Courtesy of Capitol/Roc Nation
Chicago rapper Vic Mensa
opens his new EP, The Manuscript
, by confronting his audience's expectations: the ambling soul track "Almost There" begins with the lines "This for all my fans that say they want that old Vic / I've grown too much to ever be that old Vic." Mensa has been a known name in Chicago hip-hop for nearly a decade, which is all the more impressive when you remember that he just turned 24 this Tuesday—Fake Shore Drive founder Andrew Barber talked with Mensa last week
to preview his as-yet-untitled forthcoming album, fondly recalling a 15-year-old Mensa flaunting his freestyle skills to MCs twice his age. He had to get through his teenage years—and figure out who he was and what he wanted to be about—under the heat lamp of the public's gaze. Imagine being the 18-year-old front man of the most promising young rock band in Chicago—a city without much infrastructure to support musicians under drinking age—and playing the city's biggest festival. That's just what Mensa did when Kids These Days performed at Lollapalooza in 2011.
Mensa rapped about the difficult 2013 breakup of Kids These Days on the title track of last year's EP There’s Alot Going On
, comparing the split to a C-section. But the best songs on that EP put politics front and center—most memorably "16 Shots," where Mensa rapped about the outrage and protests provoked by the footage of Chicago police shooting Laquan McDonald to death. He performed the single on Jimmy Kimmel Live
the night before the presidential election, backed by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, and stopped the music to implore viewers not to vote for Trump. The intensity and emotion of that plea mirrored the strongest aspects of the otherwise uneven EP—Mensa seemed to want to be all things for all listeners, trying out the crossover pop of "New Bae" alongside the punk-fueled fury of "16 Shots."
, which Mensa's people at Capitol and Roc Nation are calling a "capsule," is more cohesive, partly because he seems less inclined to try to appeal to everyone. Mensa still has his sights on crossover pop, and the new EP includes some of his most accessible songs since 2014's hip-house hit "Down on My Luck."
His minimal homage to 2000s crack rap, "OMG," feels like it was built on a beat saved for a Clipse reunion, and not just because it was produced by Pharrell and features a verse from Pusha T. It's a respectful nod to hip-hop's recent past whose playful, slinky guitar melody gives it a surprising streak of pop color. On "Rage" Mensa talks about black youth struggling with police harassment on 47th Street, while synths swarm and arena-ready rock drums echo; his earnest appeal on behalf of these kids (who could easily be him) grounds the song and gives some weight to its cookie-cutter sing-along ballad chorus. It's a tricky balance, but Mensa can pull it off.