“Vic Mensa” is a terrible rap name. The young Chicagoan rapper actually has the name Victor Mensah on his birth certificate, which lessens the blow a bit. But the name still rankles; it’s like if I started rapping and took “Tom The Smart Person” as my alias. And there’s a lot of other stuff about Mensa that immediately triggers my skepticism alerts: His cluttered and yelpy delivery, his muffled jazz-rap aesthetic, the almost-too-precisely curated roster of internet-cool guests (Ab-Soul, Eliza Doolittle, Rockie Fresh, BJ The Chicago Kid, Thundercat) on his new mixtape Innanetape. He’s a former member of Kids These Days, a live-band-plus-rapping thing that had Jeff Tweedy as a mentor figure, which is a plus if you’re an alt-country hope and a huge minus if you’re a young rapper. He’s a friend and frequent collaborator of Chance The Rapper, which both aligns him with the unctuous and self-conscious yammering-overthinker wing of the rap underground and sets up inevitable comparisons to a transformative talent, comparisons that will only ever make Mensa look bad. He’s touring with J. Cole and Wale this fall, which yikes. And yet, despite all those red lights, Innanetape still resonates as a warm and likable rap record, a perfectly pleasant piece of work, ideal chill-out fall listening material. It might not change your life, but it might make your afternoon breeze by that much more quickly. Most of the time, that’s enough.
First, we should tangle with this whole Chance thing. Mensa showed up on “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” from Chance’s great Acid Rap, and Chance returns the favor here, giving a verse to the diffuse rumble “Tweakin’.” And Chance is better than Mensa. He just is. His “Tweakin'” verse is a dizzy stop-starting thing that seems tossed-off but isn’t. His best humblebrag aside — “No songs with Kendrick; we just hang out” — is more memorable than anything Mensa says, and he ends his verse by losing his place and trailing off, somehow using it as a literary device, sort of like Eminem attempting to read his baby-defaced lyric notebook on “Any Man.” And so when I say that Chance is better, that’s not a knock on Mensa; Chance is better than all but a handful of people currently working in the field of rap. But Mensa invites the comparison because he and Chance work such similar styles, and because Innanetape works the same organically jazzy stylistic territory as Acid Rap. And even without a transcendent talent talking us through it, that sundazed lope just works.
Consider, for example, Mensa’s guest-free “Lovely Day,” which has nothing to do with Bill Withers. The track is built on a loose-but-fast breakbeat, a drum pattern that could be called jungle if it was just a bit faster, and a few gentle piano stabs. Throughout, a Fender Rhodes noodles and doodles, and the instruments slowly layer themselves on as the song progresses. Near the end, there’s a simultaneous drum solo and trumpet solo, both reaching fever pitch while a choir of backing singers finds its churchiest note. Mensa co-produced the song himself with one Peter Cottontale, and it’s just a gorgeous and beautifully assembled song, one with the sort of slow linear build you rarely hear in a rap song. The beat never stays static; it keeps developing and building. Elsewhere, the production comes from some big names (Boi 1-Da, Hit-Boy, Om’Mas Keith, Cam of J.U.S.T.I.C.E. Leage), but Mensa doesn’t use them for name recognition. Instead, they use him as a vehicle for their furthest-out ideas, like Hit-Boy’s buzzing soundtracky synth-orchestra swell and wailing Morricone-esque vocals on “That Nigga” or Cam’s underwater muzak on “Holy Holy.” And Mensa sounds perfectly at home on all this stuff, talking about improbable successes and dead friends and existential fears like the smart kid he clearly is, never losing the thread of any of these weird beats.
Innanetape came a while ago, in the same week as Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers 3 and Kelela’s Cut 4 Me. Those are two exceptional mixtapes, both of them among the year’s best, and both immediately overshadowed Innanetape for me. But Innanetape lingered. I found myself putting it on during the slow part of the afternoone, when I couldn’t figure out what to listen to. It became an extremely pleasant default. And that’s a pretty good thing to be.
Download Innanetape here.