Vic Mensa Talks Mental Health, Prescription Drugs & Hip-Hop: 'What Other Coping Mechanism Is Presented to Us?'

Vic Mensa
Scott Kowalchyk/CBS

Vic Mensa performs on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Nov. 20, 2017.

The 24-year-old Chicago rapper & singer-songwriter is currently opening for JAY-Z on his 4:44 North American tour.

Is there anything you feel uncomfortable talking about? Vic Mensa simply answered "no," and it was by far the shortest answer to any question he was asked in a conversation with Billboard.

We talked over the phone early on Sunday afternoon, hours before he opened for JAY-Z's 4:44 Tour at the Barclays Center, night one of a two-night stand in Brooklyn. But even so, he certainly didn't rest his voice. In fact, he busted out in a casual performance of sorts -- spitting Notorious B.I.G., Geto Boys and Grandmaster Flash verses from memory to illustrate hip-hop's longstanding relationship with mental health.

At the end of our conversation, he unexpectedly trailed off mid-sentence before the line went completely dead. Just as sharply as he was giving voice to complicated matters of the world, he was gone -- leaving what was going to be his final punch up to your imagination. While not totally ideal, in some ways, this was actually the perfect ending to a conversation with Vic Mensa -- representative of the way he will tell you point-blank how he processes it all before challenging you, off-guard, to think a little deeper. Now, suddenly, he has you asking questions where his rock-solid answer was supposed to be: What was he going to say? Well, how would I complete that sentiment? And am I as informed as he seems to be?

All of this to say: If you're going to talk with Vic Mensa, or even listen to his debut album The Autobiography, you better come prepared.

Read the rest of Mensa's Billboard interview below:

You're a little over halfway through your 4:44 North American tour run with JAY-Z. How do you feel?

I feel amazing. I think the tour -- it’s one of those special concert experiences where someone in the audience can leave with so much more than a night of music that they know and love if they choose to. It’s like, I think that there’s just real value in the ideas. In the ideas that are the backbone of the concert. It’s full of pearls of wisdom and concepts that you can use to really grow with if you choose to.

In your opening set, you've performed "Say I Didn't," "We Could Be Free," "Down for Some Ignorance" and "Heaven on Earth." I'd like to focus for a second on the opening to "We Could Be Free," because there’s a verse, the sentiment of it hits me really hard. "We could be free / If we only knew we were slaves to the pains of each other." What does that mean to you?

Well, the vision is religion of power. That’s how you rule and conquer to separate your subjects, and I think that particularly at this point in time, we are at such a moment when the differences between people of different colors, ethnic backgrounds, theological sects are being highlighted more than ever. It’s crazy because all you have to do is leave outside of a major city in most places in the nation for the entire outlook on life to do a full 180.

I live in Chicago, and you could spend your whole life in Chicago not interacting with anyone conservative, any Trump supporters. In the city of Chicago, you could spend your whole life in [that bubble] of progressive, urban people. And then you could go an hour outside of Chicago to Kankakee, Illinois, and you got the KKK. You know what I’m sayin’? It’s like the boundaries that separate us are so thin, and I feel that this separation is really just a tool of the powers that be to benefit from all of our pains. So, the violence in Chicago -- somebody still makes money every time a gun is sold, as with mass shootings in suburbia and rural white America. The NRA and the corporations that make glocks and ammunition, they all experience huge hikes in their profits every time there’s one of these murders. Yet, we’re convinced by our different media of choice -- media and propagandas of choice -- that these guns are necessary and they’re our right and they in fact keep us safe when they really kill us.

I guess that was kind of a long-winded way to say that I just think that I want to use music to unite people.


We Could Be Free on The Late Show. Full performance video in bio.

A post shared by ROCKSTAR.VIC (@vicmensa) on

The news is still pretty fresh that Lil Peep has unexpectedly died. They're saying it's a suspected overdose, and while he was alive, Peep was very explicit about the pains he was trying to numb. Why do you think drugs are so prevalent as a coping mechanism?

Well, what other coping mechanism is presented to us? I have a lot of personal experience bouncing around between psychiatrists and therapists and being fed pills, while at the same time being told that if I don’t stop doing drugs I’m gonna ruin my life. They act like what they’re giving us is not drugs. You can go into a psychiatrist sometimes and just feel that this person’s only role and their only desire is to write you a prescription, get a check and send you out the door.

I really start to ask, like, at what point and time do we start holding the manufacturers of Xanax accountable? The prescribers of Xanax and Percocet, at what point and time do the people that literally make these products in labs and mass produce them -- when are these people criminals?

The enablers?

Not even just enablers -- actual murderers. They are making the murder weapon, and there’s no way I can propose that this is the most effective, logical treatment for these mental illnesses.

How would you describe mental and emotional health's relationship with hip-hop in your experience?

Well, you know, I think hip-hop’s always been thinking about the mental effects of situations that inform hip-hop. All the way back to Grandmaster Flash -- kind of like, “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head.” You know what I mean? It’s about being in the hood and, like, I’m close to the motherfucking edge, and we know how that feels. All the way to Biggie: “People look at you like you’s the user / Selling drugs to all the losers, mad buddha abuser / But they don’t know about your stress-filled day / Baby on the way, mad bills to pay / That’s why you drink Tanqueray.” Or fucking Geto Boys: “It’s fucked up when your mind’s playin’ tricks on ya.”

Hip-hop has always been speaking about the way your brain is manipulated by stress and struggle because hip-hop is borne from struggle. Point blank. As is the blues and just [that] music in general. It’s so potent because they come from this place of extreme struggle. At this point in time, I feel that the relationship of hip-hop and mental health and mental illness has become just blatantly obvious from a depressed, self-medicating standpoint but also strangely glorified in that these artists are taking Xanax pills on Instagram. Like, in photographs. And have created their entire wave around prescription drugs. Not only is it a piece of the music, it’s the backbone, it’s the driving force behind the image and the music.

To be honest, it’s like, on one hand I almost don’t even feel that I have a right to chastise anybody because I’ve fucking done it. I’ve rapped about Xanax. I regret it. I don’t rap about it anymore, but I have some lines about taking Xanax. I just think that we’re in such a dangerous place now because it’s been normalized and the drug abuse has been reduced to like a marketing tactic. You got Future talking about “I just rap about drugs because I know that’s what sells, that’s what people want to hear.” While people are overdosing left and right.

It’s really representative of the state of the nation, but it’s also horribly irresponsible because you got kids that idolize these people and will do anything they do. They’re being misled but their fucking heroes and getting addicted to Xans or Percocets and dying from them. So, it’s pretty fucked.

You've disclosed that in the past, in the thrushes of your addiction, your drugs of choice were mushrooms, acid, molly, Adderall, etc., some of which Peep admitted to using too. How reflective does his death make you about your own addictions and demons? Did you have any moment of reflection, or are you past that in your life?

Well, I mean, Lil Peep’s death didn’t really make me think about myself very much. It made me think a little bit more about people around me. I look at my own situation differently because I didn’t create an identity for myself out of my explicit drug use. I created an identity and maybe at points in time addiction has played a role in it, but I see my situation being different. As tragic as it is to lose young artists and young people in general, every action has a consequence. And when your identity revolves around abusing prescription drugs, you will die from overdosing on prescription drugs. Point blank. You know? It’s not surprising. Like I said, it’s still tragic, but it doesn’t make me have a new lens on my own life because I’m not caught off guard. When friends of mine that spend all their time drinking lean and poppin’ pills start having seizures, I just pray they get better and try to talk to them. But, you know, my perspective isn’t shifted because I recognize that things you do, they affect you -- and some stories have an obvious outcome.

You were talking about prescription drugs and therapists and wondering how they even think it’s the most effective coping mechanism or treatment...

I don’t think they think it’s the most effective. I’m saying I don’t think that drug manufacturers and the doctors that prescribe them believe Xanax and Percocet or anything are the most effective treatments for the various ailments for which they’re prescribed. I think they think they are the most profitable and the most addictive treatments. If your job is to sell a product, then the best thing you can have is an addict. You know what I mean? You know they coming back. They’re not paid by a fixed government state. They’re paid by private citizens every visit, and the drug manufacturers make a dollar from every sold product so you gotta expect them to be operating from a profit-loss standpoint.

So what coping mechanisms and treatments have you found over time are most effective for you?

For me, meditation. I think that in general just the lifestyle that we live is really influential to the various illnesses people deal with because a lot of shit isn’t natural. I look around -- I’m drinking water. My body is what? Like 99 percent water or something. But I drink all of my water out of, like, plastic containers. You know what I mean? What is plastic? My body is not one percent plastic, but the way that I ingest the water that runs through all of my veins is almost strictly out of plastic. There’s something wrong with that. Clearly, I’m going to be having some unnatural reactions in my body -- just from water. And I ain’t even talking about the pills. I just think it’s unavoidable when we live this manufactured, plastic life, man.

In "Wings," you say, "Will they love me when I die? Will I ever learn to fly?" And since I’ve been prying you with a lot of heavy questions, I just want to tell you something about me. I actually attempted suicide a little over four years ago. And as I've had time to heal and gain perspective, I think my wanting to die or attempting suicide wasn't about actually wanting to die at all -- maybe a part of me did want to because I was so deep in the beast. I think I really just wanted to prove to people that this pain I was saying I was in wasn't made up or exaggerated. Is that sort of the sentiment behind "will they love me when I die" or am I completely perceiving it wrong?

The sentiment behind that lyric was really more just the question of appreciation of art and appreciation of me from an external perspective and just imagining if I was gone. A lot of the most prolific painters died broke and weren’t appreciated in their time. I’m trying to remember who exactly I was thinking of -- like Rembrandt, van Gogh or Gauguin. Some of those guys, they got whole floors of museums to themselves but weren’t really appreciated in their time at all. I was just kind of thinking out loud about … [phone line goes dead]