There’s a reason Kanye West and Jay-Z were in a rumored bidding war over Chicago upstart Vic Mensa: the 24-year-old rapper is something special. Or as Hov, who ultimately won that tug-of-war, put it, “a once-in-a-lifetime artist.”
In an era of novel mumble rap, Mensa’s voice is loud, passionate and unapologetic. With an ear for epic hooks and the pen game of a poet laureate, the Roc Nation artist has bared his soul on records like “Wings,” addressing his drug addiction and self-doubt. He’s clapped back at authority on songs like “16 Shots,” inspired by Chicago teen Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by a police officer (he raps “We might make a pork rind out of pig bro,” in one of the song’s tamer lyrics). And he can still flex his swagger over a Pharrell beat just because, like he does on “OMG”: “Bitch, I’m the ticket, you just hit the lotto.” What’s more, Mensa isn’t just one to speak about action, he takes it. With his recently-released debut, The Autobiography, complete, he’s turning his attention to his own foundation to provide outreach to Chicago youth.
We caught up with the rising star before he embarks on the 4:44 Tour with Jay-Z—which lands at T-Mobile Arena Saturday night—to talk about his work in the community, why his hometown is a breeding ground for talent and why everyone should read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The 4:44 tour kicks off Friday night [in Anaheim]. How are you feeling?
Very excited. We’re just getting everything together right now. We have an amazing set. It goes through a wide range of energies and emotions. I wanted to tailor everything in my performance to really let the story I’m telling shine through [and] make space for how personal but how epic and dramatic and cinematic the album is. … [We’re] reimagining a lot of the records and adding striking musical moments, and other times pulling back and letting the lyrics breathe.
On one of your recent songs, “Almost There,” you say you’re “Vic 2.0.” How have you evolved?
At this point in time, I’m just very clear about my message and my purpose. I try to make everything in the music defy clichés and stereotypes and be very honest to myself and my experience. I also think that I’m better than I’ve ever been, and that’s on all fronts—lyrically, conceptually [and] as a producer. I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, and I’m using everything I’ve picked up along the way to really put music into the game that will be around 10, 20 years from now.
How do you know when you have something special that’ll have long-lasting appeal?
You know you’ve got something special just because you can feel it. Not every song that I record or write is good. Not every song sticks around. But when something is good, it’s pretty obvious. It’s one of the best feelings in life—that feeling of just having created something that you’re proud of, something dope.
You’ve been very outspoken on a lot of your records and you’ve actively protested in the streets. I know some people feel that we’re constantly bombarded by politics and can get jaded. Why is it important for artists to continue to speak about what’s going on?
Well, we can’t get away from it. And I do understand the feeling of, I guess, media fatigue and bad news after bad news. But as a black man in America, you don’t have the luxury to forget about the politics. As soon as you get pulled over and racially profiled, you get smacked in the face with the politics again. You come into a store and you get accused of stealing. It’s something that’s so ingrained into our experience that you can’t really escape it.
You’re also very open about your own personal demons. Is it difficult for you to open up on record?
No. It’s really cathartic for me. It’s a healing process. It’s revelatory of my subconscious. Sometimes it can be difficult to tap into that zone, but once I find that zone, it’s easier than making something up. The facts are there.
I can’t interview you, or anyone from Chicago really, without addressing all the young talent that’s come out of there in recent years. What is it about Chicago that breeds so much raw talent?
Chicago is a very authentic place. The black American experience is born out of struggle, and there is boundless creativity that has come from our community. In the case of Chicago, you have the eye of the storm. It’s really, really intense in certain ways, and that gives people a certain fire to their creativity and a perspective on the world because it’s also such a segregated place. You can see the difference between the haves and the have-nots very blatantly.
Who’s someone out of Chicago we should be checking for next?
Joey Purp. He’s one of the dopest lyricists out there right now, and his perspective is both informed and experienced, having been in the streets but also having a worldly [point of view].
Speaking of Chicago, I know you and Chance have recently reunited. Can we expect any collaborations down the road?
Yeah, 100 percent. … We’ve been in the studio together recently with Smoko Ono, just working. We’re definitely gonna have something hitting the streets.
What else is next for you?
I’m working on my foundation, Save Money Save Life. It’s going to be up and running pretty soon. I’m working on new music. I got a line of leather jackets called 93 Punks. A lot of creative ill shit coming for the rest of the year.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Save Money Save Life?
The goal is to serve underprivileged communities through art, action and community outreach. We’ve got a couple programs, one of them—I’m not going to say what it’s called right now because we’re still working on incorporating it—but [it involves] training and equipping first-aid responders in violent areas. We have another program that’s going to take groups of musically inclined teenagers from Chicago and link them up with equivalent groups from other underprivileged communities. … [We’re] trying to get some kids from Palestine over here in Chicago and start to connect the youth. What I’m seeing is that a vote of confidence is a step in the right direction. A push in the right direction in those formative years can make all the difference.
You’re always asking for book recommendations on Twitter. What’s one book that has shaped a lot of your beliefs and philosophies?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It represents and depicts transformant struggle into a positive force for change. That book is just a stepping stone; it will open up your mind to understanding the black experience in a completely different way.
Jay-Z with Special Guest Vic Mensa
Saturday, October 28, 8 p.m., $29.50-199.50, T-Mobile Arena, 3780 Las Vegas Blvd. S., t-mobilearena.com