Vic Mensa Takes Over The Innanetape

Photo by FragdFilms

It’s ten o’clock at night in late March and I’m fighting sleep. Sitting almost horizontal on a massive, black leather couch as my photographer, Bryan Lamb, and I watch Chance the Rapper racing back and forth from the booth behind us to the computer in front of us, occasionally taking frantic puffs from his cigarette.

His counterpart, Vic Mensa, lounges on a couch nearby, staring intently at a Macbook perched carefully on his lap, analyzing the first cut of the video for “DiditB4”, the lead single off his September 30 release, Innanetape directed by fellow Savemoney member Austin Vesely. The pre-rendered cuts are too quick for the computer and the screen stops on a scene of Mensa, in a white coat and goggles, holding a cow brain. “That shit was too raw, Austin drove to some farm to get it,” said Mensa.

VIC Mensa 2014Photo by Andrew Zeiter

By now, you’ve most likely heard of Chancellor Bennett, the 20-year-old artist who turned a ten-day suspension from high school into a pair of nationally-recognized mixtapes. You also likely have heard of Vic Mensa, the 20-year-old former front-man of the now-defunct Kids These Days who announced via an XXL interview in April that the band was done.

Together, the pair make up the leadership team of “Savemoney”-an eclectic collective of young artists, musicians, students and more based in Chicago that have helped elevate the city to the top of hip hop’s collective consciousness. That rise was aided heavily by Chance’s April release, Acid Rap. Mensa’s Innanetape is poised to blow the roof off the Chicago scene.

We are in Lpeezy studios, one of a handful of creative spaces in the cavernous Music Garage on Chicago’s near west side, which also houses practice spaces for aspiring bands and artists. We’ve been here for the past two hours trying to do interviews with the pair for a SXSW recap, but getting Chance to sit still is a task unto itself.

The two are markedly different and similar at the same time. Mensa, with his scruffy beard and laid-back demeanor, a backwards hat perpetually perched on his head, is the steadying presence while the fresh faced Chance is seemingly always in motion, feet tapping, eyes moving, talking in spurts. It’s not only physical movements. The great Chance/Vic debate has been discussed at length around Chicago hip-hop circles since 10 Day hit the internet. They both sing, they both rap, they’re both lyrical and from Chicago, but that’s about where comparisons end.

Chance glances over Vic’s shoulder to catch a glimpse of the video on the screen and lets out a loud yelp before smiling and slapping hands with Mensa. “That shit is too dope,” he says of Vesely’s camerawork.

There may be competition; but family always comes first.

Almost six years ago the hip-hop world assumed the Chicago scene was about to blow up. With Kanye and Lupe Fiasco at the forefront of the music, it seemed to be the Midwest’s time.

It didn’t happen. Instead, those two and the generation they represented planted the seeds that have grown into the bubbling cauldron that is the local Chicago scene today, and no one represents that better than Mensa and Bennett.

The two have known each other since meeting as high school freshmen at a Chicago Public Schools poetry slam. Since then, they have gone on to found the Savemoney clique with childhood friends, release a combined four projects and tour the country and the world – not bad for 20.

To be sure, they have found national success in distinctly different ways: Chance as a solo rap act and Vic as the front-man of a seven piece rock/funk/soul/hip-hop group.

That all changed in April when Mensa announced the break up of the band.

“People tried to keep the band together, I didn’t specifically,” said Mensa in an April interview. “The motive for the breakup was because some people weren’t happy with the rap and what I brought to the band but I’m excited for what’s ahead.”

Known in Chicago as one of the first young artists of the current generation to take rap seriously with his 2009 mixtape debut Straight Up EP, a RubyHornet release that garnered the attention of Def Jam Vice President No I.D. at 16. Mensa, preferring the road less traveled, went in a different creative route with the band; one that is now coming full circle. Mensa is the inspiration for a great deal of the young music that flows from Chicago today. Straight Up EP was a precursor to acts like fellow Chicagoan Kembe X whose Self-Rule mixtape, also released at 16, was chosen as the best free release of 2011 by Forbes. By playing Lollapalooza, Conan and heading out on a national tour with Kids These Days, Mensa essentially blazed the trail that Chance is currently walking. He proved it was attainable; he made dreams actualized realities.

The Whitney Young high school product sporting a tattoo of a black panther with the words “Free Huey” below on his left arm is known for his conscious lyricism and poignant thought process. With a frenetic delivery that details both personal and socially-aware rhymes like: “City where the weather gets warm N the blood drops/Shot a shorty on his way home from the bus stop/Some one tell me when it ends-lost my mind I & I lost my friends” from his solo song “Blazin” it is understandable why the self-proclaimed “light skinned Jesus” has become known as one the most compelling Chicago MCs since Lupe Fiasco.

That notoriety is well deserved. As a junior in high school he helped organize a walk out and march to protest cuts to teacher salaries and last year made a video with fellow Kids These Days member Liam Cunningham in support of the proposed Chicago Public Schools closings.

“Personally I was always socially aware when that has been my intent,” said Mensa. “Just from growing up in Chicago and being around the city my whole life I definitely had a perspective on how things really are.”

In 2010, Mensa traveled to Austin, Texas with Kids These Days for South by Southwest. Joining them on the trip was Chancellor Bennett, better known as Chance The Rapper. An impromptu performance with the band at a showcase caught the ear of Los Angeles-based publicist Dan Weiner, who was representing KTD at the time.

“I just saw Chance kind of by accident when I caught the Kids These Days set down in Austin,” said publicist Dan Weiner of BWR Public Relations. “I knew right away there was something about him.”

That SXSW proved to be fruitful for all involved. Vic and Kids These Days hit the road and began work on their full-length album, Traphouse Rock, while Chance finished his debut project, 10 Day.

No one could have expected the sudden rise that Chance would encounter between 2012 and today. On the heels of the well-received 10 Day project, Chance joined Childish Gambino on tour, sold out a solo show at the historic Metro and firmly placed his name amongst the most talented of the new crop of Chicago rhymesayers.

On April 30, Chance released the highly anticipated follow up Acid Rap, which was met by raucous lines of fans and favorable reviews from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. Much the same way Kanye made pink Polo shirts famous during his rise in the bling era, Chance is a definite breath of fresh air from Chicago’s vaunted drill scene.

“People always tell me I’m like the complete opposite of Chief Keef and act like I’m supposed to stop him from making his music,” said Chance in a 2012 interview. “I like Chief Keef so it’s always super awkward.”

On Acid Rap Chance touches on the intricacies of his relationship with Mensa, rhyming:

“I still get jealous of Vic/And Vic still jealous of me/But if you touch my brother/All that anti-violence goes out the window along with you and the rest of your team.”

The two longtime friends find themselves at an interesting point in both their personal and professional careers. As Chance finds himself on every media outlet from Complex to The Chicago Sun Times, Mensa is in a transitionary role, adjusting to the solo life after being part of a band for years.

While Acid Rap deservedly made Chance a household name among hip-hop heads, early tracks such as “Orange Soda,” “Diditb4,” and “YNSP” have Mensa’s highly-anticipated Innanetape rumored to have a similar impact-both an ode to the talent the city is producing and the competitive spirit of two longtime friends.

Now that both are following a similar path: that of a solo hip-hop act, competition has pushed each to raise their own bar. Standing together onstage at Lollapalooza August 2 with veteran Chicago artist Twista, the two seemed right at home amongst a sea of friends and fans while performing “Cocoa Butter Kisses”. Following Chance’s set the first person to greet him offstage was none other than Mensa, throwing his arm around him like an compassionate brother, going over the intricacies of his performance while pulling him away from the crowd.

As we watched the scene in the studio develop; Chance and Vic trading barbs, rhymes and ideas, going back and forth on what to do with certain aspects of each track, it became apparent that interplay is not reserved to the stage.

“These guys are kind of like a tag team straight out of WCW-taking turns kicking the instrumental’s ass in the booth,” said LPeezy Studios producer/engineer Alex Baez. “Vic and Chance bring a level of creativity to our sessions that is very rare, almost like a lost art. You can feel how important the lyrics and flows these guys are spitting will be to our city, hip hop itself and the world (in due time).”

There are distinct differences though. Chance’s pressure stems from the fact that his career may be dictated by his decisions through the end of this year, and how he follows up Acid Rap. With co-signs from James Blake and Lil Wayne recently, he seems to be treading that path well

For Mensa, the pressure is less, yet more. While he has a somewhat established name from his work with Kids These Days, Innanetape is also his first opportunity to escape from the perceived “shadow” the band placed over him. He has creative freedom, a range of styles culled from time with the band and an extensive musical interest. While Chance is the burgeoning hip-hop/soul star in the scene today, Vic, who sings, raps and produces, very well could be the best crossover star Chicago has seen since Kanye.

A common denominator for both has been creative production and delivery, something Chicago producer Peter CottonTale knows plenty about. With production credits on much of Acid Rap and an Executive Producer nod on Innanetape, CottonTale may be as musically close to the pair as anyone in Chicago

“Both Vic and Chance come from a very musical standpoint. When I think of Chance’s sound, I think of evolution. When I think of Vic’s sound I think of transformation,” said CottonTale. “Due to Vic coming from a background in different genres than hip-hop; I was able to think outside of a lot of boxes, which made Innanetape a unique, multi-faceted project.”

As the clock rounded 11 and headed towards midnight we finally got what we needed, catching Chance at a particularly calm moment after speaking with Vic.

As Chance told us of wild nights at the Illmore with Kendrick Lamar and playing the Red Bull Stage, Mensa hardly ever picked his head up from a pad of paper, focusing on the next record with careful concentration.

We shook hands and packed up to leave, the session continuing in full gear. As Chance finished one track, Mensa started another, turning the booth into a revolving turnstile.

The world is changing for the two friends quickly as Acid Rap sends Chance to new, unforeseen heights and Mensa’s Innanetape gains momentum with its release; poised to send him into hip-hop’s stratosphere.

Following the performance at Lollapalooza, the pair, face to face, fervently debated the set list and critiqued the performance as they walked from the stage. Behind them, a sea of fans clawed at the fence leading backstage, eager to get a glimpse. With all the city’s attention on the pair, Chancellor Bennett and Vic Mensa keep their eyes squarely on each other. Mensa watched as Bennett spent the summer on every magazine and website in the country and then the world. He’s not jealous or nervous; he’s hungry to match his close friend at the highest level, continuing to prove to his peers what can be achieved from Chicago.

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