Vic Mensa’s 2013 mixtape Innanetape was the kind of project that creeps up on you, gradually ingratiating itself over days and weeks. In the 17 months since, Mensa has kept gradually but unmistakably building a head of steam, showing he’s every bit as fascinating as fellow Chicago upstart and longtime collaborator Chance The Rapper and maybe even more likely to become a household name. He’s pushed the jazzy, electro-organic hip-hop sound further into mainstream pop and electronica, most notably on the warmly received sing-song house experiment “Down On My Luck.” He was part of XXL’s latest Freshman Class. Last summer festival season, he spent his 21st birthday performing Gorillaz’s biggest hit on stage with Damon Albarn at Governors Ball and pulled off a wild “Seven Nation Army” cover at Lollapalooza. And recently, he’s become the latest young Chicago talent to come under Kanye West’s wing, guesting on Kanye’s So Help Me God opener “Wolves” and joining Kanye on stage everywhere from London club shows to Saturday Night Live’s massive anniversary special. So when Mensa closed out Chicago Made’s SXSW showcase at The Main, there was at least some possibility Kanye would be waiting in the wings, ready to grace us with one of those anointment cameos superstar rappers often bestow on their protégés. He wasn’t there, but it didn’t matter: Mensa was emanating more than enough star power.
After where he’s been lately, rocking a midsize club filled with a few hundred St. Patrick’s Day revelers should be no problem, and Mensa stepped up accordingly. Wearing a Misfits T and a vest covered in pockets and patches, he carried himself with utmost confidence and backed it up with a kinetic presence and sharp lyrical delivery — no backup vocal track, just straight technique. Even as his sound veers further toward hooky electro-rap hybrids geared toward radio play and festival domination, his credentials as a rap technician remain sterling. He was backed by a pair of musicians who toggled between laptop/guitar and drum machines/bass, fleshing out the tracks in all sorts of sonic directions. They began with “Feel That,” a bouncy, bass-booming song in the vein of Kanye’s new “All Day” (on which Mensa has a writing credit) but with upward synth arpeggios giving it a brisk forward momentum. As the set proceeded, older, jazzier material segued seamlessly into new songs that found ways to incorporate electronic dance music without compromising their hip-hop core. He debuted a funk- and soul-infused song called “Roll My Weed” and a bass-heavy monogenre thing called “Love Forever” that contained traces of everything from “FourFiveSeconds” to Drake to big-budget electro-pop. Even when he solemnly paid tribute to his murdered older brother on the J. Cole-reminiscent “Holy Holy,” the energy level didn’t dip.
I mentioned that Mensa’s mentor wasn’t present, but he loomed large anyway, starting with a pre-show DJ stacked with classic Kanye singles. At one point the DJ also strung together three straight tracks from Drake’s new mixtape. Mensa is clearly shooting for their league — note his lyric about a “Kendrick flow” on the great Kaytranada collab “Drive Me Crazy” — though in terms of pure stardom he’s not yet at the level of Migos or Bobby Shmurda, whose hits also made it into the pre-show mix. And while Mensa’s presence Tuesday was formidable, you can’t always tell much from a SXSW showcase; I once watched Clipse give an electrifying SXSW performance on the same stage, back when this club was called Emo’s, and it was years before Pusha T clawed his way to legitimate rap stardom. Mensa seems to realize that; during his shirtless closing number, a discordant energy bomb so aggressive that it reminded me of DMX, he remarked, “I don’t wanna talk about it/ Like I don’t know I’m nobody.” Of course, Pusha’s rise had a lot to do with Kanye taking him under his wing, so Mensa has a head start in that regard. And considering the way the room exploded during the closing run of “Down On My Luck,” “Wolves,” and that rousing grand finale, his rise seemed more like an inevitable eventuality.