Standing on the front porch of his childhood home, Vic Mensa points to a gas station on the main road adjacent to his block. “I saw a man get held up at gunpoint right in that parking lot,” he says, jumping off the porch and crouching next to a fire hydrant. “I watched from right here,” Mensa adds doing a military duck walk. In his eyes it was clear he was reliving the moment as he told it. On his long-awaited debut album The Autobiography, Vic Mensa taps into pivotal moments in his life, reliving each one from one track to the next.
Raised in the nefariously gang-divided South Side of Chicago, Mensa embodied the “good kid, mad city” narrative. The product of a Ghanian father who is a PhD professor and a white mother who is a physical therapist from upstate New York, Vic’s reality was different from the Section 8 kids across the street from his Hyde Park home and the projects up the block. His friends, though multicultural, didn’t have the household Mensa had. “That wasn’t my world when I went home,” Vic recalls, emphasizing his liberal multiracial upbringing. “But in the eyes of the world I was a Black man, so that’s what I grew to become. Certain instances chose my race for me.”
He punctuates that sentiment with a story from the age of 11, where he was riding his bicycle and pulled off by police who mistook him for another kid who ran from them the day before. That same year he discovered hip-hop, absorbing KRS-One, Public Enemy, and N.W.A. He later met his first street mentor, a graffiti writer who tagged DARE and added Vic (who tagged REAK) to his Jam graffiti crew. Years of graffiti, battling in school, and sneaking in verses on local rappers’ tracks in the studio gave Vic Mensa his hip-hop sea legs.
In 2011, however, Vic lost his mentor DARE to a random act of senseless violence. He details the story on his Autobiography cut “Heaven On Earth,” which includes a dialogue to and from DARE. On the track he emphasizes living out his dreams in DARE’s memory, and given the five years that followed, Vic’s accomplished that and then some. As part of the Chicago collective SAVEMONEY with Chance The Rapper and other local upstarts Towkio and Joey Purp, Mensa toured globally and word of his talent traveled fast. His solo debut mixtape INNANETAPE in 2013 set the stage for his XXL Freshman cover in 2014. He reached the ears of Roc Nation executive Lenny S who introduced Mensa to Jay Z. A Roc Nation deal was the result. Mensa went on to help pen Kanye West’s esoteric “Wolves” track off The Life of Pablo, and in the Spring of 2016, Mensa dropped his critically acclaimed EP There’s A Lot Going On.
The project brought a level of emotional discourse that Mensa never introduced in previous works. His video for the track “16 Shots,” brought a graduated level of social commentary as visuals depict Mensa on the run from the cops. That very scenario that almost cost him his life years back by leaping over train tracks during a chase and gripping a voltage-carrying rail where he was nearly electrocuted to death. He has the tattoo of the volts over the scars to prove it. “16 Shots” also shows dash cam footage of the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police. His full-length debut The Autobiography will incorporate many of the unabridged versions of his experiences and thoughts described on the EP.
“As I was in the process of writing The Autobiography, I found there was an element of storytelling in the songs,” Vic says of the album title’s origin. “It was very autobiographical: no filler, just real recounts of things that have happened in my life.” Cuts like the aforementioned “Heaven On Earth” show Vic coming to terms with life and death, while “Homewrecker” discusses two tumultuous relationships in his life—one with a woman named “Natalie” referenced in previous songs, and another “Alexandra.” Other songs like “Oh My Goodness” and “Spread My Wings” also talk about Vic’s experiences with love. “I talk about relationships that I’ve had on this album, and I try to paint full pictures of the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he explains.
Getting in the studio with Pharrell Williams and 1500 Or Nothin has given Vic added dimensions to his production, the latter delivering works like the intense “We Could Be Free,” “No More Teardrops,” and the electronic-tinged “Gorgeous.” While Vic Mensa is really just getting started, it seems as though he’s lived a thousand lives and The Autobiography is proof of that. While Mensa has poured every ounce of his emotions and thoughts into his debut album—visually reliving them in the music—his mission remains clear. “I just want people to understand me as a young man in this troubled world,” the 23-year-old says, “with a lot of opinions and experiences, a lot of truths, big ideas, and revolutionary principles.”