Three days shy of his 23rd birthday, rapper Vic Mensa gifted his new EP There’s Alot Going On to every fan who pledged to vote on Friday (June 3). In partnership with the Hip Hop Caucus, the new 2016 Respect My Vote! spokesperson zooms into the present while sometimes venturing into his dark past on the seven-track offering.
The fiery yet pensive rhymer, who unleashed the Kanye West-assisted track “U Mad” and was signed to Roc Nation by Jay Z last year, tackles topics ranging from the Flint, Michigan, water crisis to self-inflicted wounds. A flurry of his memories play out like a big-screen drama on the title track as he recalls his Roc Nation coronation.
On the emotional “Shades of Blue,” he contemplates a series of race-related issues plaguing the country. Flashes of his fun side also appear, especially with the sure-to-be summer jams like “New Bae” and “Liquor Locker.” Previously heard songs like “Danger” and “16 Shots” — the latter inspired by the Laquan McDonald shooting case in Mensa’s hometown — also made the cut.
Below, the Chicago MC breaks down his EP, political mission and why he thinks America needs to vote against Donald Trump.
Billboard: Why name this project There’s Alot Going On?
Vic Mensa: The name was inspired from a Guns N’ Roses music video. At the end of “Don’t Cry,” they write “There’s alot going on. P.S. thanx” and it just felt like it encompassed and represented the state of my life and the lives of the people around me. Just with the world we live in today, especially when I was making the music, it seemed like every week, there was just a new groundbreaking event. We got Prince passing, David Bowie passing away — major influences of mine — and at the same time, you got Flint, Michigan [water crisis] going on, black kids being shot dead in the street by police. You can’t even count the names [of people who have died]. So, yeah, when I saw that Guns N’ Roses video, it kind of just clicked.
How long ago was this?
It was probably the top of this year. I’ve been working on my album for some time so in the process of working on it, there were a lot of records that didn’t make it or I felt like had to come out right now. I feel like if I didn’t put out this song “Shades of Blue” about Flint, Michigan, right now then I could potentially miss my biggest opportunity with that piece of music to reach people, and inform and help the situation. I felt the same way about the record “16 Shots” about Laquan McDonald. It’s very much rooted in the present.
When you were younger, did you consider yourself an activist?
You know, I think the idea of activism, more so a revolutionary mindset, is something that has been with me for most of my life, especially since I was about 16 years old. That’s when a friend of mine named Aja Monet, a really dope poet, started feeding my brain and gave me Malcolm X’s autobiography. I still have that copy she gave me. She also gave me Huey Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide and I got this Free Huey tattoo on my shoulder when I was 16. From around that time, I just started reading and started teaching myself. Those books shaped a lot of my world views. Also, that’s the same time when a black boy in Chicago starts turning into a black man in Chicago.
I’m bi-racial. My father’s from Ghana and my mother’s from upstate New York, so when I was a small child I didn’t feel so racial [conscious]. I had white family members, black family members, white friends, black friends by the time I was 16. Now I’ve been in my teens for a couple of years and that’s when the world started to tell me “you’re black.” That’s the first time when police started to harass me and tell me, “Take your hands out of your pocket or I’m gonna punch you in the f–king face.” And so as I’ve just really harnessed this identity racially, then along came Aja Monet, Malcolm X and Huey Newton and shit like that. I think that’s when the idea of activism just revolution came into my mind.
On this project, you unpack a lot of memories and emotions but what was the most challenging song to write?
[Long pause] Sometimes things are really hard for me to write but nothing was really hard for me to write on this project. All of this music was made in February of this year because [my producer Papi Beatz and I] have just been making a lot of music for the album. We made so much that we fell in love with. We were just going through tough times. I was not right mentally. It was just a lot going on, literally, like in my head. A lot of anxiety and depression but events that transpired led me to just really start knocking shit out in February. We just changed our entire perspective on how we get shit done and we started making one full song from start to finish, the music, the lyrics, everyday so all these songs were made in one month or in one day, But “16 Shots” was the most difficult to make because that one took time from its original state to encompass everything I wanted to say. I did have to work on fine-tuning that.
You rap about battling your inner demons and like you just mentioned, you went through depression and weren’t right mentally before making this project. What triggered that?
That’s what I used to wonder. That would be my approach to trying to figure out what happened. Where did I take this turn? I think that it’s a chemical thing. It’s anxiety that led to a depression that I’ve been dealing with since I was 16, 17. That was the first time I was ever prescribed medication for either of those disorders I guess you would call it. I kind of talk about it a lot in the outro song, “There’s Alot Going On,” just the way people would view my position or see things I’m doing and people I’m with [who are like], “You’re on top of the world. What would you ever have to worry about?” It’s kind of like a gift and a curse that I’m hardly ever satisfied with anything because I just believe in myself so f–king much that I’m always thinking I should be there or trying to get there even if I’m somewhere where the grass is green. Keeps me on my toes but it can be difficult sometimes.
How do you prevent doubts from getting in the way of your creativity?
The fact that I’ve dealt with so many of these things has put me in a position where I have a lot of experience and influence to pull from on a lot of different planes. I’ve been to a lot of different places, met a lot of different people, read a lot of books, have life experience but then I have an emotional depth to it because I been to that point where I don’t give a f–k if I live till tomorrow. I’ve just been close to that point. The fact that I’ve been so low and been so close to that point gives me just a deep insight emotionally to speak on the things I feel and not just emotional in the way that people think about relationships or girls. Emotion is a broad spectrum and I just been to a lot of sides of my own emotions.
“New Bae” is one of the more lighthearted songs on TAGO. How did you create the vibe?
We just made “New Bae” in one day. It was just fun. My manager’s brother — we call him Sex Mob Seth — was playing some Spanish guitar and then it sounded fresh so I recorded it on my iPhone. We chopped it up later and we figured it out. We had to put it in a 4/4 tempo which was kind of hard.
What’s your stance on relationships?
I got a girlfriend. They always talking about why I always have a girlfriend and it’s not that like I need to or just plan to have a girlfriend. I just met somebody that I’m really into and so I’m with her.
You recruited Ty Dolla $ign for “Liquor Locker.” How did that collaboration come about?
Ty Dolla $ign is my homie. I was thinking about doing a song with him. We had been talking about putting something together so I just told Papi Beatz like “Let’s make some shit we can put Ty Dolla $ign on.” Ty is so fresh to me because he’s a phenomenal musician. He plays the bass. Some of the dopest Ty Dolla $ign music I’ve heard is just him over guitars, over some more musical shit like “Horses in a Stable” on his album Free TC. That’s what I was thinking about [while making “Liquor Locker”]. We had already been jamming that in the crib in L.A. when his album dropped so I was like let’s make some shit for me and Ty. That’s just what Papi Beatz came up with.
Do you feel like your best music comes when you’re most transparent?
Yeah, that’s my entire approach. It’s just trying to be as truthful as possible. That’s what I’m most interested in. That’s what I feel like sets me apart from a lot of people — how much I’m willing to reveal about myself on a record.
On that same song, you discuss Kanye West and Jay Z getting into it over a joint venture. Was a joint G.O.O.D. Music and Roc Nation deal on the table for you at one point?
G.O.O.D. Music and Roc Nation, that’s all family.
So it wasn’t a formal business opportunity that could have happened.
[Shrugs with a smile]
What has changed from the Vic then who was signed by Jay Z to Roc Nation in 2014?
I’m less trusting and forgiving. I’m more in tune with speaking the way I really feel in music and I’ve distanced myself from a lot of people and grown closer to people that had my back. So my circle is just smaller and my focus is a thousand times more precise.
How will the content of your album differ from this EP?
The album expands upon a lot of themes and ideas that I bring up in There’s Alot Going On. I wanted to have some new records like “New Bae” and “Liquor Locker” for the summertime because to me, the music is just a representation of the size of the man. Me being the man. You know, I’ve got those days when it’s like late night, I’m calling up Liquor Locker, this liquor delivery place in L.A., and that’s my focus or “New Bae,” that’s my focus. I wanted to have those records for the summertime because those are records that are still honest to me as a person but the album and content is a lot more serious. It doesn’t do anything like that. There are smiles on the album but it’s not party records like that. There’s skits. The album is really, really story-based.
You were named the 2016 Respect My Vote! Campaign and partnered with the Hip Hop Caucus to release this for free. Why is it important to get the youth to vote?
Through pledging to vote, you can have this music for free. That’s something I wanted to give to the people. It was dope to do it through Respect My Vote! and tie in that piece of action because it’s so overwhelmingly important that we utilize the power that we have in our hands. I was having conversations with people I knew about what’s going on with the prison system and police forces nationwide. When the Illinois primaries came around, we were going to vote for the district attorney and nobody but me voted. Seeing that, I realized I gotta do more to encourage the people around me and the people that I can to use their voice and vote on a local level for real. [The justice system] don’t want us to harness our power in this society. That’s why they keep shooting us down with impunity and not catching any jail time for it because they view us as powerless.
One piece of power that we do have is the right to vote. As we assemble and come to center and put our f–king minds together, there are real things that we can accomplish by voting, especially voting for the people in our local municipalities because those are the people who can make decisions that can change lives of people on my momma’s block. Those are the people that really make that decision, whether they’re gonna spend that $2 million on a fancy light fixture by the University of Chicago or if they’re gonna fix the roads in the hood. That’s why I wanted to connect Respect My Vote! to this project ‘cause I want it to be a gift to the people and I also wanted it to be a wake up call and something that doesn’t just make you listen to music, it makes you think about the power that you have. Not just thinking about what I’m saying but thinking about what you could be saying.
Is there anybody you’re looking to vote for in this year’s presidential election?
That’s tough, right? I just don’t want Donald Trump to be president so I would vote against him because he’s a candidate championing racism, bigotry, just hateful ideas everywhere. White supremacists rally around him. He takes a week to denounce the Ku Klux Klan, acts like he doesn’t know who they are. He calls all Mexicans rapists, murderers and thieves and some I assume are good people. He wants to ban Muslims from coming to America. This shit is ridiculous. Overall, [the election] is just a huge media circus but it’s getting dangerous. I don’t think he’s going to get into office, at all but it definitely is ridiculous and you gotta f–kin’ vote against this man. You gotta get him completely out of the picture. He charges up all those people that felt personally let down by America because they had a black president for eight years. All those people are standing behind Donald Trump and he’s got them ready to do all the hateful shit that they’ve been thinking about this whole time.
The way [critics] talk about Obama, they never talk about any other president like that because Obama’s a black man so it’s more accepted for you to ridiculously disrespect him than if he was a white president. All the racists have a champion in Donald Trump and we have to vote against him. If you’re not voting against Donald Trump, you’re f–king up.