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On The Autobiography, Vic Mensa Comes Home

The South Side rapper doesn’t erase his troubled past, but invites us to see his complex world of vices, insecurities, and death.

Photo: Brittany Sowacke Chicago Tribune

I thought we’d lost Vic Mensa.

When the former Kids These Days general took the label leap by signing to Roc Nation two years after his 2013 critically acclaimed EP, Innanetape, it seemed he’d turned his back on Chicago. Sure, he immediately teamed up with Kanye West, an obvious and necessary cosign from our living legend that could lift Mensa from indie favorite to international intrigue. But 2015’s “U Mad” didn’t feel or sound like the alt rocky and soulful Mensa who grew up on the streets of the South Side. It felt whitewashed by industry heads, without the experimental fluidity of his teenage flows. Struggling with uncontrollable drug use, suicidal thoughts, and apparent tension with Save Money costar Chance The Rapper, Mensa appeared lost in the fog.

The Autobiography, however, is Mensa’s homecoming. Using interludes of spoken-word poetry and the sound of pen scratching on paper, Mensa invites us to his dark world of vices, insecurities, and death—not flinching away, nor rising above, but actively working through them.

I first heard the record at an Ace Hotel preview during Pitchfork weekend, but that party atmosphere didn’t do the album justice. The Autobiography is intimate, and requires the listener’s full attention. How else to grasp the complexities of gun violence and racism and battles with infidelity? How else to feel his vulnerability, as these struggles hindered his creativity and triggered ongoing depression?

No I.D., the mastermind of Chicago’s iconic rap sound, opens the album with a sample of Darondo’s R&B ballad, “Didn’t I,” with a song by the same name. A man, presumably Mensa’s Ghananian father, says to turn down his music because he’s got school tomorrow. An upbeat Mensa makes his intentions clear quickly: he raps about making returns on promises to his city, family, and close friends—to not only stay loyal but to stop bullshitting and step into his life’s purpose as a dope artist.

We’re immediately dropped into Mensa’s neighborhood with “Memories on 47th St.,” where he hears gunshots, drug deals, and gangbanging outside his bedroom window. Meanwhile, indoors, his white mother “always made sure the tooth fairy found his pillow.” It’s a dueling reality familiar to black teens like myself who lived in the ‘hood but went to private, Catholic, or magnet schools, or loved N.E.R.D and the Gorillaz just as much as Biggie or Tupac. Mensa is internally grappling with where he fits in, though externally, the world and the police who racially profiled him at 12 only see his black skin.

On “Rolling Like A Stoner,” Mensa gives us a glimpse of how deeply dependent he was on prescription medication, acid trips, and other drugs: “I got a problem/Rockstar life.” This dependency weaves us into the Weezer-assisted “Homewrecker,” where Mensa’s more focused on hiding the weed in his house from police than the fact that his girlfriend just caught him cheating on her. His vulnerability peaks on songs like “Heaven On Earth,” where he taps into the stylist pen of Eminem’s “Stan” to tell the story of his best friend Cam’s death from the perspective of Cam and his shooter, who explains he killed the man to get money for his newborn daughter.

Then, Mensa kills divisive rumors about Save Money and Chief Keef’s Glory Boys Entertainment with a hook from Keef himself on “Down for Some Ignorance.” It seems people are infatuated with pitting the two camps—each representing different sides of the black socioeconomic tracks—against one another, but Mensa instead captures the similarities in their struggles.

Failed romantic relationships and drug addiction are the subject of “Wings,” featuring Pharrell Williams and Saul Williams, where Mensa’s insecurities and the voices in his head get the best of him, making him contemplate suicide: “You’ll never be good enough/ you never fucking was/ nobody fucking needs you/ you should just jump off the bridge.” He comes to grips with his depression, and seeks to heal himself on “The Fire Next Time” and “We Could Be Free” by acknowledging his need to fulfill his purpose in his activism and music.

Mensa didn’t turn his debut album into an erasure of his troubled past, an approach Chance took with God-infused Coloring Book after his druggy Acid Rap tape. Instead, Mensa tackles his past head-on, revealing the demons that made him withdraw from loved ones and kept his soul in chaos—poetry as therapy. His ability to stop running away from what hindered his success, look himself in the mirror, and work through his flaws, is what makes The Autobiography his most vulnerable and personal work to date. He’s found home. 

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