This lyrically nimble 21-year-old Hyde Park rapper is proof that hype really is cyclical. He first caught the nation’s attention in 2011 as the vocalist for Kids These Days, whose members met as students at the elite Chicago public high school Whitney Young. Featured in The New York Times, the funk-soul group was on the verge of signing to a record label in early 2013 when internal squabbling led to a break up.
Even then, Mensa was one to watch, spitting dense, slippery rhymes at motor-mouth speed over floating horns and electric guitars. He responded to the band’s dissolution by releasing Innanetape, his second solo mix tape, in September. The 12-song compilation is a thrilling collection of rock and soul sounds, oscillating between driving-with-the-windows-down jams and darker songs about destiny, violence, and fate.
Arguably eclipsed by Acid Rap, the tape that brought Chicago’s Chance the Rapper widespread critical acclaim last year, Innanetape was still enough of a portfolio piece to land Mensa a gig opening for the hot British dance duo Disclosure on its North American tour in January.
Right now he’s working on Traffic, a full-length album about the whirlwind transitions wrought by his frequent travels. “I’ve been on airplanes a lot more than most people I know my age,” says Mensa, whose father (an economics professor from Ghana) and mother (a CPS administrator) used to let him ride the CTA from Hyde Park to Soundscape Studios, a Ukrainian Village recording studio that served as his second home growing up.
The first single from the new project, “Down on My Luck,” is a noted departure from his earlier work. Over a deep house beat, Mensa sings about the trappings of the Hollywood lifestyle, firing off a fusillade of clever lyrics. It barely qualifies as rap, but then Mensa has always been something of a musical polyglot (he counts Nirvana and Elvis Costello among his favorites). “The newer music has a lot more electronic sounds,” he says, “but it’s still my voice, it’s still consistent.”
As the plaudits begin to pour in—a coveted spot among other up-and-comers on the cover of the hip-hop tastemaker magazine XXL, his own slot at Lollapalooza—Mensa takes it all in stride: “I haven’t reached my peak yet.” —Tomi Obaro