Vic Mensa Interview: "People Don't Really Know What I've Been Through"

The rapper talks to us about his new album, producing his own beats, and why people don't know shit about Chicago...
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The rapper talks to us about his new album, producing his own beats, and why people don't know shit about Chicago...

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Vic Mensa has a lot going on right now. The rapper is recording for his upcoming Street Lights EP, he's about to embark on a European tour this summer, and his new single, the Disclosure-influenced “Down On My Luck”, is getting spins on Radio 1, proving they can play rap that isn’t by Eminem or Jay Z.

The 21-year-old first generated buzz as part of Kids These Days, the rare rap-rock group that didn’t make you recoil in horror, before breaking out as a solo artist with the standout feature on last year’s standout mixtape, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap.

That scene-stealing verse was followed with a great mixtape of his own, the soulful Innanetape, and “Down On My Luck” is set to elevate Mensa to stardom.

We caught up with him in between studio sessions to talk about the new single, growing up in Chicago, and what’s coming next.

“Down On My Luck” has a house-inspired sound, is that the direction you’re going with the Street Lights EP?

There’s a dance influence on the new music I’m making, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a house sound overall. It all has the same voice and theme from me, so it’s got a similar feel running through all the music, but it’s not a house or a garage project.

You used to be part of Kids These Days, is there more pressure as a solo artist or does it give you freedom?

It’s freedom. In terms of work requirements, it’s harder, but I love to do what I do. When I’m in the studio making music, it doesn’t really feel like work to me. I’m like a kid in a fucking playground that just gets to play all the time.

There’s so much good music coming out of Chicago now – there’s you, Chance the Rapper, Chief Keef, Tink, Alex Wiley – do you think there’s an explanation for it?

Chicago’s just ill. Chicago has produced some of the most impactful artists on the culture. You can pick those guys from a list on one hand, of people that have been able to influence things the way that they do, and the way that they did.

There’s Kanye West, and when he came out, Lupe Fiasco. Guys that came out and immediately took that best-in-the-world standpoint. It’s something that inspired us as kids, to have those guys, and legends like Twista, Common, and then Do or Die and Crucial Conflict.

There’s a lot of different sides to this shit. On the one hand, you’ve got guys who came in and changed the world of music forever. They made it a lot more real and personal, and made it OK to be yourself. Then you have the really talented, legendary street rappers too, so there’s a lot to draw from.

Talking of street rappers, you and Chance are often presented as an alternative to someone like Chief Keef, as if you represent a completely different side of Chicago. How do you feel about that?

I think the truth is people don’t really shit about me, or Chance, and they don’t know shit about Chief Keef, you know what I mean? To an extent, it’s what you see, but people don’t really know what I’ve been through, or what Keef’s been through.

I think it gets overlooked a lot of the time that we’re from the same city. I know gangbang n****s that are friends with them, and gangbang n****s that beef with them. I’ve grown up with all of those kinds of people, and been around all of that dumb shit. I’m from that shit.

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Do we just get a simplified view of the situation?

Yeah, it’s easy to make a good side and a bad side, but things aren’t always so black and white.

You’ve worked with the likes of Hit-Boy and Boi-1da, but I’ve read you also produce yourself, will we hear more of your beats on Street Lights?

Definitely, I’m producing on every song. There’s a lot of songs that I’m actually making the beat for, playing the synths, programming the drums. I’m touching every beat I’m rapping on in some type of way these days.

Do you keep that side of things quiet? Everyone knows guys like J. Cole and Big K.R.I.T. produce as well as rap, but it’s sort of slipped under the radar with you.

People will know, but it’s just a progression. It wasn’t that way on Innanetape. Or it was, but to a lesser degree. I was still producing on a lot of the music, but I wasn’t physically playing stuff, and now I am.

I saw Kendrick Lamar after Section.80 dropped, before he became the star he is now, and he said: “I’m gonna win your hearts before I win a Grammy”. Do you set yourself targets like that?

Man, I can’t believe they robbed Kendrick like that [at the Grammys]. Very few rap albums are that meaningful and just that flat-out good. For it not to be given its credit is pretty wack as fuck.

I definitely have goals that will come true though. A lot of stuff I do and let it work itself out, but there are certain things that I want.

I wanna style on ‘em, and get the GQ cover. That’s gonna happen.

Grammys? I’m gonna get those.

Stocks? I’m gonna flip those.

Do you have a release date for Street Lights yet?

There’s no release date for it yet, but you’ll know.

It’s an EP, so is it a lead-in to a full album?

It was actually born out of an album that I’m making called Traffic, so we’ll see how it schedules out.

Is there a timeframe for Traffic?

I’ve kind of just started working on Traffic, but I’m also gonna do an EP. We’ll see what happens.

"Down On My Luck" is available to pre-order now. Vic Mensa will be performing at Wireless Festival in London on July 4th and in Birmingham on July 6th.

Follow Daniel on Twitter, @dan_anwar