CHICAGO — When you’re a biracial kid growing up on 47th Street in Chicago as Vic Mensa did, chaos and sanity, violence and sanctuary, guns and books, hustlers and educators live side by side, always within view, always within earshot.
It led to a young life of promise and faster-then-expected accomplishment, but also to one of drugs, decadence, and near self-destruction.
It might seem slightly premature or even presumptuous for a 24-year-old artist to title his forthcoming album “The Autobiography” (Roc Nation). But for Mensa, the notion of even being alive at the age of 24 was not a given. The story is the same for many young African-Americans, but their voices often go unheard. In his new music, Mensa unpacks his life in sometimes brutally unsettling terms.
“We have a society right now where you can count on two things to continue—opioid ODs and Chicago violence—and I found myself in the middle of both,” Mensa says. “I fell deeply into self-medication. It numbed me. I’d be on stage in Ireland performing for thousands of people and just not believing in what I’m doing at all. And it hurt, it hurt badly. I knew every day that I couldn’t continue this way. I was depressed and suicidal. I knew this was wrong for me, but I didn’t see a way out.”
“The Autobiography” maps out that story, and the sense of clarity and hope that emerged as Mensa pulled himself out of what he calls a “vortex of abuse.” The album opens where his life does, on 47th Street, in the house where he grew up with his parents, educators Edward and Betsy Mensah. His home and Hyde Park were safety zones, but just across the street the hustlers worked 24-7. Mensa found himself torn.
“It represents a loss of innocence, a crossroads,” he says of the song “Memories of 47th Street.” “It was on 47th Street where I was simultaneously inside of a sheltered environment in my home with two parents with a steady income and also exposed to the inequities of the ghetto, because it was right there. I was sitting on my porch watching drug deals going down. My way of trying to understand myself, while this world was pushing and pulling me in either direction, was to write about it. I was trying to write my way out of feeling like an outcast.”
That feeling was amplified when he turned 12. “I felt I was behind a gate in this community, but as I entered adolescence and wandered farther from home, I started to realize that America and the world were categorizing me as being black and all the stigmas attached to that, which would take a lifetime to unpack.”
As Mensa previewed the album at a Near North Side recording studio a few days before turning it in to the record company, he wears a black hoodie bearing a double-edged Jay-Z lyric: “You draw, better be Picasso.” His corkscrew braids tumble around large, intense eyes. He measures his words as cigarette smoke curls around him, but he answers even the most seemingly invasive questions thoughtfully, without sparing himself.
“This girl right here,” he says, staring at his cellphone as a text message buzzes in, “she put herself ahead of me. I was mega-suicidal. She put myself over herself to help me get better, encouraged me to get therapy.”
The relationship saved him when he hit rock bottom in January 2016. He had been trying and failing to live the rock-star life as he moved up to the first rung of stardom from a wanna-be on the local open-mic scene alongside other then-unknowns such as Chancellor Bennett, aka Chance the Rapper.
After releasing some well-received solo recordings in his mid-teens, he joined forces with Kids These Days, a biracial group of musically gifted high school teens that mixed rock, rap and a little bit of everything else. The group rose quickly, even recording an album produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and then was on the verge of signing a major-label deal in 2013 when it fell apart. Mensa was devastated, then threw himself into a wildly eclectic mixtape, “Innanetape,” that led to collaborations with Kanye West and Skrillex and a deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label.
“Post-Kids, I was disillusioned about who I am,” he says. “That record (‘Innanetape’), it’s funny, I put so much into that. But every single song on the album, I was doing mushrooms. I was dependent on drugs for my creativity. I didn’t understand that the things that were making me create the songs weren’t really me. I wanted to be a detailed storyteller, I wanted to be an artist, but it was hard for me to do that while I was on drugs.”
When Mensa finally bottomed out and sought help, a door reopened. “I started remembering who I was,” he says, “and the writing started to return.” He began filtering his experiences into his songs. The 2016 EP, “There’s Alot Going On,” included “16 Shots,” his stunned reaction to a videotape of the Laquan McDonald shooting by police on a Chicago street not far from where Mensa grew up. After a series of riveting, focused live performances that began with “16 Shots” and concluded with the lacerating title track, in which Mensa made explicit the pain and ugliness he inflicted upon himself and others, he turned his attention to “The Autobiography.”
Among his collaborators during his recent writing renaissance was Malik Yusef, a veteran spoken-word artist, poet, musician and actor who has worked with countless artists, including Chicago luminaries such as Common and Kanye West. He met Mensa when the rapper was 17, but saw that he had lost his way when they started to work on songs for “The Autobiography.”
“When I was 23, I was out on the streets doing everything wrong, so for this kid to be so introspective and meditative in his lyrics about what he was going through was like meeting a unicorn,” Yusef says. “You can’t flourish if you are around the wrong people. If you get around the right people, you will get to things you didn’t even know you had inside you. Vic knew what was there, but couldn’t get it out until he got to a place where he could be more vulnerable.”
That vulnerability informed the highly personal arc of “The Autobiography.” The narrative traced from “Memories on 47th Street” to the darkness that enfolds “Rollin’ Like a Stoner” and “Down for Some Ignorance,” the mourning of “Heaven on Earth” and the redemption of “We Could Be Free” took shape over a year of intense writing and recording in multiple studios. Mensa brought in No I.D. as executive producer to bring the story and the music into tighter focus. No I.D. has mentored a couple generations of Chicago hip-hop artists, including Common and West, and recently produced Jay-Z’s “4:44” album. He chooses his projects carefully, and in Mensa he saw an artist intent on making music of substance rather than chasing instant hits.
“I believe he’s super-talented, and I wanted to help focus him,” No I.D. says. “That’s where I think the projects of his that I heard previously were lacking a bit. They were not as focused as I would have wanted. I like to push people, in the spirit of motivation. ‘There’s more than this in you.’ And he would get riled up, but he would dig deeper. We have a lot of music out there where artists are telling you how great they are every day. But most listeners are dealing with things they don’t want to talk about or don’t know how to talk about, and music helps them. I believe people want to hear the truth, the vulnerability, and that’s where Vic needed to get to make the kind of album he wanted to make.”
As the album neared completion, Mensa’s writing and his life arrived at a turning point with “Wings,” a track co-written with and produced by Pharrell Williams. Its raging verses contrast with a soaring yet disturbing image in the chorus of “falling to the sky.” A “beautiful suicide” is how Mensa describes it when he first plays the track for a visitor. It was written in the aftermath of a harrowing incident, a throwback to the days when he brushed against the 47th Street world of drug dealers and gun-wielding hustlers that claimed the lives of several friends. Last year, Mensa says, he was betrayed by a friend and robbed. A few months later, Mensa was arrested in California for carrying a concealed weapon without the proper permit.
“The desensitized violence, the constant strain of looking over your shoulder all the time — it gets pretty dark in Chicago,” he says. “I have this programming from growing up here — we can’t turn the other cheek. I’m fighting gun charges right now. I’m paranoid about Chicago.”
Mensa was sentenced recently to two years probation on the gun charges. But he channeled his paranoia and pain into a song that shifts the emotional tone of “The Autobiography.”
“It was such a fresh wound, so it was tough to remove myself and view the situation objectively,” he says. “I was in the studio with Pharrell, dealing with this really trying situation. Here’s this old acquaintance basically robbing me for a large sum of money. But I’m all violenced out. I realize I can’t keep living like this. I wanted to hurt this person badly, but I’m only hurting myself the more I give in to these self-destructive urges.
“Then Pharrell gave me a good piece of wisdom. He told me, ‘You’re lucky to be in this situation. You’re not the person who has to lie and steal from people, and you have the ability to move on.’ He played this music that was perfect for me. It brought the story out of me, that internal monologue of self-loathing and doubt. Anyone dealing with depression and anxiety gets these fleeting thoughts that pollute your mind. I’m just tearing myself down in the verse, and in the chorus I’m climbing the tallest building and spreading wings, implying that I would jump off the building. It’s not about death of the soul, but of the ego. It was about letting my ego jump off that building, a shadow of me jumping off, and another incarnation flying to the sky. I let my ego commit suicide, and the pain I had been carrying and turning into aggression against myself and others, the reckless drug abuse, the validation through promiscuous women, the crazy lifestyle — I was killing that side of myself.”
The closing songs, “The Fire Next Time” and “We Could Be Free,” provide a hint of redemption. It’s the place where Mensa finds himself now.
“It let a more pure version of myself fly to the end of the album, which is about where we want to go,” he says. “We want to be free. Anybody wants that — the guy who works at UPS or the Queen of England. ‘Wings’ was my moment to free myself from everything that was destroying me.”