ABOVE: VIC MENSA. PHOTOS BY ELLIE PRITTS
On a Tuesday afternoon in early August, the 20-year-old rapper Vic Mensa, whose previous tenure in Chicago supergroup Kids These Days landed him a spot on Conan last year, is generously playing the role of chauffeur.
He's offering a lift to the family-owned Nini's Deli, located in the heart of Chicago's Noble Square neighborhood. The cafe, a little-known treasure home to Cuban cuisine with a modern-day twist (among the many menu highlights are a PB&J that boasts plantains, peanut butter, and guava paste jam), is one of Vic's favorite culinary destinations.
When we meet, Mensa appears on the brink of exhaustion. Shooting music videos and recording songs, he's been shuttling between Chicago and Los Angeles; the Hyde Park home of his childhood and the West Hollywood couch of young adulthood. "I might have ‘couch syndrome,'" he says. "I'm always sleeping on the couch at home, even when I have a comfortable bed. I'm used to it. There's no space when I'm in L.A."
Despite the lack of sleep, Mensa remains in top form. Whether leaping four feet above the ground for a photo, or dancing behind an unaware customer in line at Nini's Deli, he is constantly, consistently engaged. During the car ride over, Mensa previews a song he's been working on, "Black Panties," a track that sounds "like some shit that would play at a fucking party in Zion, in The Matrix," before going on to channel Hugo Weaving's most iconic role to date. "Mr. Anderson..." he drones with pitch-perfect delivery, all before bursting into laughter.
Born Victor Mensah ("It looked cooler without the ‘H'") in Hyde Park, the South Side neighborhood famous for hosting the University of Chicago as well as being the longtime home of President Barack Obama, Mensa was raised on KRS-One, Nirvana, Dragon Ball Z, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. His mother, born in New York but a frequent visitor of Ghana—Mensa's father is Ghanian—worked as a potter, and in her spare time, crafted drums fashioned with what Mensa calls "awesome designs; tribal shit."
When Mensa was seven, his mother gave him those drums to play on, and he was instantly hooked. "I was whack," he admits, "but ever since I was a little kid, the instrument I really loved to play was the drums, dancing to it and shit." It was a love that, with the aid of Mobb Deep, Nas, and Jay Z, blossomed into an appreciation for hip-hop. Before long, Mensa began freestyling. "On family trips and vacations," he says, "I remember walking around with my little sister and making funny songs on the spot." And following a series of false starts, including the short-lived Kids These Days, Vic is ready to hold his own as a solo act.
Innanetape, out this week, is a zany, delightful journey through the annals of Chicago's burgeoning hip-hop scene. Sonically, comparisons are inevitable—if not unfair—to childhood friend and labelmate Chance the Rapper (who, incidentally, makes a standout appearance). Hazy, funked-out tracks such as "Orange Soda" and "Time Is Money" bear the fingerprints of the West Coast while breaking new ground. As an emcee, Vic's range echoes his vibrant, versatile personality; seamlessly alternating between raspy, rapid-fire tornadoes and soaring harmonies. The effect is mesmerizing.
"The Innanet concept is the continuous representation of change," he says. "As an artist, I try not to sound the same as others. Or even as myself. It's a constant, flowing web of influence. And information. And retweets." As the warm summer wind lifts napkins from our patio table, Vic leans back in his chair, his hands crossed behind his head, as topics of discussion range from numerous close calls with law enforcement to working with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. ("He's a cool-ass nigga.")
Vic's phone rings. It's his manager, Cody Karazian, wanting to know when to expect him at the Music Garage, a recording studio located on Chicago's Near West Side. Vic sets his silverware down. "I'm so sorry, Cody!" he teases, a grin on his face. "Naw, I'm just being sarcastic," he explains later. "It's Gucci."
JOHN TAYLOR: Is it true that you were arrested for stealing condoms from a gas station?
VIC MENSA: Yeah. [both laugh] That happened in seventh grade. That was the first time they ever put me in a police car. What happened was, I wasn't even getting no ass yet. There was this girl that I used to date on and off, you know, like grade-school dating, and she had an uptight-ass dad and a crazy stepmom, so I was gonna buy these condoms and leave 'em in her mailbox with like, a note or something, to be funny.
MENSA: Blue Trojans. I hit the rubbers, stuffed 'em in my pants. Just a pack. I'm walking out, my homies Will and Seb were still in the back of the store, and the gas station guys knew I stole some shit. "Hey! Come here!" I got the fuck up out of there, and ran all the way to the girl's house. I was out the jam! Then Will called me, like, "Bro. Come back. They called the police, they're holding us here." When you're 12 years old, they can make you stay in the store.
TAYLOR: And that's when you got arrested.
MENSA: They didn't really arrest us, though. They cuffed us, threw us in the car, and took us to Will's house—that's what they used to do when you got arrested, take you home—and we all got in trouble.
TAYLOR: I take it that wasn't the final heist.
MENSA: Nah. We used to steal mad shit in grammar school. Me and Nico, Will, Seb. We just had regular routines. There was this one kid, this big Bulgarian dude. He would throw stuff in his book bag, tubs of ice cream. Tubs. I had to get up outta Lincoln Park, though.
MENSA: Pretty much all my homies there went down the wrong path, doing the same old bullshit. My homie Seb, that's the first thing that led to his continuous time in jail. Getting caught opening car doors, stealing out of cars, jumping in the sunroof of cars, just to buy drugs and shit. That shit was negative.
TAYLOR: You're down south right now in Hyde Park, but the last time we hung out, you were living up north, in that apartment where the "Orange Soda" video was shot.
MENSA: Hyde Park's the shit. It's funny, living on the North Side as a black man, as opposed to being on the North Side as a black man.
TAYLOR: What's the difference?
MENSA: It seemed like the police were being way cooler to us when we lived in that spot. We had a lot of parties there, playing loud music and making beats all through the night. And the kids downstairs, one time they got pissed and called the police. There was weed memorabilia all over the house, it smelled like tree, and the police were like, "We're not even gonna trip on you guys about the weed, we just want IDs."
MENSA: But my homie was on a warrant. He had a case pending, because he had been driving this car, a white Acura, and it had just got profiled. Keep in mind that this is the summer when Hadiya Pendleton got shot—that's the little girl that got shot in Chicago—and that happened three blocks from our crib.
TAYLOR: That was really sad. I remember hearing about that.
MENSA: Somebody had jumped out of a white Acura, and dumped into a crowd of 10 people. The police were looking for that guy, and my homie was a black guy in a white Acura, so they swooped on him. He got profiled, locked up, and they had impounded his car. He was kind of on a warrant—not really on a warrant, but on a case—he still hadn't gone through court. And he didn't have his I.D. because he didn't want anything to happen with the case, so he gave the police his debit card.
TAYLOR: His debit card?
MENSA: His debit card. And they went for it! The police took the debit card, and then they left. If they had pulled us over in a car, hell no they'd be going for that. Debit card?! That shit is funny.
TAYLOR: Now that we've covered living on the North Side as a black man, what of being on the North Side as a black man?
MENSA: It's crazy, because with the exact same people, I was in a different situation. We were off Ravenswood, and had stopped at this 7-Eleven. There was a Redbox outside—and this was when planking was popular—I went over, like, "I'm gonna plank on this shit," and the Redbox happened to be right next to this bum's little residence. I wasn't paying attention to him at all, but when I got up there the bum was like, I was invading his space or something. So I'm planking on the Redbox, and it's funny, because in the picture you can see the bum in the corner—I don't know why he had a cell phone—calling and a can of Mace pointed at me.
TAYLOR: Calling who?
MENSA: The police, on me for planking and harassing him. When the police came, I was stupid. I had the notion in my mind that I could talk to these police as if I was a normal human being, like, "That's a crazy homeless man, don't listen to him." Off top, I did the wrong thing. Got out of the car.
TAYLOR: Oh, no.
MENSA: You never get out of the car when a policeman pulls up on you. As soon as I got out of the car, "Put your fucking hands on the car!" I said, "I do not consent to any searches. I do not consent to any searches," because I guess that's what you're supposed to say. Searched all of us anyway, found half a gram of weed on one person, and impounded my friend's mom's minivan. We were stranded on the North Side, and now we had no way to go home. There's no public transportation that goes to Hyde Park, and we didn't have the money for a cab.
MENSA: I got so fucking mad. I went up to the bum, like, "You need some fucking money, bro? You need some fucking money?" He had a can of Mace pointed at me. I pulled out a five-dollar bill and threw it at him. And as I did that, he sprayed me in the eyes! Maced me, dead in my eyes, man. I started screaming, and then he called the police again.
TAYLOR: This homeless man, did he actually take the five-dollar bill?
MENSA: I don't know. I never saw the five-dollar bill again. [both laugh]
TAYLOR: Moral of the story, don't plank on a Redbox.
MENSA: The moral of the story is, I don't know, being black living on the North Side is better than being black hanging out on the North Side.
TAYLOR: Noted. Do you think you'll stay in Chicago?
MENSA: I'll probably, at some point, try to have a house in Chicago when I'm older. Raise kids in Chicago. But even when I'm older, I'm sure I'm not going to be in one place for too long, anyway, because I'm going to be constantly making music and touring.
TAYLOR: I remember seeing you perform on Conan. That was a big moment.
MENSA: It's a recurring theme. Seb, who was in the gas station when I stole those rubbers, he was locked up when I was on Conan. He told me that when he saw us on national television, it was a real strong moment for him. Motivation. Obviously, he was already motivated to not be in prison—because who wants to be in prison—but I think it's dope as fuck to see people that you know and you grew up with, really making some shit happen.
TAYLOR: When you think about the future and where you're going with your career, do you feel in control? I suppose what I'm trying to ask is, do you believe in destiny?
MENSA: There's a lot of times when I feel nihilistic, and lose hope, like I'm just lost in the world. But there's a lot of times when I can kinda be in control of destiny. Sitting around on your ass ain't gonna bring you to any type of destiny. I mean, you can make that decision, to just laze out, chill, sell drugs, whatever. Bullshit your life away. But you can also make the decision to set yourself up for what the fuck you want. And if you know what you want, and if you believe in what you want, and it happens, then maybe that's destiny.
VIC MENSA'S INNANETAPE IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE FROM MENSA, FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER.