As soon as the news that Vic Mensa had become the latest artist to join the Roc Nation family, I knew what my Twitter mentions were going to look like, and sure enough...
Ok, you got me, it's true. The first thing I thought when I heard Vic had signed to the Roc wasn't "Is the label a good fit for him?" or "I wonder how this will affect his music?" The first thing I wondered was, "Was he mindie, and if so, for how long?"
A quick refresher for those who may not know the roots of this story. A couple years ago I discovered that major labels were secretly signing artists to deals where those artists would continue to pretend to be completely independent while also receiving major label funding. That way the artist's rise would appear totally organic, the pure result of talent and hard work not major label marketing dollars, but they could still reap the benefits of those major label marketing dollars behind-the-scenes. I called those artists "mindie" (major but indie = mindie) because I'm bad at naming things and once I swallowed the red pill a deep-seeded paranoia began to set it. How could I be confident that any indie artist blowing up didn't have a major label pushing buttons behind the scenes?
Making matters worse for my sanity, that paranoia often turned out to not be paranoia at all. We eventually learned that Young Thug really was signed to a mindie deal years before Birdman snatched him up. We eventually learned that Logic really was signed to Def Jam years before the deal was officially announced. All those "I liked Logic better before he signed to Def Jam" mixtapes so many of his fans exalt? He was signed to Def Jam when he made them.
Take any (seemingly) indie artist making even the most minor of major moves and suddenly there was cause for at least a flicker of doubt. I started looking at rappers the same way I looked at athletes after it became obvious that we were often deluding ourselves about the prevalence of steroid use in sports. Could Adrian Peterson have recovered from a serious knee injury in record time to put up record numbers completely naturally? Sure, absolutely, he could just be that incredible and dedicated of an athlete. But after watching so many other seemingly unassailable sports heroes admit to steroid use, it'd be naive to not at least ask the question. Could Vic Mensa have emerged as a force in hip-hop, going from Kids These Days to dropping songs with superstars like Kanye West, completely independently? Sure, absolutely, he could just be that incredible of an artist with a great team behind him. But knowing what I know, it would have been naive to not at least ask the question. The truth often contains far more shades of grey than the black and white story we want to hear.
To be frank, my interest in Vic's story and his signing is primarily technical, another case study in my ever expanding mindie obsession. I respect and admire his music but I wouldn't call myself a fan; sometimes artists just don't personally connect with you on that deeper level because they just don't and that's fine. Lucas, however, is a Vic Mensa fan, the kind of fan who mourned the death of Kids These Days like it really was a death and then followed Vic's every musical release with rapt attention. With my mindie background and his passion for Vic's music combined, we couldn't stop asking questions about the Roc Nation signing: When did he sign? Last month? Last year? Where does his work with Kanye fit into this timeline? Had he ever been mindie? What's the difference between being mindie and signing to a label but simply waiting to announce the deal until the time is right? Vic was seemingly dedicated to remaining independent, what changed his mind? When did he change his mind? Does any of this even matter?
That last question is the easiest to answer. Yes, I do believe it matters. I recognize that there's only a relatively small circle of music fans nerds who care about things like label negotiations in the same way that there's only a small circle of basketball fans nerds who care about things like Player Efficiency Ratings, but regardless of if Vic was ever mindie or not (spoiler alert, I don't believe he was), the blow-by-blow story of how an artist goes from hungry Chicago artist to dealings with the almighty Jay Z is fascinating. Like I think a lot of people, I once thought an artist signing to a label was only a slightly more complicated process than when I got my high school job at D'Angelos. The rapper came into the label office, there was some conversation, they agreed to sign, some papers were plunked down on the table, a hand moved a pen across a page and boom, just like that they were signed.
A few years professionally working the sidelines of the music industry has taught me just how naive I once was. Signing to a label is more like an athlete being recruited to play for a Division 1 college. Coaches will visit athletes in middle school years before they could ever actually sign them just to establish a connection, begin to build a relationship. If that athlete eventually blows out their knee and never pans out the coach just moves on; no sweat off his back. And if by their senior year in high school they turn out to be the star it once looked like they could become, the coach has already been in their ear for years, convincing them to sign.
Labels often operate in the exact same way. They'll bring in artists for meetings with no real intention of signing them anytime soon; they just want to make sure they've got a hook into anyone who looks like they might someday become someone. And even if that first meeting eventually turns into a more serious meeting, you could still be looking at months and months of talks and periods of silence before a handshake deal happens. And even then the process simply moves to that vast network of lawyers and managers and agents who can spend additional months hammering out contract details. And then the deal is signed and there's the potential for even more waiting before anything is officially announced. To the outside world it looks like a process that came together almost overnight, but internally it can literally be years of an extraordinarily long process, a process fraught with danger and disappointment. I can't even begin to count the number of artists who pulled me aside to excitedly tell me they were about to sign to this label or that label and then those deals never came to fruition. Which is exactly why I was so interested in hearing the nitty gritty details of how Vic came to move into the house that HOV built.
Over the last day or so Vic's done a mini press run where's he spoken a bit about the signing, most notably mentioning that Roc Nation A&R Lenny S. was the catalyst, then Lenny broke down his side of the story via Instagram. But while Vic and Larry had given us some clues, they were still frustratingly short on details. In fact, in some ways, their accounts raised more questions than answers. So while I attempted to see if we could get Vic or his team to tell the story themselves—as of posting this I've exchanged emails and phone numbers with his management asking to talk but they have yet to call—Lucas set out to put together a timeline based solely on the evidence he could dig up on the interwebz.
The (Hypothetical) Vic Mensa x Roc Nation Timeline
May 8th, 2013: Kids These Days Announces Break Up
You can actually pinpoint the moment my heart rips in two. I've always wondered what caused the break-up. After I heard this Roc Nation news, I thought of the whole Mindie phenomenon and wondered what if. While I do think that Vic was the catalyst for the split, I don't at all think it was on account of some Roc Nation exec pulling strings; especially after we've heard the story from both Vic and Lenny.
May 31, 2013: Orange Soda is Released
Vic drops "Orange Soda" and the countdown to INNANETAPE begins. He also hints at interest from labels already with the line, "These labels want to sign me for an arm and a leg." Interesting.
September 24, 2013: Vic Joins Wale and J Cole on Tour in Boston& Meets Lenny S.
In Lenny S' rendition of the tale, he says he first met Vic while he was on tour with J.Cole and Wale n the What Dreams May Come Tour. The only discrepancy here is that while Lenny says they met in Chicago, Vic seems to think it was in Boston. Whatever though, dates get confused, details get blurry. Either way, contact has been made, although Lenny makes it clear that at this point Vic seems pretty thoroughly uninterested in signing.
September 30, 2013: INNANETAPE is Released
Though there are some major features and placements (DJ Dahi, Thundercat, Ab-Soul) there is no evidence this is some part of a secret Roc Nation backed release, especially when you consider some of his lyrics. Take YSNP where he raps, "To bury the bullshit niggas be signing / To be honest yo I told No I.D. that shit wack," referring of course, to signing to a label. If you follow the arc of the story too it confirms INNANETAPE was an indie venture. The project dropped just a week or so after the first day he says he met Lenny S.
October 1, 2013: Vic Makes It Clear He Is Committed To Staying Independent
The "YSNP" sentiments were echoed in a Rolling Stone interview:
"Despite taking meetings with several major labels, including Atlantic Records, Mensa, like his buddy Chance, is in no rush to sign with a label. "That's not really my focus," he says. "It's not a true necessity right now. I have no doubt in my mind that what I'm doing is just something that is gonna catch. People are gonna get it, and they're going to understand it."
February 2014: Lenny meets Vic and his management in New York
In his explanation, Lenny is frustratingly vague with details and timing; next time don't announce major news stories via Instagram captions, ok? After meeting him in September we "flash forward a few months" but how many exactly? He says they met up while Vic was filming Wild'n Out in New York. Judging by Vic's Instagram, it appeared as though that happened in February. Nothing is happening yet in terms of signing and Lenny admits to feeling slighted by Vic and his team. Still, "a few days" later he gives them a call and they continue talking...
March-April 2014: The Grey Area
This is the biggest hole in the story. According to Lenny, after meeting in February, he called them and they "kicked it for months." What the hell does "kick it for months" mean? How many months was it kicked for exactly? Like...two months, or 10 months? Based on the subsequent events, it seems as though they "kicked it" from something like February to May when Lenny says they "shook on it." Following this timeline, it seems that while a handshake deal was in place in late April, nothing was by any means official.
Let me stress this is where we're really just wildly guessing the most.
Monday, May 5, 2014: Vic Meets Jay, Signs to Roc Nation?
In his recounting of the tale, Lenny says the last piece was a meeting with Chaka and Jay. While he doesn't specify, I assume Vic and his team were also there. This seems like the day Vic could have signed. In that same Power 106 interview. Vic discusses meeting Jay for the first time on the day of the infamous elevator fight. The incident occurred after the Met Gala, which was on May 5, 2014.
Now, as Nathan mentioned before though, even if this was when he met with Jay, even if they agreed to sign on this day, that doesn't mean he actually, officially signed. It still could have easily been months left to go...or it could have gone down in May. More question marks.
What's interesting here is that a week and some change after their meeting, Vic Releases "Down On My Luck" which, according to the official YouTube link, is "under exclusive license to Virgin EMI Records, a division of Universal Music Operations Limited." Virgin EMI Records is a Roc Nation distributor in the U.K. If Vic had signed, is that why the video was put out by Virgin EMI? Or, as some had speculated, was that a stand-alone, one song deal? More questions...
Summer of 2014: Rumors That Vic's Signed
When we started reporting on this story, @AaronBoma reached out to say he knew someone, @ColeBennett, who knew Vic was officially signed to Roc Nation as early as the summer of 2014. When we reached out to Cole Bennett, he relayed that Vic's merchandising house had internally been told the deal had been sealed by last summer.
That's a lot of degrees of separation, it's far from unassailable evidence, but in this context, it seemed like it's worth mentioning.
July 22, 2014: Vic Mensa Announces Street Lightz EP Delay via Twitter
Five days before its scheduled release, Vic announces that his Streetlightz EP will not be released and gives no explanation as to why; nor does he announce a new date. Knowing what we know now, and given the curt nature of the tweet, I assume that, at this point, he was signed and Roc Nation was influential in pushing back Street Lightz to an unspecified date. Again, only my assumption.
February 2015: Vic Appears On Kanye West's "Wolves"
After the performance of "Wolves" on SNL, and the debut of the song at the Yeezy Boosts show, Kanye announces that "Wolves," which features Vic will be on his forthcoming album. Kanye working with an artist, especially a (seemingly) indie artist is a giant red flag that something is happening. The Mindie-alert started to go off, but at the time there was nothing to suggest Vic was signed. Looking back, it all makes sense; Kanye is but a degree away from the Roc. If they recorded "Wolves" it would only make sense that "U Mad" was a product of those sessions as well, right?
March 3, 2015: Kanye Joins Vic Mensa Onstage for the live debut of "U Mad"
A month later, Kanye returns the favor, appearing onstage with Vic in London to debut Vic's new effort. Also "U Mad" sounds much better live.
April 10th, 2015: "U Mad" is Officially Released
A week after debuting the song live, "U Mad" is officially released (and I weep for the past) but still no announcement yet. Why not announce the signing with the release of "U Mad?" Also, when was "U Mad" recorded? Does Vic make a song like "U Mad" if he doesn't know it's going to get a big major label push, radio play, etc.?
It's officially announced Vic is the newest Roc Nation artist and the timeline is complete.
UPDATE: This mini-doc of Vic signing to Roc Nation was just released. Looks like...summer?
I can't say that even after all this work we truly managed to nail down the timeline of Vic's signing a whole lot better than before we started. It seems like he signed somewhere in the neighborhood of last summer, but that's only our best guess. Until we hear otherwise, we have to also allow the chance that the "months" Lenny S. mentioned stretched into 2015 and Vic only just recently officially closed the deal.
Putting aside the exact timeline though, my biggest question after diving into the details is what changed for Vic. We do know that in the span of six months or so, between the September release of INNANETAPE to the more serious talks with Lenny in February, Vic went from calling labels "wack" to at least seriously considering signing to the Roc. Why? How? To be clear, we're not calling him a sell out even in the slightest, not at all. We're just curious why and how he changed his mind in such a relatively short time. Also, it's interesting to think that Vic is one of the first artists in a while whose arc followed a more traditional pattern; indie success then major label signing. Who was the last artist to get buzz off of one tape then get signed?
We don't believe Vic was ever a mindie artist in the true sense of the word: an artist who intentionally hid his major label backing to deceive fans. It seems more like his team and Roc Nation took their time in finalizing and accounting the deal, which is its own kind of lesson. So many of the terms we slap on artists—indie and major, new and old, buzzing and flopped, signed and unsigned—have far more to do with our narrow perception of reality than reality.
Maybe someday we'll get the full timeline from Vic himself, maybe not. Either way, we wish him the best at Roc Nation, and the mindie watch continues. Who's up next? Chance?