Before joining the DJBooth squad, I spent three years on the digital marketing team at Strange Music, label home to Tech N9ne, ¡MAYDAY! and an ever-growing roster of independent talent. Two of the many valuable lessons I learned during my time with Strange were patience and composure in the face of the internet’s incessant barrage of opinion, which in my case mostly consisted of the sentiment that Tech had “fallen off” because he was no longer compelled to make the dark, brooding music the majority of his fan base had grown up on.
Tech was experiencing the greatest surge in popularity of his career, and his “fans” were digitally shitting on him for not making K.O.D. (a sad-fan favorite) eight more times. It was frustrating to see that people had no real interest in Tech’s growth as an artist or as a person, instead wanting him to stay in the depths of despair and confusion that allowed him to create that work in the first place for their selfish listening pleasure.
Today, however, after giving Vic Mensa’s new EP, The Manuscript, three straight listens, I realized that, at least in the case of Vic, I’ve become the very fairweather fan that would SMH into convulsions while pouring over Tech’s social networks years ago.
I first discovered Vic Mensa through his involvement in the amazing and underappreciated short-lived group Kids These Days, a hip-hop leaning indie band forged from alliances made in Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. On their debut Traphouse Rock, Vic’s energetic, tightly packed lyricism cut through the fuzzy funk and soul of the band like lemon juice in a good Caesar dressing, and after hearing his verse on “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” I was sure I’d found one of my new favorite artists.
Fast forward to 2013. Kids These Days had disbanded, with several of the members going on to form the band Marrow. Vic released his solo debut INNANETAPE, a frenetic release that showed the band dynamic had been muting Vic’s true magnetism the entire time. INNANETAPE was the roughed up, rebellious cousin of Acid Rap; the Rolling Stones to Chance’s Beatles. The bars were tight and plentiful, the production was simultaneously soulful and uptempo, and Vic already seemed to be settling into his artistic groove with just one mixtape.
Vic’s profile deservedly blew up, and as would happen with Chance shortly thereafter, Kanye West took notice of the young Chicago talent. I hate to jump on the “Kanye ruining things” bandwagon, but this is where I began to lose interest in Vic’s music. “U Mad,” an uncharacteristically swagged out single featuring West, marked a startling shift in Vic’s tone, aesthetic and musical direction. At the time, it was too early to tell, but I had a gut feeling that I’d lost the version of Vic that initially captivated me.
Then Vic released the politically-motivated There’s Alot Going On, and I was just plain confused. Vic was edgier, angrier—and for good reason, it should be noted. Vic had increasingly immersed himself in the trenches of racial tension following a string of highly-publicized police murders of Black men, and it had understandably influenced his music and attitude.
There were moments during which the shifting aesthetic suited Vic incredibly well (“16 Shots, “There’s A Lot Going On”), but much of the album felt like Vic was throwing styles against a wall to see what stuck, and again I felt my fandom falter. Here was this young man going through experiences and emotions I could never imagine and achieving career goals that countless rappers would kill for, and yet I sat there dipped in salt because he wasn’t making INNANETAPE again.
On The Manuscript, Vic sounds much more balanced and far less full of contemptuous lava than he did on There’s Alot Going On. The first two songs—“Almost There” and the Pusha T-assisted “OMG”—rekindled my desire for another full-length from Vic, only to be doused by the stagnant water of the final two tracks, which sound like the most uninspired parts of a Kid Cudi-Travis Scott-Drake-Frank Ocean Voltron.
I want to believe my subjective assessment of his music is spot-on, and that Vic is just going in too many different directions to excel at any of them, but regardless, I feel like a shitty fan. I don’t know this guy, I don’t know what the last four years have meant for him. I just know that I miss the Vic that was rapping about orange soda and goofing off with Chance The Rapper, and that’s selfish. Knowing that doesn’t make me like these newer musical offerings any greater, however, and so I’m left to tread water in the wake of the cognitive dissonance that’s left.
I still think it’s important for fans to give their favorite artists room to grow, to mature and to experiment—artists make art to express themselves, (usually) not to pander to the shallow desires of casual listeners. But I also now know, to some extent anyway, what those fans mean when they express near-betrayal at the hands of that very same growth.
Does that make me a terrible fan? Maybe. But like a wise Kanye once said of being self-conscious, “I’m just the first to admit it.”