Your new favorite Roc Boy’s name is Vic Mensa
Vic Mensa is still wet behind the ears. When the Chicago native first laid eyes on a life-sized replica of VIBE’s premier September 1993 issue featuring cover subject Snoop Doggy Dogg, he thought it was a new edition of the magazine. “It looks like that could’ve been shot today,” he notes in awe, scouring the seemingly modern photography and type with an admiring eye. In this moment, Mensa’s lack of knowledge could be a testament to how good Snoop looks for his age, or a revelation of Vic’s infancy – which could also be traced back to his blond hair and leather motorcycle jacket. Much like Snoop did two decades earlier, Roc Nation’s newest signee, Victor “Vic” Mensah, represents a new cool.
The ties between Vic and Snoop become eerie as one examines the uncanny parallels. At the time of the issue’s release (which was also the year Mensa was born), Snoop was a 21-year-old West Coast newbie, gearing up to show and prove with the release of his debut album, Doggystyle. Fast forward to 2015, and Vic – also 21 years old – is preparing to do the same. Snoop rounded up a cosign from a respected rap culture-shifter, Dr. Dre, and Mensa now has none other than Jay Z in his corner. With questions looming, Snoop came out swinging, selling over 800,000 copies in his first week of release. It remains to be seen if Jay Z’s blessing (and signature tough love) can plant Vic Mensa’s foot in the game. Considering Hov’s stamping of Kanye West, Rihanna and J. Cole, however, Vic’s chances appear solid.
But securing a Roc Nation partnership with Vic Mensa and his SAVEMONEY imprint was no easy task, according to the label’s senior vice president of A&R and artist management, Lenny Santiago. The young Chicago rapper landed on Santiago’s radar before the 2013 release of his Innanetapeb mixtape. That finding prompted him to send Mensa’s music to Jay Z. Later, the label and management company’s founder would add a particular track to his personal playlist: “Down On My Luck,” a striking style detour, featuring a crooning Mensa over a retro house track. On a quest that included equal parts persistence and borderline stalking, Santiago recalled spending an entire year honing in on a relationship with Mensa. After receiving an initially less than enthused response, Santiago made a point to show up at a slew of Mensa’s performances, in an effort to coerce the budding star into getting down with the coveted brand. The chase was not without its frustrations. “Halfway through – remember this took a year – so let’s figure, six months in, I’m like, ‘This is some bullsh*t. Like, why am I chasing this guy?’ I got in my feelings for a second,” Santiago recounts. “Not that he wasn’t good enough to be chased, but I just felt like, ‘Where’s the respect? Regardless, I’m coming as a representative of Jay Z. And even if I don’t deserve the respect, Jay does.’ But it wasn’t any of that. It was just him really getting to know who he wanted to be in business with, building his brand at the same time, and building something that’s worth partnering up with a record company. And I understood that later on, and I respected him even more.”
In an early signifier that this matchup could work, Vic and Jay Z’s first bonding moment came by way of a legendary rock band. The Roc Nation head quickly noticed a Nirvana interpolation used by the young MC while listening to one of his tracks. The twist of fate cemented Vic’s decision to become a part of Jay’s label, a choice he etched on the skin of his neck with a Roc-A-Fella tattoo. Taking notice of the new ink, Hov called the move “some classic rockstar sh*t.” But to Mensa, it was more than a record deal. “I never went to a tattoo shop and was like, ‘Yo, just hook me up, my n***a,’” Vic explains. “I think my body is kind of like a canvas for me. It’s a super classic moniker that has meant a lot to me and just the formation of my character. From even being a huge Jay Z, Kanye fan growing up. And now I’m the new SAVEMONEY Roc boy. I’m the next generation of this sh*t.”
The intelligence of Shawn Carter is no oversight; Mensa consistently acknowledges Jay Z’s proven title as a “smart man.” A long way from a Brooklyn drug dealer, Jay is now the $500 million man who recently signed on a few of his former apprentices – and a slew of music heavyweights – as co-owners of his new streaming service, TIDAL. But Hov’s latest venture is proving to be his most challenging, as the masses question the service’s dedication to helping artists earn more money. Though offering exclusive releases and high-quality sound, Jay Z has yet to convince the average consumer to abandon their beloved (and free) Spotify. Hov, ever-persistent, still assures the world that TIDAL will change the music industry. Mensa, a striking picture of this future, is on board. “I think it’s dope that Hov is embarking upon this journey to try and bring some power back into the artist’s hands,” he says. “The people that are out here capitalizing off of artists, they could give a f**k less about the artist or the people.”
And as Jay Z germinated the genius that is Kanye West, West is now prepping Vic Mensa for a sprout of his own. Gaining a slew of new eyes and ears courtesy of his contributions to West’s “Wolves” and “All Day,” Mensa also rounded up a verse from Yeezy for his own single, “U Mad.” If someone hadn’t heard of a kid named Vic Mensa before, curiosity surely peaked after his blue-eyed appearance on Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special with West. Admittedly having spent more time with West than Jay Z, Mensa testified to the humanity and humility of West – qualities some people doubt exist. “People think Kanye is an a**hole and all that shit. Yo, Kanye is real. He’s a real person,” he assures, wide-eyed and sincere. “And not only that, Kanye is a helper. He’s loves to help people. And Hov also. He’s personable. It’s like, when you’re on that level of a Jay Z or a Kanye, you don’t have to stunt on nobody, ‘cause it’s unspoken.”
Like Snoop and Dre, West and Mensa also share a hometown connection. Representatives of Chicago’s south side, the two hail from a city that is ridden with gun violence, earning it the nickname “Chi-raq,” an unfortunate epithet that Mensa does not shun or deny. While recently filming a documentary at his Chicago home, the rapper – who has a bold “SOUTHSIDE” tattoo across the front of his neck – recalled learning about a shooting that took place just blocks away. He was the only one to display an ounce of shock.
So far in 2015, a total of 1,187 people have been shot in the notorious city, according to The Chicago Tribune. The number is already ahead of the rate of shootings commited last year, which resulted in 389 deaths – and these are just the ones recorded. “Most killings in Chicago don’t make the news. That sh*t don’t make anything,” Mensa says matter-of-factly. “We’re like desensitized to it, heavily. I don’t even be home that much, so I was kind of the only one that was like ‘Yo, for real son?’ That’s the culture we’re kind of living in. N***as have been desensitized to death and violence. Just ‘cause it’s not a novelty.”
The violence is not just living in his own backyard. In another juxtaposition to Snoop in 1993, Vic Mensa’s time to shine is backed by a soundtrack of faulty race relations and the deaths of black men at the hands of police. Rodney King was beaten bloody by the LAPD. Citizens of Los Angeles rioted in the streets. Rappers, including Snoop, threatened the lives of cops on wax. Twenty-two years later, and the narrative is the same. Freddie Gray is killed while in the custody of Baltimore police. Citizens burn a local CVS to the ground. Rappers, including Vic, take to Twitter. In response to an influx of headlines about injuries incurred by police during this year’s Baltimore riots, @VicMensa posed these questions to his 120,000 followers: “Don’t you understand? We’re tired of being murdered in the street like dogs. How many times can you be shot at before you shoot back?” It was a stance some of his rap elders hadn’t even taken.
The increasingly tense socio-political climate has also shed a glaring light on the notion of whether hip-hop artists should use their platforms to affect change in their communities. “Now that everything is being publicized, you can’t sit around and just watch it happen,” he protests, vehemently with a piercing stare. “And you can’t just expect somebody to do that, when you’re not even f**king in it. When you’ve never experienced the sh*t that we go through with police officers. Don’t tell us how to feel. Don’t tell us how the f**k to react. Don’t tell us what the f**k you think, ‘cause it’s not you.”
Mensa, a biracial kid born to a white mother and Ghanaian father, decided to take the “100 percent black” route. As he gains popularity, he has learned that fame affords him entry that color lines once did not. Victor Mensah, a normal teenager with a group of black friends, had trouble getting into frat house parties at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But Vic Mensa the rapper (sans the “h,” professionally), would later rock the house for a predominantly white frat in Louisiana. The experience was, in a word, uncomfortable. He realizes, “If I took off my leather jacket, put on a hoodie and just walked up, they would probably try to diss me coming in through the door.”
These and other experiences – from his relationship, to nights of being blackout wasted – serve as the inspiration for Vic Mensa’s upcoming debut, Traffic. Described as a series of trains down different tracks of his life, the music is notably darker than his widely revered, should-have-been-an-album Innanetape. Detailing a wild night of drugs and alcohol, Mensa declares a lie we all have told, “I Never Wanna Drink Again.” Steering in and out of solid rap bars and unexpected sung vocals, the album could make for one hell of a ride. Some may search for adjectives to describe the music and land on the word “different.” But Vic Mensa just thinks his “s**t is cold.” If there is a thread between Mensa and his contemporaries – including Chance The Rapper, Childish Gambino and Tyler, the Creator – it is a lack of consideration for public opinion. “I think my generation is just twisting shit up, just shaking shit up just because it’s natural to us. We’re not stuck in old rules,” he says. “We have the power.”
Photo Credit: Lenny S./Roc Nation