It’s been a long road for Vic Mensa. The 24-year-old Chicago rapper was given all the typical opportunities a new rapper gets to break into the mainstream: a XXL Freshman Class cover in 2014, collaborations with major names like Skrillex and Kanye West, and even signing to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation. And yet for some reason, Mensa’s ascension kept getting grounded.
Why? Is it because of the overcrowding of the current rap game? Is it because of Mensa’s combo of raw energy and bratty delivery unfit for the trap gangster boom supporting the likes of Future and Migos? Or maybe it’s because, with all of his attempts to make it big, Mensa forgot to truly make himself stand out?
Lord knows he’s trying on his long-awaited major label debut, The Autobiography. 13 tracks long at just a hare over an hour, Mensa seems to want this to be his definitive statement and he really wants the attention.
Executive produced by No I.D. (fresh off of JAY-Z’s 4:44), the album also recruits Mike Dean, The-Dream, and Pharrell Williams to create a soundscape matching the dark and barren environment depicted on the cover. Despite guest stars including Syd, Chief Keef, Ty Dolla $ign, and even Weezer, Vic is alone musing about his vices and setbacks in the midst of finally making it big. Though with his peers in his ears and influences around him, Vic seems to have lost his own identity in the fray.
Mensa seems to be caught between wanting the persona of either the wise street poet that J. Cole embodies or the R&B/pop/rap crossover success that Drake has. He starts at its roots with the soulful sample on “Say I Didn’t” before falling into the hazy stoner-rock groove of “Memories on 47th St.” and “Rollin’ Like a Stoner.” There’s actually a surprising amount of guitar on The Autobiography from the consistent jamming of the Weezer-sampling “Homewrecker,” the fuzzed-out “Coffee & Cigarettes,” and the soft plucking of closing track “We Could Be Free.” Mensa also occasionally sings, either with his natural voice or using Auto-Tune. Sometimes it works, as on “Gorgeous” with Syd, but other times that it becomes a bit grating as on “Coffee & Cigarettes.”
While the music might bore audiences, behind that are some strong detailed lyrics of Mensa’s street life in Chicago. “Memories on 47th St.” features Vic recalling his near-daily exposure to the dark side of the street drug trade (“Age 13 at Cam’s granny house, watchin’ him shoot up the Ace/He took the needle out and waved it in my face/If I ain’t tell that boy, ‘Be easy, dog,’ I coulda died of AIDS”), while “Coffee & Cigarettes” details the little quirks about an early relationship (“Newports burnin’ on our lips/A shootout in the background as I told you that I love you/A gunshot to the heart couldn’t have hit me as hard as you did”). Mensa thrives in the details of his story, and he doesn’t shy away from the grimy details.
On “Heaven on Earth,” Vic raps from three different perspectives connected to his fallen friend Killer Cam: himself, Cam, and Cam’s killer. He juggles his personal sorrow (“Every time I run through your number in my phone/I think about bullet holes runnin’ through your dome”), the motivation his friend gives him in dark times (“I seen you in that bathroom stall suicidal with that gun in hand/How could you wanna die? S**t is so good for you”) to even stepping into the shoes of the shooter. “Wings” is arguably the emotional crescendo of the album, where Vic’s personal demons cripple him and lead him to actually contemplating jumping to his death (“Climb the tallest building and spread your wings”).
It’s clear that Vic has personal issues that he works out through blunt and honest delivery with the occasional shift in presentation. Somehow, this doesn’t stop him from bragging about his success or playing like a party boy. “Rollin’ Like a Stoner” is Vic embarrassingly using his tendency for drink and drugs to strut his stuff (“Your girl treat me like a Polaroid, shake it for a photo/Swi-swi-swimming in alcohol my Marco Polo”) while “Down for Some Ignorance” is a boring ghetto rap banger where Vic tries to act tough but comes off overcompensating and goofy (“Gotta keep a strap on me like a straight jacket”).
He also contradicts himself on back-to-back tracks about his love life: on “Homewrecker,” Vic raps about a torrid love affair with an unstable woman that he keeps coming back to (“But who’d’ve ever thought you’d be the wifey and a homewrecker?”). The very next track, “Gorgeous,” has Vic clumsily apologizing to his love about getting caught with another girl (“Call me selfish, but I want you both/And that’s what makes it so damn hard to let you go”). These songs that try to pander to the pop charts or the hip kids not only make Vic sound so uninteresting, but feels incredibly misplaced amongst songs where he talks about nearly contracting AIDS and suicide.
At its completion, The Autobiography feels like a bit of unfitting title. It’s half-there, with Mensa’s more serious lyrics making him stand out as an artist. But with the uninspired music and Mensa’s vocal performances that harken back to his contemporaries too much, there’s nothing that makes the album worthy of repeated listens at face value. It’s basically a rough draft for Vic Mensa’s talent that he hasn’t fully honed-in on. Vic seems to want too much at the same time without having a great idea of how to achieve one definite goal. Yes, he’s finally released his first major label debut….now what?