Vic Mensa has always rapped like he was living on borrowed time.
When he released his debut EP, Straight Up, at 16 years old, he was lyrically concerned with drug dealing, women and getting rich. But even back then, Mensa understood that for a biracial kid growing up on Chicago’s violent and unpredictable South Side, nothing in life is guaranteed. “I’m from the city where we grind hotter when it’s freezin/And in the heat, niggas hides get cold/Where young n—as don’t get to grow old,” he rapped on “Like The Way.”
Mensa says now that, in many ways, he’s still that same young man. In fact, that first EP, he’ll tell you, began a narrative thread that weaves from 2012’s breakout mixtape project Innanettape to last year’s There’s a Lot Going On EP, and now to The Autobiography, his debut album released this week via Roc Nation. But the years between were profound ones for Mensa: tragedy and depression, as well as dealing with the pressures that accompany money and fame, have brought him to this current moment.
Until he got sober early last year, “I had gone down a pretty dark path,” Mensa tells Billboard on a recent Sunday morning. “I was just really dependent on drugs and very depressed and suicidal and I couldn’t express anything but darkness. I was so lost.”
Wearing black skinny jeans, a cadre of rings and his hair braided back in dreadlocks, the 24-year-old rapper sits in his Chicago high-rise apartment and, when deep in contemplation, regularly gazes out the floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a panoramic view of the city below. Having moved in only a few days prior, unopened boxes are still strewn about the living room. One of the only pieces of furniture in place is an upright piano that sits in a guest room; before the interview, the rapper sat quietly and was playing Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”
Around the time he bottomed out last year, Mensa met his current girlfriend Alexandria, whom he credits with saving his life. Around this time, the 24-year-old rapper says he was heavily addicted to prescription pills and even contemplated suicide – both of which he recalls in vivid detail on his new album. “The voices in my head keep talking, I don’t wanna listen /’You’ll never be good enough nigga you never was / Nobody fucking needs you, you should just jump off the bridge /You hurt everyone around you, you impossible to love,'” he raps on “Wings.” In 2015, shortly after releasing “U Mad,” a high-profile collaboration with Kanye West, Mensa performed to massive European crowds when opening for Justin Bieber, but says he felt entirely disconnected from his own music.
“I was out on the stage every night in Europe, and I was really unhappy about the things I was saying in my music,” he explains. “I remember talking to my therapist before things turned around, and I was talking about the album I was working on at the time — It was called Traffic. And I was like ‘Man, I can’t fucking put this shit out now because it’s depressed as fuck. It’s so dark. There’s no humor. It doesn’t represent me.’”
Once clearheaded, he started work on The Autobiography; Mensa says, “For the first time in four years, I was present.” He finally felt empowered to be completely transparent in his music: his insecurities, fears, the hardships of growing up in a violent environment all came pouring out of him. “I really did make a conscious effort with this album to try to be understood,” he says. “I was leaving no stone unturned. I felt like I had to be unapologetically me. I had to be able to tell all my truths.”
For Mensa, that meant returning to the acute lyrical observation and pointed analysis that first attracted him to unflinching hip-hop artists like Common and Tupac Shakur. He says he “came back to that same place of being a kid in my mom’s basement, writing rhymes for the sake of getting things off my chest.”
On “Memories of 47th Street,” Mensa details the push-and-pull of growing up in a stable home with his two educator parents while simultaneously witnessing the drug trade outside the window of his family’s home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “Gunshots outside my window, drug deals out by the Citgo/But mama always made sure the tooth fairy found my pillow,” he raps. Later, on album highlight “Heaven on Earth,” Mensa recreates the murder of his childhood friend, Cam, and in the final verse he raps from he perspective of his friend’s remorseful killer.
“This is the album that I’ve wanted to make for a long time,” Mensa says. “It’s the stories that I’ve been holding onto, some of them my whole life. It’s more me than anything I ever did before.”
Mensa recruited Chicago producer No I.D. to executive produce his album, and he says the iconic talent, who has previously worked with Chicago hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Common and produced JAY-Z’s new 4:44 album, helped him “create a consolidated, concise body of work.” Mensa says the producer most notably pushed him to be more vulnerable in his music.
“He was really the person that helped guide me to bring it all together,” Mensa says. “He’s a producer in the most classic sense of the word” — like Quincy Jones. “He’s making records. He’s not just making beats.”
In the past five years, Mensa has charted an impressive rise though the hip-hop ranks. He first gained notoriety circa 2011 as the rapper in Kids These Days, a collection of Chicago teenagers whose music mixed blues, soul and rock with hip-hop. The group recorded an album with the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, but when a major-label deal fell through, Mensa struck out on his own. The adventurous Innanettape put Mensa on the map and led to him performing with West on Saturday Night Live and inking a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation.
Looking back, Mensa says he was hardly present during that whirlwind time period. “Until I made this album, I was growing like anybody does but I was also not myself. I was really on drugs, bro,” he adds with a laugh. Much of Innanettape was recorded while Mensa was on hallucinogenic mushrooms. “Like the whole Innanettape, I thought I was in the Internet, bro. I was really on a lot of drugs. I was not in a clear state of mind. That’s not always to say it’s a bad thing but it wasn’t really me at its core. That’s the thing about using and abusing is that it can make you forget who you are without it.”
In January 2016, Mensa said he came to his senses. Before turning his attention to The Autobiography, he channeled the injustice he saw surrounding him into his music. After watching the videotape that emerged of the killing of Laquan MacDonald, an unarmed 16-year-old African-American shot by Chicago police, he recorded “16 Shots,” a standout on his There’s A Lot Going On EP. He also visited Flint, Michigan, to aid those affected by its water crisis.
Mensa says he’s alarmed by society being desensitized to the deaths of young African-American men, specifically in Chicago, and ignoring how poverty and lack of opportunity in lower-income areas triggers such violence. “We’re out here in a vicious cycle — like crabs in a barrel, just tearing each other down,” he says. “Nobody — the n—a pulling the trigger or catching the bullet — is all bad or all good. Everybody has depth. And so do I. People think I’m angry and they’re right. There’s a lot to be angry about. But I’m also empathetic and ambitious and hopeful and happy at times. I’m just human. That’s what I wanted to get across in this album more than anything. Human complexity.”
Mensa says he’s not particularly concerned with how the album performs from a commercial or critical perspective. He does, however, hope it connects with the kids growing up in abject circumstances that can relate to his struggle and find in Mensa a sympathizer to their pain.
“That’s the person whose support and ear and validation really means the most to me,” he says. “That was always the goal: to speak about what we’re going through, and to speak on behalf of everybody in that struggle. To spit that shit that could impact their lives.”