Vic Mensa has proven that, to be an Internet-bred rap star in 2018, you don’t have to be a minor with face tats and a Xanax addiction who thinks Tupac is boring and sings in an Auto-Tune mumble. The 25-year-old rapper and singer keeps his ink below the jawline (barely, with his Southside choker), and, in an era when most young breakouts sound like they’re nodding off, he’s wide awake, backing on-record tales of police profiling and violence with his persistent presence at protests and anti-racism charity work.
A product of the same Chicago crew that propelled Chance the Rapper to fame, Vic took a few years to build up his features, tour with Justin Bieber, and buff his storytelling following 2013’s free mixtape, the frankly named Innanetape. He really arrived with 2017’s The Autobiography, which gleams with Roc Nation backing and expensive cameos from Weezer, Pharrell, and The-Dream. It was last year’s sturdiest bridge between the lyrics-forward hip-hop of yore and the pleasurably plasticine version of today, between punk-rock rebellion and Black Lives Matter.
Vic isn’t the first rapper to be the second coming of Kanye, but he came along when we actually needed one. Remember when the Trump turncoat used to talk about his more touching, less toxic insecurities—his grandmother and his mom or his love of Jesus, over warm, soulful productions? Vic does. The Autobiography teems with earnest but spiky confessions of human frailty and extravagant braggadocio. “Say I Didn’t,” with its we-made-it-fam exuberance, and “Memories on 47th Street,” with its near-death-experience creation myth, basically form a two-part “Through the Wire.” Just listen to “Memories”: If it makes you thrillingly uncomfortable when Vic raps, “Betsy and Edward Mensa made love and made a legend,” just imagine how his parents feel. In any case, here is someone who’s not posturing behind pills or power but instead putting it all out there for us.