“I got the juice, it’s my time now,” is not just a catchy banger in the club as you’re trying to scope out the freshest honeys in the place with your fresh new fit the Gram gassed you up on. It would be disrespectful to say the New Age of music is dawning, because unequivocally, it is already here in full force; a slew of new, unstoppable forces of nature crafting the world in their image for a better tomorrow. Save a few of the new generation perpetuating old problematic norms and views that impede this wave of progression, it is indeed that breezy right now to be a millennial.
One mechanism for change that affects us every day and has dramatically changed the way we discuss generational issues is the mechanism of music. The great thing about music nowadays is that even though the habitual trend of trying to copy others’ sounds to gain success and fame is still inherent, the innovation behind production and songwriting is undeniably revolutionary for all genres. One could analyze this summer and its artists’ releases for a quick verification of this claim: SZA, Tyler, the Creator, Meek Mill, Aminé, Jay Z, 2 Chainz, Bryson Tiller, Lana Del Ray, H.E.R, Joey Bada$$, and Skyzoo just to name a few. Notably, with the Black artists of the new generation, generational issues that have plagued the race in unrelenting chokeholds for decades are being brought more to light with candid dialogue prompted by the new school Black artists. More progressive discussions are being brought forth by the project covering varied and necessary perspectives on Black masculinity, Black womanhood, the beauties of unfiltered carefree blackness, economic empowerment, more acknowledgement and respect behind the LGBTQIA+ community, acknowledgement of mental health disparities within the Black community, candid discussions on dating and modern relationships, political activism, all mixed with a hot new dance that is absorbed into mainstream American culture every few months that our Auntie begs us and the younger kids to perform at Holiday family gatherings. Continuing this magnificent chain in an authentic tour de force is Chicago rapper Vic Mensa’s long-awaited debut album The Autobiography.
Released under Roc Nation, this thorough debut project contains impressive features from Ty Dolla $ign, Syd from The Internet, Weezer (Eat your heart out, Alternative Black suburban black kids who loved Weezer growing up), The Dream, Dreezy, Chief Keef, Joey Purp, Saul Williams and Pusha T. Although the project was mostly produced by No I.D (two Roc Nation hits in one summer, No I.D you smooth bastard), other production was handled in sections by highly sought Hip Hop producers Mike Dean, Da Internz, Pharrell and more including production from Vic himself. The project was originally intended to be called Traffic, but Vic scrapped it because he wanted his debut to be more authentic; a wise decision.
If one has heard of Vic Mensa, but not so much his music, it is likely because of Vic’s notoriety in the media representing a polarized beacon of truth and activism for his community (i.e his presence in the #NoDAPL movement) and a problematic social figure with his dirty laundry frequently in the open. In regards to his hometown, Vic Mensa represents more of a Malcolm Little (Detroit Red and Malcolm X split) in juxtaposition to the more socially accepted and appraised, Dr.King Jr. figure of Chance the Rapper. Thus, Vic Mensa does not shy away from painting the most vivid pictures of his complex life, discussing his struggles with suicidal thoughts, drug abuse, mental health, consciousness about social issues, his infidelity issues, the horrid extents that poverty directly correlates to crime in destitute areas, credit cards and the scammers (no, I will not be writing about his broads in Atlanta) and flexing his critically-acclaimed lyricism. It was a prominent underground Chicago rapper, by-way of Atlanta, named Aaron Mack who first introduced me to Vic Mensa last year with Vic’s There’s a Lot Going On EP containing “Dynasty,” one of the most prolific rap intros to a project I have ever heard in my life. Aaron Mack described that even though Chance the Rapper is Chicago’s most recent and arguably now most prominent shining hero, Mack believes Vic Mensa is the superior lyricist. Talking to more Chicago individuals, they respected the two superstar emcees as individuals, but gave similar sentiments, which told me a lot of how individuals from the city view the two.
The Autobiography opens up with “Didn’t I,” a bomb ass intro that Twitter’s Deray cannot stop talking about, for good reason. The track samples the soulful “Didn’t I” by Darando that Big Sean used for his iconic “Outro” of his third studio album “Dark Sky Paradise” (2015). I was overjoyed that this sample was reused and for a longer time this time around. Also, Breaking Bad fans should recognize the tune and feel the great nostalgia as Vic Mensa tells of the joys of transcending all the situations that were supposed to end him. Like an autobiographical novel, Vic goes into the next few tracks talking about how he sold drugs, ended up arrested, thinking suicidal thoughts, and the common prejudice of teachers wrongly classifying Vic Mensa under IEP in grade school simply because he was Black and had a few problems learning initially. The next couple of songs touch upon his last public relationship with Natalie Wright and his infidelity that complicated their relationship. Vic Mensa’s lyricism is 90’s Biggie/Jay Z reminiscent, being childishly witty at times and then sneaking in a jab of a major point of social commentary within a storytelling bar. For example, in part two of his infidelity tale with Natalie Wright in “Gorgeous” feat. Syd, Vic raps:
“She had a pumpkin ass, how could I not smash?”
Now, if you can relate, say “asé.” In part one of his tale of infidelity, “Homewrecker” featuring Weezer, Vic paints a suspenseful story of Natalie Wright finding out about Vic’s side piece and confronting the woman with a knife, while destroying parts of Vic’s place and fighting Vic for control of the knife. In this story, as aforementioned, Vic Mensa brilliantly sneaks in a line about the dangers of Black people owning even a smidge of marijuana as compared to their white counterparts while forever being consciously cautious (W.E.B’s Dubois’s double veiled consciousness concept) with the police in the line:
And then police come in the crib, looking all out the window
And shorty come out the bathroom, mad as a schitzo
I wanna speak to her, but as a minority
I had to hide the weed first, that’s a priority
Even though Vic Mensa is a Chicago loyalist, you can see in “Gorgeous” that he has taken traits from notable New York rap artists of the past, such as Vic’s mentor Jay Z with the line:
You must be high, what drugs are you on?
Whatever it is, you got me hooked
Whatever it is, you got my new girl shook
First you wanna break somethin’ then you wanna make love
Pshhh, ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks
“Heaven on Earth” serves as arguably the most powerful track on the entire project, being reminiscent of and a polymerization of Eminem’s “Stan” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me” whilst being unique. It goes into detail about Chicago, the psychological effects on poverty having a direct correlation to crime, and his dead best friend Killa Cam, who died in a set-up/robbery gone wrong. The song constructs well-articulated duality of Black death in Chicago and a lighter tone of brotherhood and Black spirituality with its heart-warming call and response verse from Vic Mensa’s friend Killa Cam in the second verse. The friend references how he and Kurt Cobain (in heaven as well) smoked to Vic Mensa’s music and how Kurt Cobain allegedly stated from up above how much he admired Vic’s artistry. If you do not know who Kurt Cobain is, Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of the popular band Nirvana and noted as one of the greatest artists of all time who killed himself with a bullet to the head (like Vic almost did) and also struggled with drug addictions, health issues and depression just like Vic Mensa himself. This is a profoundly deep bar for two reasons:
1.) The parallels between artists in the mainstream music industry, regardless of race, dealing with the gravities of balancing fame and health
2.) The fact that Kurt Cobain is in heaven, considering that he killed himself. This is cleverly placed by Vic Mensa to offer his perspective and refute the claim in the theological debate amongst religions, especially Christianity, that if one kills themselves, they go straight to hell. A perspective that humanizes those dehumanized for their personal suffering. This perspective offers sympathy and optimism for those living in the darkest stages of depression.
A jaw dropping conclusion to this song centers the third verse around a figure in modern day who remains unidentified for the most part to Vic Mensa, eager to tell Vic something extremely paramount. The figure goes into a story that sounds reminiscent of the story told in the first verse with the same characters referenced. You find out at the end of the verse that the figure is the person who shot and killed Vic Mensa’s friend Killa Cam. The figure’s memories were triggered when seeing Vic Mensa’s Instagram post about Killa Cam, causing him to confess to Vic personally. He stated how he did not mean to shoot and kill his friend, but the fact that supporting his newborn daughter, lack of job opportunities, and the fact that Killa Cam’s lover (voiced by Chicago artist Dreezy in the song) presented the opportunity that led the figure to rob Killa Cam in the first place. I’ll let you mediate on the sociological message of all that yourself.
Before we rap up this rap album review, there was one line that raised a side eye, but more in a laughable manner. In “Heaven on Earth” Vic Mensa slipped in a line where he says:
I just saw you that week on 53rd
I’m tearing up man, it’s hard to put this shit in words
It’s like Macklemore at the Grammy’s, man
I just feel like you got some shit you didn’t deserve
The fun fact about this album, is that Jay Z was in a listening session for The Autobiography and there was a diss line that Vic Mensa directed at another rapper. Jay Z and others heard it and offered his commentary, which influenced Vic to take the line out of the song. However, this Macklemore line was kept. Even though it’s understandable that Vic was making the reference to his deceased friend, the Macklemore reference to the 2014 Grammy awards was of a highly savage subliminal jab as Jay Z’s “The Takeover” record. If this merciless Macklemore line was kept, how stinging was the line that was left out?
The album continued with a banger featuring fellow Chicago natives Chief Keef and Joey Purp. “Coffee and Cigarettes” was a good record, but to be honest, the album could have gone without it. I am in no way downplaying how much the fallout of romantic relationships means to an individual. By all means, they should express their emotions, as they are human. However, The Autobiography took on the tone of Nas’ message to Kelis on Life is Good (2012) with 1/5 of Vic’s album focusing specifically on Natalie Wright and more songs referencing her.
“Wings” with Pharrell Williams and Saul Williams displayed Vic’s growth from his situations. There was good flow from the “Heaven on Earth Reprise” to “The Fire Next Time” (shout out to the James Baldwin reference). A flaw of the album, as with “Coffee and Cigarettes,” was the flow and placement of the songs. This album, albeit fantastic, could have been on par with good kid, m.A.A.d City and a undisputed classic in its own right if it had mastered the flow as good as Vic masters his own flows. Analyzing the themes and the sounds, the album should have flowed from “Heaven on Earth through Reprise” through “The Fire Next Time” through “Wings,” next with “We Could Be Free,” and combining “Rage” right before “Heaven on Earth.”
The album ended with undoubtedly one of the top contenders for the most lyrical collaboration of the year with “OMG” feat. Pusha T. There are so many quotables for this track alone that it’s insane. I cannot list them all, so you might want to listen to it yourself, like the rest of the album.
Chicago has another modern hero, and that is Vic Mensa; not solely for his music alone and activism, but for his daring to showcase to the masses the power of living in one’s truth, unconditionally.