When Vic Mensa bounded onstage in Chicago last week, he was a rock star. Maybe this is a Chicago-specific thing. When I saw Mensa open the Coachella mainstage a couple of years ago, he was just a pretty-fun presence, a young and vaguely anonymous rapper doing whatever he could to fill up that enormous stage and ensure that a few of the kids in that vast throng remembered his name after the weekend was over. But in Chicago, showing up as a surprise guest during his friend Joey Purp’s Pitchfork Festival set, Mensa was a conquering hero. The Chicago after-school freestyle-cipher scene that produced Mensa also gave us Chance The Rapper, a transcendent talent who’s inevitably come to overshadow his whole circle. But that scene is functioning just fine even with Chance off headlining every festival in existence. Last weekend in Chicago, Mensa careened across that stage with Purp, Towkio, Knox Fortune, Peter Cottontail, and assorted friends and well-wishers, all of them looking overjoyed to be there, holding the stage at the same festival where they’d once been kids in the crowd. Away from Chicago, Mensa can come across like a half-corny industry plant, a label’s attempt to make its own Chance after realizing that they couldn’t sign the real Chance. But in the flesh in his hometown, Mensa looked like a whole lot more than that. And on The Autobiography, his long-awaited debut album, he’s more than that, too.
On “Memories On 47th Street,” the second song from The Autobiography, Mensa tells a story about trying to sneak into Lollapalooza, another big Chicago festival where he’d eventually perform. He fell off a bridge, got his arm electric-shocked, and woke up in a hospital with doctors telling him he should be dead. It’s one of many near-escape stories he tells on The Autobiography, an album that’s drunk on its own unlikelihood. Mensa tells stories about friends dying, about drugs, about his parents being forced to worry about him, and, maybe most notably, about his own battles with depression. He talks, again and again, about hitting a low point, about sitting in a bathroom and looking at a gun, contemplating suicide. He raps almost an entire verse from the perspective of the berating, self-doubting voices within his own head. And he raps about exulting in the moment, about reaching the point where he’s a great rap hope who’s got a contract with Jay-Z and an album out in the world. It’s a deeply sincere album, an album thoughtful and genuine enough to overcome whatever corniness Mensa brings to it.
And Mensa really does bring some corniness to it. He has a touch of Game Syndrome, where he’s constantly referencing rap classics when he should just be speaking in his own words. He’s also got some of that J. Cole/Wale thing where the goofy wordplay and references get in the way of what he’s trying to say. References that might’ve been cool in theory fall flat when he says them out loud: “I drive better when I’m drunk / I rock leather like a punk / Hennessy make me Dead Kennedys, I get too drunk to fuck.” And some of his references are just not that cool, in theory or otherwise: “I’m on my island in the sun, shout out to Weezer.” (He rhymes it with “clean shirt.” And then, a couple of songs later, Rivers Cuomo shows up to warble the entirely unnecessary coda on “Homewrecker.”) On “Heaven On Earth,” Mensa writes an open letter to a friend who was murdered, and he can’t even keep goofy references out of that: “It’s like Macklemore at the Grammys, man / I just feel like you got some shit you didn’t deserve.” Then he imagines his dead friend, in the afterlife, rapping back to him: “I smoked with Kurt Cobain yesterday / He said he liked your shit and to tell you that you on the right path.” If you can make it out of The Autobiography without cringing a few times, you’re a stronger person than me.
Still, clunky lines aside, that song, “Heaven On Earth,” is an elegant, empathetic piece of writing. At first, the structure seems like the kind of thing we’ve heard before. Mensa raps about missing his friend, and his friend raps lines of encouragement back at him. But then the song’s third verse is written from the perspective of the guy who killed Mensa’s friend. He explains his whole situation: He needed money badly, he heard that this guy would be on this corner at this time with this amount of weed, and he thought he saw him pulling a gun out. He got scared, he made a mistake, and he feels terrible about it. Keep in mind: This is Mensa thinking about the perspective of a person who really did kill his friend. And he’s still willing to grant him his humanity, to think of him as something other than a faceless enemy. It’s a song much more complicated and thoughtful than it has to be, and it shows a sophisticated voice at work, even with that doofy-ass Macklemore punchline in there.
And the rest of the album is sharp and layered and complex in some of the same ways. Mensa’s not a one-issue rapper. There’s plenty on The Autobiography about the devastation of Chicago, but there’s even more about girls — about Mensa ruining a good relationship by cheating, taking the blame himself even as he delights in telling his own fucking-around stories. When he does rap about Chicago, it’s in the context of conservative commentators and Donald Trump demonizing the city: “You fools at Fox News couldn’t walk a block in our shoes.” It’s also in the context of systemic inequality: “Blocked from the polls, locked in the hood / Trying to stop you from voting and stop you from growing.” And he also raps about triumph, about overcoming odds and becoming a prince in his city: “Teachers didn’t see my vision, had me in IEPs / Kicked out of kindergarten, they didn’t know that I was me.” There’s real exultation in his voice when Mensa talks about his relationship with his father, about proving himself as something other than a fuckup: “Hit the town with my old man, make him feel young again / I know he proud of that tattooed son of his.” It’s always a bit cheap for a rapper to give an album, especially a debut album, a vague title like The Autobiography. But Mensa really does have stories to tell, and the urgency in the way he tells them helps make The Autobiography into something special.
Another thing this album has going for it is No I.D. The veteran Chicago producer just got finished with supplying all the beats on Jay-Z’s 4:44, and he’s also got a producer credit on most of the songs from The Autobiography. It’s clear that Mensa is No I.D.’s project, in much the same way that Vince Staples was when he made Summertime ’06. Mensa’s not as sophisticated a rapper as Staples, and his album doesn’t have that same unrelenting sonic template. But it still sounds great. It’s an album full of warm, inviting soul samples and chilly, minimal synths. Other than a bonus-track Pusha T appearance and a bridge/hook combination from Purp and Chief Keef, there are no guest-rappers on the album. Instead, Mensa gets to be the clear center of attention. As a rapper, he’s sharp and clear and authoritative, pronouncing every syllable crisply enough that you never have to strain to understand him. He’s got a surprisingly nimble and affecting singing voice, too, and the sung-not-rapped quasi-indie-rock breakup song “Coffee & Cigarettes” turns out to be a highlight rather than a misstep.
Mensa is not Chance, and he’ll never be Chance. And he also doesn’t have the sui generis intensity of his friend Joey Purp. He’s a classic overthinker, and you can hear the calculation and triangulation in just about every decision he makes on The Autobiography. But in this case, that calculation isn’t a bad thing. Rather than chasing hits, he’s put his gifts, which are considerable, toward building something affecting, something that really gets across the complicated feelings of a young guy who’s not sure how to handle his almost-famous status. The Autobiography probably won’t turn out to be the best album Vic Mensa will ever make, and that’s not a complaint. He’s a sharp young talent with a whole lot to say. Right now, he’s good. One day, he could be great. And even if he never gets there, he’s still the kid who went from sneaking into Chicago festivals to bringing hysteria when he steps on Chicago festival stages. That’s a good story.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Aminé’s brightly silly rap debut Good For You, which is an absolute delight and which would be Album Of The Week if his goofy-ass label didn’t have a self-defeating “no reviews until the day of release” policy.
• Arcade Fire’s we-have-ideas-about-capitalism disco move Everything Now.
• Passion Pit’s possible goodbye Tremendous Sea Of Love.
• Mr. Lif and Akrobatik’s indie-rap reunion Resolution.
• The Fall’s hardbitten post-punker New Facts Emerge.
• Pawns’ stark, intense goth-rocker The Gallows.
• Au Revoir Simone member Annie Hart’s solo debut Impossible Accomplice.
• Big Baby Gandhi’s sharp Queens-rap mixtape Gandhi Luther King Jr.
• Mappe Of’s delicate, synthy folker A Northern Star, A Perfect Stone.
• Couch Slut’s propulsive noise rocker Contempt.
• People Like You’s wistful emo rager Verse.
• Maneater’s chugging self-titled indie rocker.
• Alice Cooper’s shock-rock return Paranormal.
• Ben Gibbard’s full-length cover of Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque.
• Sylvan Esso’s “visual EP” Echo Mountain Sessions.