Even if you don't know who Vic Mensa is, seeing him walk into a room will make your head turn. The 22-year-old Chicago-based rapper, who, on the day we meet, has frosted tips and is wearing graphic black-and-white custom pants that say 'Burn the Trump' and a pair of the new Converse IIs, carries himself with a combination of youthful, puckish energy and the kind of easy confidence you typically see in rock stars or Silicon Valley CEOs or Rob Gronkowski or basically anyone who's clearly comfortable in his/her own skin. Which makes it all the more surprising when, over the course of our conversation, Mensa describes spending his life feeling like an outsider.
"I've been a misfit for many years," he says. "I feel like I'm in-between these worlds with my arms stretched out as they pull apart…It's a constant source of tension that's existed in my life for a long time." The son of a Ghanian-born father who teaches Economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Caucasian mother who's a physical therapist in the Chicago Public School system, the rapper was born Victor Mensah in Hyde Park, the neighborhood on Chicago's South Side famous for being home to both the University of Chicago and the Obamas. In a city notorious for its segregation, it's one of the few neighborhoods with noticeable diversity; you'll find fancy professors' townhomes and turn-of-the-last-century mansions walking distance from Section 8 housing and blocks where blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, Asians and Hispanics all raise their families. Even so, Mensa says having a biracial background wasn't always easy. "Growing up half-white and half-black, there were times when I was younger when I just wished I could be one or the other. Never being fully accepted somewhere is hard." He continues, "I'm still different, you know. I've never been 100% something that you could put in a box. I think that crosses into my music and my experience in the rap industry."
As a leader in Chicago's post-Kanye rap renaissance, Mensa draws from an experience that's distinct from that of his hometown rap peers like Chief Keef or Lil Durk, whose music describes their coming-of-age in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods and of navigating Chicago's violent gang scenes. A teen obsessed with skateboarding, Larry Clark's Kids and Nirvana, Mensa attended Whitney Young, one of Chicago's most prestigious magnet high schools and also Michelle Obama's alma mater. It was there that he and some friends formed Kids These Days, a rap-blues-rock fusion band that would go on to sign with a major label, play sets at Lollapalooza and on Conan, and record an album produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy before flaming out in spring of 2013 over creative differences. Post-breakup, Mensa didn't waste time wallowing in frustration or regret and instead focused his energy on starting a solo career. His well-received Innanetape mixtape was released in November of that year and officially marked the 20-year-old as an Artist to Watch.
It was also in this general timeframe that Mensa worked on a track with Chance the Rapper, a high school buddy he'd known since the two met freshmen year at an open mic night. The song was "Cocoa Butter Kisses," the lead single off of Chance's career-launching Acid Rap mixtape. Both artists' stars began to rise, leading many music critics to compare them with each other or lump them together when talking about Chicago's hip-hop scene and the delineations between the psyched-out, genre-hopping sounds the two friends make compared to the harder drill music favored by Keef, Durk, King Louie and others. It's a lazy comparison that clearly riles Mensa a bit – even though the two have gone on to form their own collective, SAVEMONEY. Even back as far as 2013, he told the Chicago Tribune that the comparison "is reaching in the dark, putting things side by side that don't compare…[but] the truth is we're different artists who make different music."
But now, following the release of explosive singles with Kanye West (Mensa's "U Mad" and 'Ye's "Wolves," which also features Sia) and ahead of his debut studio album, Traffic, out later this year via Jay Z's Roc Nation, it's clear that there's plenty of room for both Windy City artists.
"My homie, the producer Mike Uzowuru, played 'Ye some of my earliest music where I was singing and rapping," Mensa says of how he first got connected to Yeezus. "When Kanye heard it, he pretty much instantly told his people to find me. I was on my way to Australia [when his team contacted me] so I just went into overdrive trying to find a bunch of music to play for him." He continues, "But before I even played him my music, he played me his new shit and it was like, fuck, is this really happening? One of the first things he played me was 'Wolves,' and I loved the edge of it. It reminded me of the type of music I was making with punky guitar and moody and dark soundscapes. I was like, 'Man, this is fucking amazing.' And that was the first thing I worked on of his."
In "Wolves," the song off Kanye's upcoming album, Swish, which premiered in Februrary during his NYFW show for his collaboration with Adidas, Mensa plaintively sings lyrics like, "Don't fly too high/ Your wings might melt, you're much too good to be true / I'm just bad for you," a sonic 180 from the brash, cocky rhymes off of his banger, "U Mad." It's an audio-stylistic-emotional range that he shares with Kanye and one that neatly dovetails with the juxtaposition of Mensa as both the skateboard-loving South Side misfit and the insanely popular rising rap phenom. He also shares with his famous mentor a desire to address socio-political issues, particularly those affecting the black community, in his music and – unlike West – on social media. In previous interviews he's confirmed that many songs on Traffic touch on socio-political issues and back in April during the Baltimore riots following the death of Freddie Gray, he tweeted, "Don't you understand? We're tired of being murdered in the street like dogs. How many times can you be shot at before you shoot back?"
"People say things like, 'It's just a coincidence that all these black people get shot by police' but we have to get people to understand that this shit is not coincidental," he says. "We live in a hell sometimes. The system has even been set up so [black people] kill each other [as opposed to getting killed by others]."
But though Mensa's spent a lot of time thinking about – and, in some cases, experiencing -- the grim realities facing many black people living in America in general and in Chicago in particular, the artist has a natural reason to nevertheless feel optimistic: his youth. Like a lot of people his age, he sees the cross-pollination of ideas and the support and acceptance that's fostered among young people via the Internet as cause for hope. "I think youth culture is in a place where there is so much forward momentum while the world around us continues to flash its old opinions in our face," he says. "We're just determined to keep fucking driving forward even as the negativity of the past – ingrained institutionalized racism and police brutality—pulls us down. We're like a blazing comet with anchors hanging off it but still flying."
And for this rapper still flying, he shows no signs of coming crashing down.