moment, Mensa seemed to revel in controversy and his three tenets came out. He recorded whole projects just to put them on the shelf, partied to the point of alienating others, and made his voice heard when he felt he had to. The world got an opportunity to learn what those in Chicago had long understood: Vic Mensa will speak his mind, regardless of the circumstances.
It's a trait that's at once admirable and self-destructive, and one that took him longer than he liked to truly understand. It can go both ways. In 2017 he memorably confronted DJ Akadmiks, calling him a bitch live on-air for Complex’s Whatever the show. It was both a personal opinion and one shared by friends and colleagues from his hometown, which Ak had used as a punching bag on the internet for jokes.
Through it all, he found himself fighting an uphill battle against his vices and own shortcomings. While he was trying to understand himself, he was also missing the tight-knit group of friends from SaveMoney and abusing drugs and alcohol more than ever before.
“I wasn’t surrounded by any of my voices of reason, any of the voices of wisdom or my big homies,” Mensa explained. “It's just not the same being the fact that in Chicago I have people the vast majority of the people I see or spend time with have known me for 15 years or something like that and really know me. In LA it was like I’m around people that I’ve known for a couple of years.”
Addiction on its own is a tricky thing whether drugs, booze, sex, or whatever else. When amplified by access, money, and lifestyle, it can quickly become a problem, sometimes deadly. It’s become an unfortunate theme as of late with the too-soon passings of rappers like Mac Miller, Juice Wrld, DMX, and others. During the early years of his solo career, as Mensa drifted further from home and found himself in new circles, he found himself caught in a whirlwind without an obvious way out.
“I was like drug-addicted, sex addicted, they often go hand in hand and I was doing a lot of fucking shit,” Mensa said. “I really started to deal with the therapist and I got on some antidepressants and I kinda just focused and I ended up making a lot of my favorite music ever. And it's just that moment of rock bottom, it wasn’t really rock bottom because I wasn’t under a bridge but you know it was close. A lot of these young musicians don’t be making it man and that's why I have to remind myself to feel grateful.”
One of the reasons for his personal and public struggles was the lack of familiar faces around him. For most of his life, Vic had been insulated from the world to a degree by his friends in and around the SaveMoney collective. After 2013/14, fame, jealousy, pride, ego whatever you want to pin it on, left the tight-knit community frayed to a degree. Mensa noticed he fell further without his close friends around him. After all, they’d been each other’s foundation for almost a decade.
Going back to the XXX situation he describes how the people he was around at the time didn’t have the same relationship old friends could, they couldn’t give the kind of honest advice he needed.
Your twenties are meant for learning and exploration and Mensa certainly accomplished this. He went low, just above the rocks to build internal solidarity with himself that is palpable today.
As much as there’s a lot to say about Vic Mensa, no one tells his story better than he does. On one of his latest projects, V Tape, he does just that on the song “ Rebirth”.
“All the aggression that I was reflectin' was just depression
Looking at album sales lower than I expected
I wrote my odyssey on The Autobiography
Felt like Capitol ain’t pull through with all that they promised me
Tatted Alexandria name on my arm as a promise ring
Then I broke it like a joke, now I'm laughin' at myself
It's easier to place the blame on everybody else
I'm yellin', "Fuck the world", but it's really a cry for help”
Vic is finally finding his way back to himself by going back to his roots. Literally. After a wild ride through the front half and middle of his 20s, Mensa has slowed things down the last couple of years, taking time to focus his energy more deliberately.
Roots have been central to that. He journeyed to Africa earlier this year for an extended stay in Ghana and South Africa where he met a romantic partner, another source of newfound happiness. Since he’s been back, the majority of his time has been spent with longtime friends and collaborators. To get to his latest evolution, Mensa had to rebuild his foundation with the elements he’d always possessed.
“I felt that calling from my ancestors being like come home we can help you. My plan going down there was to pursue some like more spiritual ceremony shit,” Mensa said. “what I did realize was the power in being connected to my ancestry in that direct link that I have that most of my niggas have been denied. I wanted to go because I wanted to be one of those people who creates the link between black people here and black people there. THere’s a lot of strength in it.”
By age 28, Vic Mensa has had an entire career in music that’s lasted over a decade. By comparison, many of his peers (and heroes) either have enjoyed a shorter time in the industry or started much later. It's because of this that Mensa’s journey contains much more than meets the eye and he stands poised to put it all together in a second chapter. Lamar described this best on G.O.O.D. Kid m.a.a.d. City when he said, “I’m taking off where you’re landing.” Depending on your age, Mensa may be doing both at once.
Lately, the work Mensa has produced has come from a place of thoughtfulness. His latest releases: V Tape and I Tape reflect the growth he’s made without patting himself on the back. He’s lifting up his shirt to show you the scars, explaining the lows to accentuate the feeling of the highs. There’s an honesty that can only be had by going through it, and Mensa’s been through it from bounties to bond court.
As he always has, he’s using his name for good, working with youth and the underprivileged through his SaveMoneySaveLife foundation while also starting a legal cannabis business. He’s also stretched out creatively, working with Lena Waithe on his acting career and appearing in episodes of the latest season of The Chi, and also working on his own writing. Vic’s been busy.
“I really appreciate Lena for letting me rock and giving me a chance,” Mensa said. “I’ve been studying the craft of acting for a couple years now and working on writing screenplays and shit so that's a space that I’m stepping into so I’m glad to be able to do something for real with good people that also represents the city well. ”
The last couple of weeks have been spent burrowed away in Peter CottonTale’s RCM Studios on the city’s northside surrounded by the same faces and sounds that he came into the game with. A smile and a laugh never far from his own. Vic stays stationed in the back as Nico Segal, Thelonious Martin and a group of musicians work on the production, Joey Purp, Brain Fresco and Taylor Bennett sit adjacent passing Backwoods and writing away. It feels not only like a new chapter for Vic, but for the whole group as well. As the unofficial leader of the collective, it's becoming obvious that they’re better when he is and they’re collectively stronger together.
The rebirth of Vic Mensa is taking place just blocks from where it all started: 47th Street in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
You can go around the world as many times as you want but home is still home and Vic is still alive.
“I see my purpose in life to be a truth-teller, to bring truth to the people. So I would like to be seen and remembered as that. I’d like to be seen and remembered as someone who tried to make it a little bit better in my way with the music, with everything,” he explained, smiling to himself as he pictured it.