Vic Mensa may be preparing himself to rock arenas this fall alongside mentor and label head Jay-Z as part of the upcoming 4:44 Tour, but the best way to see him live is still at small, intimate venues, where his personality really gets the chance to shine.
It did just that Wednesday night (September 20), as Vic joined Amnesty International and SoFar Sounds in picturesque Malibu, California to deliver a grounded, yet soulful performance of songs from his intensely personal debut LP, The Autiobiography, for the Give A Home For Human Rights concert series in support of global refugees.
The venue itself was actually the balcony adjoining the offices of the Creative Visions Foundation, an agency that fosters and supports activism through the creative arts and multimedia, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Only about fifty people lounged on patio furniture to take in the short concert with the nearby waves soundtracking the lulls between sets.
Actor/singer Chord Overstreet (of Glee fame) opened the concert with a selection of guitar-driven heartbreak ballads, with Vic taking the stage shortly after, accompanied only by a keyboardist. The keyboard not only provided embellishments on the tracks being played by laptop, but became the anchor for the entire performance when Vic determined that he wanted to perform selections acapella rather than playing the beats.
Before mounting the tiny stage, Vic was all nervous energy; he fidgeted like a bored class genius, bouncing from foot to foot, eyes nearly unblinking as he stared through the floor, centering. However, once he’d slotted his mic into the stand, the shades of the rockstar he’s slowly fashioning himself to be became visible.
The great thing about a smaller venue is how you can see the artist processing. It’s in the eyes; the way they gauge the crowd, calculate their next move. You can also see the missteps; while his arena show will be glossy and rehearsed to a tee, in Malibu, he was astonishingly human. He only performed three songs: “Didn’t I?” “Wings,” and “We Could Be Free” (a personal disappointment — I really wanted to see how the soaring “Rage” would scale down to a venue the size of someone’s backyard) but the energy he brought to each filled the balcony.
He stopped midway through his opener, “Didn’t I?” to insist he perform the third verse, addressed to father, acapella, even taking a moment to set up his phone to record himself. When his keyboard player improvised his way into the recitation, he let it rock; before too long, the crowd itself was participating, clapping along as he beamed from the stage, “I like that.”
The mic stand refused to cooperate with his attempts to let it go, so he maintained a tight grip on it throughout, joking with the audience that it wouldn’t “act right” and instead incorporated the prop into a raw performance of “Wings,” a song that toes the line between mental liberation and suicidal thoughts.
Another thing; Vic can sing. In the studio or a giant arena, technical trickery can turn the tone-deaf into virtuosos, but outside on a balcony over the water in front of fifty people, it’s all artist. While Vic likely won’t be recategorizing his musical genre anytime soon, he brought a warm fluidity to his sung choruses, particularly his closer, “We Could Be Free,” which also included a funny, impromptu moment when he declined a director’s chair his manager offered him for the final song. “Nah, that chair is weird,” he snarked, with a telltale sparkle in his eye.
These are the moments missed in the spectacle of the stadium tour or festival stage — the unplanned, the slightly goofy, one-off moments that transform artists from larger-than-life icons to simple, flesh-and-blood humans, expressing themselves, revealing themselves, exposing their vulnerabilities and flaws, sharing in an experience. After his set, Vic spent time hanging out in the foyer meeting with fans. He signed a jacket and a pair of shoes, and shared words of appreciation for their support as he swigged from a bottle of Hennessy. He got to be, for lack of a better term, just a regular guy — a regular guy with all the makings of a star.