For now, though, he’s here in Chicago, ambling in from the winter mayhem, brushing snow off his black hoodie, adjusting his camouflage vest and “SAVE MONEY” beanie, seating himself down in a breakfast-diner’s window booth. A scowl drapes his scruffy face. Vic isn’t thrilled: he’s supposed to have already flown to New York today. “We had a flight this morning at 4:15,” the 20-year-old says, gazing out at the frosty haze of his city’s worst winter in several decades. “Then 8:15. Then everything out of Chicago got cancelled.” It’s another bump in the road for Vic. He’s used to these sorts of obstacles. Vic Mensa endures.
Mensa doesn’t like to talk about it, but it’s always there. Kids These Days. One year ago, Mensa was still a member of the Chicago rock-rap collective, signed to a major label deal, promoting the seven-piece group’s shiny, polished, Jeff Tweedy-produced, blues-drenched debut album, Traphouse Rock. “Kids These Days was always working towards different goals,” Mensa says now, growing a bit uncomfortable. “We wanted, um, different things.” The group split last spring, citing creative differences. It was long overdue: Mensa had been mentally absent for months. He’d already begun piecing together Innanetape before the band imploded. It was his form of anti-anxiety medication. “I could now be able to represent myself how I wanted to,” he says of the Innanetape sessions, spread over nine months in Chicago and LA, with J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League producers Peter Cottontale and Cam Osteen.
Born Victor Mensah to two educators in Chicago’s South Side Hyde Park neighborhood, the would-be rapper knew early on he wanted to “be paid,” as he puts it. “I always just wanted to be richer than my dad.” As a freshman at the prestigious Whitney Young High School, he spent his time “fighting people a lot, acting bad and stupid in general.” He briefly peddled pot, mostly though to scrape together enough cash to begin recording music. “I was better than all of them off top,” he says of the radio-club classmates who let a then-14-year-old Mensa record during their sessions. His confidence, not to mention his fledging crew Save Money, which includes longtime friend and collaborator Chance the Rapper, earned a reputation as cocksure smart-asses. Vic found himself something of a social pariah. “Niggas was always hating on me,” he recalls. “Nobody else was really getting money like us. So they had to say ‘Fuck Vic.’” He cackles. “It was their only way out of depression.”
A recording addict, Mensa gradually perfected the speed-demon flow (“It’s some rapper shit”) and Slim Shady LP-sharp observational wit of Innanetape. Lyrically, he positions himself in direct opposition to his city’s popularized-and-violence-ridden drill scene (Why you let babies get shot while babies is killin?/ All because the system that raised me from grade school made me the villain). He’s a music nerd who commissions indie-rock darlings like Thundercat for mixtape cuts, and has equal appreciation for jazz, soul and gospel as hip-hop. Cottontale, the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League producer, says Mensa’s the rare talent who can write, produce and sing with equal flair. “I don’t think he’s just a writer and rapper,” Cottontale says. “He’s definitely a producer in his own right. He has a lot of potential.”
“I’m never going to be satisfied,” Mensa declares. “Do I feel like I could do more? Yeah.” And so he’s working days, nights, relentlessly recording new material before hitting the festival circuit this summer. He doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. Success takes time. Surely there’s more hurdles awaiting him. “You’ve got to have one eye at the end of the tunnel,” he says, “but you’ve got to also have one looking at where you’re going.” Mensa stops, reconsiders and lets a smile overtake his face. “Mainly, I just wanna take shit over.”