Before there was Chance The Rapper, there was Vic Mensa.
While Chance and Vic both came under the wing of Kanye West, and have similar tales of succumbing to the pitfalls of sudden fame and wealth, Chance emerged all the brighter for his time spent in the crucible, releasing Coloring Book to mass acclaim (and eventual, inevitable backlash). However, Vic languished on a label that couldn’t seem to figure out what to do with him, dropping a series of EPs and mixtapes that didn’t seem to go anywhere, and ended up in a downward spiral of legal issues and personal crises, even coming to seemingly resent his one-time friend and musical partner. Thankfully, it seems he’s finally shaken off the depression and addiction that had almost taken him and his musical brother off the path to stardom to create The Autobiography, on which he details the trials that tested his resolve, pushed him to the edge, and forged him into a stronger musician and person.
Vic was the original Chicago wiz kid, by way of teenage blues/rock band Kids These Days. Forming in 2009 with members Liam Cunningham, Macie Stewart, Lane Beckstrom, Greg Landfair, Nico Segal (aka Donnie Trumpet), J.P. Floyd, and Rajiv Halim, the Kids stunned with a mashup garage rock fusion that sounded like if Jay-Z had made Collision Course with The Black Keys instead of Linkin Park, and it came with a smooth shot of Coltrane laid on top. Unfortunately, the band dissolved in 2013, right around the same time Chance dropped Acid Rap and began his ascent into rap’s stratosphere. Meanwhile, Vic’s Innanetape barely made a splash, and his career began to sputter.
The Autobiography is aptly titled; from its opening tracks, Vic details the ups, downs, crises, and successes of his life so far — as well as their effects on his psyche. “Memories On 47th St.” is the most straightforward of these efforts, as Vic launches into a pair of narratives of formative experiences: The first time he encountered racial profiling from the police, and his first time getting high with classmates who may not have had his best interests at heart. “Rollin’ Like A Stoner” extends this into its natural end: Vic’s eventual addiction to pills and alcohol as he tried and failed to escape his problems instead of coping.
The album really picks up at “Homewrecker,” with the unlikely feature of alt-rock band Weezer, as Vic addresses his past relationship with ex-girlfriend Natalie Wright. Spooling off a yarn about getting caught cheating, he turns the title into a clever pun, calling himself the home wrecker in the traditional sense, then flipping it as his partner “flipped the kitchen table and broke a water glass,” in her pursuit of the other woman. Patrick Cuomo comes in at the very end with his home-brewed brand of strained emoting, turning the refrain into a plaintive appeal: “I wanna go back, home wrecker.”
Vic continues to spill about Wright on “Coffee & Cigarettes,” with gut punches like, “We wrote our names beneath the bridge / To be sure that the city never forgot us / Who woulda known you’d be so quick to forget about me?” demonstrating his gift for reeling in listeners’ emotions and making them resonate with his own. He takes a page out of label boss Jay-Z’s page, confessing his own shortcomings even as he exhausts the full range of regrets that normally comes with a break-up.
The highlight of the album, however, comes on “Heaven On Earth,” the most affecting track on the thirteen-track effort (fifteen, including bonus tracks). Framed as a series of letters to and about his murdered friend Cam (aka DARE), “Heaven On Earth” takes the perspectives of three people involved and synthesizes them into an apology, an indictment, and an absolution all at once. In the first verse, he writes to Cam, saying, “I’m tearing up man, it’s hard to put this sh*t in words / It’s like Macklemore at the Grammy’s, man / I just feel like you got some sh*t you didn’t deserve.” In the second, he writes as Cam, admonishing himself to “stay off them drugs man/ They no good for you / I see you in that bathroom stall, suicidal with that gun in hand / How could you wanna die? Sh*t is so good for you.” The third verse is the real kicker, though, as Vic writes from the perspective of Cam’s killer in a bid to humanize and sympathize with someone he has every right to hate. Many rappers have addressed survivor’s guilt, depression and suicide, but rarely in such as a way as to evoke humanity and empathy for all parties involved and with so much accountability for their own irresponsible failures to cope in the aftermath.
But Vic finds a way to acknowledge his failures, his pain, his guilt, and his sense of feeling destined for greater and turns it into a fire, motivating himself on “The Fire Next Time,” borrowing the title from James Baldwin’s 1963 collection of essays about racism and religion in America. He sings the hook as a benediction, “Out of the fire I found a fire inside / You can see the pain still alive in my eyes / I’ve loved and I’ve lost, through heaven and hell / Turn they back on me too many times to turn back now.”
With a murderer’s row of producers including 1500 or Nothin’, BOOTS, Carter Lang, DJ Dahi, Da Internz, Larrance Dopson, Mike Dean, No I.D., Om’Mas Keith, Papi Beatz, Pharrell Williams, Smoko Ono, The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, and Young Chop, The Autobiography is Vic’s fullest product to date, yet it still feels… unfinished. Despite growling guitar solos, and soaring strings, there is a prevailing sense that Vic is still searching for a sound, a persona, a complete being through this album that he never quite finds by the end. But maybe that’s the point; if The Autobiography is about Vic Mensa finding himself, then it makes perfect sense that the album doesn’t feel quite complete. Vic, like all of us, sees himself as a work in progress.