Vic Mensa
Words by Errol Anderson

It’s the middle of August inside the lobby of Ace Hotel, Shoreditch’s hipster inn, and more than anything Vic Mensa is hungry. Fatigued by a morning of press, he’s already bemoaned the fact that he’s only ”had an interview for breakfast”, and is slumped schoolboy-style as my notepad of questions unfolds. Fair enough. It’s been a triumphant, yet exhausting year for the 21-year-old and right now it’s logical that he’d rather dissect poultry than his recent ascent to the limelight. Since announcing his solo career in 2013 - after the breakup of his band Kid These Days – Vic has not only toured with J Cole, Disclosure and Danny Brown, but also featured on Chance the Rapper's critically acclaimed mixtape Acid Rap and found time to release his own Innanetape - officially earning him a title as Chicago's one to watch.

This afternoon, however, his attention is fixated on local food outlets. Between asking for my recommendations and paying respect to Dizzee Rascal, the 21-year-old explains why his love for London has grown since joining Danny Brown at KOKO in February:

“At some point, I want to get a flat out here because I love this city more than any other apart from my hometown. It just feels good. I like the way it looks; it has the right city aesthetic and I’m very much a city person. I love the juxtaposition of bricks, wood, metal and walls but more than that, I like the vibe. It just smells right.”

Troy Bar, our eventual dining destination, smells a whole lot better. It may describe itself as ‘London’s best kept secret’ on Twitter, but of late its jerk chicken-infused lure has become a favourite for Hoxton busybodies (me included). On this occasion, just Vic, a few afro-Caribbean indulgers and me man the seats while he unravels his current musical approach. “I’m just trying to focus more on being inspired and influenced by things around me to channel the energy that exists into the music.” Several bottles of still water and a frayed menu are placed on the table. “It’s always good to combine with people to make something new. When I take my background and my breadth of musical information and combine that with someone else’s entire repertoire, something cool can come from it.”

Mensa – or Mensah as his passport states – has quite a prestigious lineage at that. His uncle, Kofi Sammy, was a key contributor to African high life; Fela Kuti – the famed musical/cultural visionary – would regularly visit his grandma’s house. Heredity like that would grant more wisdom than most. “My dad tells me that my grandfather used to be crazy strict. You know, beat him a lot, to the point of him running away when he was 14. When he finally came back, my grandfather had passed away, so my dad has never laid a hand on me because of that. I broke some rules anyways and especially once I was old enough to feel that no one could tell me what to do.”

Chicago’s streets were no safe haven, mind. For a minute he shares tales of policemen brandishing guns in front of young kids and hoods so derelict no one would occupy them. Here’s someone who has sidestepped those pitfalls, made it out and crafted his own enviable identity. “I’m the new rockstar for sure. I look like a rock star. In a literal sense, rock and roll was my first musical love and I was in a band for a long time so that music is second nature to me.” Two roasting portions of jerk chicken, plantain, rice and peas land on the table. “But, in a more over-arching sense, who are the paparazzi always after? Who’s always in the media? Who’s on TV for controversy? It’s rappers.”

The line between rockstar and rapper has been traipsed before. N.E.R.D yelled out “You can't be me I'm a rock star” on In Search Of… back in 2002, but this here is version 3.0.

Pharrell’s skateboard-coasting, funk-fulfilling chronicles are alive and well on Innanetape. Not so much a tape about the www itself, its frenetic, eclectic nature was more like an embodiment of the Internet. Anyone logging into his Innanet would find a combination of weed-adled optimism (like on “Orange Soda” and “Lovely Day”) alongside hometown introspections à la “Time is Money”. At 19-years-old, Vic had already seen his good friend, Chance The Rapper, blow up through the virality of Acid Rap.

But nothing defines ‘blowing up’ quite like the general public’s reaction to “Down On My Luck” this year. Paying homage to Chitown’s rich heritage of four-to-the-floor, it teetered between rap and house. Its contagious hook drew similarities to Disclosure’s pop-housey ability, and many have been confused that the track was written as they started touring together. Vic’s quick to clear that up: “I wrote the lyrics to ‘Down On My Luck’ before I met Disclosure but it was to a different beat. When I went on tour with them, me and Stefan Ponce were sitting down and thinking about making a song that would connect with their crowd. I spent a lot of time making that song, not actually writing it, but producing it and arranging it. I’d never made a house song before so I studied a lot of Chicago house music and listened to bits and pieces. I took a lot of influences from garage music as well.” When the song entered the chart earlier this month, it surprising debuted at #37; an almost criminal representation of the song’s contagious nature.

Vic’s keeping things forward facing though: “I’ve told people a lot of things. I’m not sure what order things are going to come in, but the Street Lights project idea came when I was on tour with J Cole. I’m working on that right now and I’m thinking about making it a long EP - like 15 songs,” he mumbles while scooping the last bit of his meal down his throat. “I feel like I understand myself better now because I’ve experimented with different things (especially singing) up to this point. I wouldn’t say it’s more calculated, but I’ve really laid out a lot more of who I am”. By now the jerk chicken on Vic’s plate is a mere stack of bones and unwanted rice grains. So long as his hunger for music stays as clinical as his grub-finishing skills, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.
Vic Mensa
Vic Mensa


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