Chicago has been making its mark in the rap game as of late. Much of that can be attributed to the success of Chance the Rapper and the much-publicized free release of Coloring Book in 2016. But Chance’s SaveMoney co-member Vic Mensa thinks there’s room for two in the new frontier of Windy City rap, making waves of his own since his mixtape Innanetape came out in the fall of 2013. And even before that his indie rock-jazz-rap fusion group Kids These Days put out a couple of excellent EPs that turned heads. The early Vic Mensa had a lot of life and carefree spirit in him, much like the attitude we’ve come to love from Chance.
Last year’s EP There’s Alot Going On, however, marked a change in tone. After signing with Roc Nation, an already differentiating factor from his fellow Chicagoan, Mensa took on a darker, harder-hitting sound with heavier subject matters like police brutality (“16 Shots”). On his most recent delivery, The Autobiography, Mensa continues to convey the heaviness of street life with a glimmer of hope for change through tried and true narrative methods. While it may not be his most innovative offering, detailed execution and honesty make it worthwhile.
“Say I Didn’t” begins the album as a prologue of sorts about how Mensa has now “made it” whilst giving us a glimpse at his musical beginnings influenced by ‘70s soul (Darondo, Ray Charles, Diana Ross), old school rappers (Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Nate Dogg), and alternative rock groups (Weezer). It’s a feel-good intro to start off an album that quickly turns somber and emotionally heavy for most of its runtime.
The ironic “Rollin’ Like a Stoner” sounds like it should be the club banger of the summer. But over the murky synths and ticking trap hi-hats, Mensa outlines his issues with drugs, alcohol, depression, and feeling anti-social. The outro adds a bit of foreshadowing: “Dreaming of the good days that I had / Now I’m hearing the voices in my head / Tellin’ me to jump off of the edge / I got a problem nobody knows.”
These lines are immediately followed by “Homewrecker”, a track where Vic admits to two-timing his girlfriend over a sample from Weezer’s “The Good Life”. Rivers Cuomo interweaves the two songs as he closes out pleadingly, “I wanna go back.”
More importantly, “Stoner” introduced Mensa’s suicidal thoughts, a major focal point for the rest of the album. His depression hits its lowest on “Wings” featuring excellent production from Pharrell and an outro from Saul Williams. Vic’s loose flow eases over the beat, and when the beat picks up, Vic’s intensity glues him to the rhythm as he voices his self-hate, ending with “Climb the tallest building and spread your wings.”
In that low of suicidal thoughts, Mensa realizes that there are others in pain and asks on closer “We Could Be Free”, “Who am I to contemplate suicide / In those times I try to remember / That we could be free truly / If we only knew we were slaves to the pains of each other.” And with this message of brotherly love, Mensa ends his narrative with a hope for a better present and a continuing fight against the struggles of depression and pain.
It’s clear Mensa put a lot of thought into the arrangement of his album to create an impact and get his message across. And his honest attempts are undeniable. Thematically however, barring the specifics of Mensa’s life (which we could’ve done without on tracks like “Gorgeous” and “Coffee & Cigarettes”), much of it can be compared to other greater works. The narrative of “Heaven on Earth”, while intriguing and still a highlight, strongly brings to mind Eminem’s “Stan”, even using the scratching of pencil on paper and utilizing a very similar twist ending. And some of the spoken word interludes remind of Kendrick Lamar’s expertly executed narrative poem on To Pimp a Butterfly.
Another issue that plagues Autobiography is the occasional cheesy lyric flubs. While being immersed in this depressed, moody state for most of the album, lyrics like “Tryna take over the world like Pinky and the Brain” and talking about smoking with Kurt Cobain who apparently likes Mensa’s work come across as silly and insincere.
With a few misfires and a fairly traditional take on narrative set aside, Mensa’s Autobiography is still so well-crafted that it makes (almost) every track worthwhile. Let’s hope that after working through the darkest parts of his history, he’s able to push forward with new life and vigor akin to what he delivered earlier on in his career.