Chicago is the home of prestigious sons who have left unforgettable marks on hip-hop’s history. The Chi has raised boys into poets who will be remembered for spilling ink into music’s mainstream. Men who lacked the eloquence of a quill gave a raw voice to the violence that was drilled into their lives. Chicago has an unspoken duality when entering hip-hop’s consciousness, where two voices tend to be introduced instead of just one: Lupe Fiasco and Demarco Castle, Kanye West and GLC, Do or Die and Twista, Chief Keef and Lil Reese.
The most recent duo didn’t begin together or cause the jumpstart of each other’s careers, but when the buzz began to truly break through the underground they were viewed as two sides of the same Chicago coin: Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper.
Vic and Chance sprouted from the same city, sharpened their steel in the same group, and began to expand beyond home at the same time. Vic and Chance truly felt like hip-hop’s Trunks and Goten. The duo didn’t last, they weren’t meant to walk the same path, but I’ll never forget the excitement surrounding the two. A new generation was upon us and its leaders had arrived. It would be a waste of words in a Vic Mensa article to recap all that Chance has accomplished since Acid Rap, but he fulfilled the bloggers' premonitions of his preeminence. Now all eyes fall on Vic, the Malcolm X to Chance’s Martin Luther.
Naming his album The Autobiography could very well be a play on his voice and presence as one of the loudest and most outspoken rappers when it comes to police brutality and frustrated Black youth. The teaser EPs have shown a change in style but also growth in spirit, and Vic has never sounded more open and strong-willed. There’s no doubting that Vic Mensa has something to say.
What will he say? That’s the exciting question. Vic doesn’t just want to prove himself, the amount of care that goes into his lyricism has long ago stamped his skill set. My expectations for The Autobiography have grown over the past few weeks; Vic is such an unfiltered rebel that I’m expecting an artist who is unafraid to bare his soul and burn down buildings. A fearless heart is a quality that makes fearless art, and I hope that’s exactly what Vic Mensa has arrived to present us.
In usual 1 Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
1. “Didn’t I (Say I Didn’t)”
Let’s begin. SOUL! The horns have the grace and powerful elegance of Serena Williams on the tennis court. I'm loving it. I can already feel No I.D.’s fingerprints on this one. A door being knocked on. A man’s voice tells Vic to turn down the music. The song that was playing has become a sample, some real soul from the '70s. The kind of music that makes you grow out an afro and watch re-runs of Good Times. Vic just demanded the drums to drop and on cue they fell like light raindrops. Mensa playing off the 'didn’t I' theme. He sounds very comfortable on a beat like this, minimal with no real restriction boxing his flow in. Ray Charles line was cool and I love the Nate Dogg reference. Feeling like the spirit of dropout Kanye is standing over Vic. He has that same passion, tenacity and slight arrogance that his every word is pure and should not be debated. Singing. Don’t love Vic singing that much. Back to the rap. He's reminiscing about family. Speaking to his father it feels like. Yep, this is a really good intro. It takes me back to the soul-sample era of Roc-A-Fella. Restoring the feeling of JAY-Z over “Dear Summer.” “Now I’m suit and tied up without a day in court.” Man, this song sounds like watching the sunrise on an airplane while writing a letter to all your loved ones. The strings are beautiful.
2. “Memories On 47th St.”
The sound of paper flipping transitioned into the next song. Gives the feeling of reading the album like a physical autobiography. The bass just dropped and it's sillier than V.I.C. and Mr. Collipark in 2008. I like how this is building up. Vic speaking about his parents by name. Gun shots and a Tooth Fairy juxtaposition is what I want from Vic. The imagery is nice. Wordplay is nice. Beat is nice. Everything is nice, like living in paradise. “Even as a boy I know I would be the man,” need to trace who said this first. There's a rock vibe to the hook, these vocals are for the lead singer of a band. Lil Vic from 47th is taking us down Memory Lane in the best possible way. First time getting high stories, the stoners will relate. Oh god, that needle story. Pinky & The Brain punch-line. Straight snapping. “Still alive and still ain’t scared,” the way he closed the verse after bringing it back to the fall he took that electrocuted him at Lollapalooza. Liking the amount of power Mensa is able to convey through his vocals when singing the hook. A poem is being delivered while a pen scribbles. Loving it. Feeling very Food & Liquor-esque.
3. “Rollin’ Like a Stoner”
That was short, I’m sad. Vic is currently two for two. The slow piano build-up is calming but also feels misleading… and the drums just hit. Those hard rock drums that make you want to headbutt a foolish mortal in a mosh pit. I've been over rappers making rock star songs since Rebirth. I see the slight appeal in this song, putting Vic alongside all the rock star rappers and the beat is a beast, but the content fails to truly grab me. I do like how Vic turns his excesses and abuse of substances into a song but we have to stop glorifying the behavior as a rock star living. “I got a problem nobody knows” is a sweet homage to Cudi. Probably the last real dope rapper who was able to make stoner songs and people cared. It's catchy. I can imagine this being a cool crossover single if rock radio stations still mattered. Hmm. I’m leaning toward a skip but the drums just dropped and they were hard enough to change my mind. I hate when the good beats are attached to songs I don’t care for.
4. “Homewrecker” ft. Weezer
Confession: I’ve never heard a Weezer song. I know Lil Wayne. I know about the evolved form of Koffing. I don’t know Weezer. Do they have asthma? I like the guitar building up right now. This is a pretty instrumental. Vic repeating a conversation he had with a lover/possible former lover. Ouch, she said she would’ve been better with a regular guy. Love when rappers give the woman a voice even when they don’t use a woman’s voice. I love how he’s using homewrecker in the literal sense, as in someone who is spazzing out. Wait. Dang. Vic was cheating and his girl came home. One girl in the bathroom, one girl swinging at Mensa with a broom. This is an image for the next Tyler Perry script. I wish he would stop calling her crazy because she has every right to be angrier than a bull in a blood neighborhood. The guitar in the beat reminds me of Kanye’s “Big Brother.” I believe Toomp sampled Prince and No I.D. sampled Weezer, dope. “Feel like Love & Hip-Hop should be recording me.” Glad to see Vic was able to calm a tornado. Okay, someone's singing. Assuming that’s Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. His voice is… well, not the highlight. But the end of this beat makes me want to cut a hole in my ceiling and gaze at the stars.
5. “Gorgeous” ft. Syd
Piano keys. Jazzy. Feels like Idlewild and Vic is Percival. Holy shit! THE BASS JUST HIT YOU LIKE A DRUNK DRIVER WHILE SITTING AT A RED LIGHT. YOU DON’T SEE IT COMING BUT YOU FEEL IT. The beat is a behemoth and Vic is singing about loving two women like the world isn’t melting around him. His vocal performance feels Pharrell-esque or maybe I just wish Pharrell would sing it. Loving the second verse flow, Kanye West “Stronger” vibes. “She had a pumpkin ass how could I not smash,” I hate that I laughed. The love triangle trope isn’t new but I like how Vic’s storytelling brings us into the lifestyle of the moderate famous and unfaithful. There are a lot of small details in his lyrics. “Ain’t no such thing as a halfway crook.” Hahaha. The paranoia of having to open your phone knowing it’s full of women but you don’t want your girl to see. Vic just related his girl's rage to Goku’s toughness. He’s a fool to play with her emotions. He’s egging on her crazy. This album is more toxic than the second season’s first episode of Insecure. Nice breakdown. Electric guitar is pure electricity. Forgot all about Syd.
6. “Heaven on Earth” ft. The-Dream
More scribbling. More spoken word. Loving the imagery. He just wrote a letter to a friend who is in heaven. Now he’s rapping to the same young man. Deeply emotional. The beat feels like it was made in a freezer underneath the ice cream. “Everytime I run through your number in my phone I’m thinking about bullet holes running through your dome,” DAMN. The Macklemore bar! SHEESH. Vic will give you quotables on the verge of tears. Loving how he’s giving us so much of himself. Oh shit. Is the second verse a response? This is chilling and beautiful. Reminds me of all those Tupac songs when he talks about heaven. CRAZY! He’s using his homie to voice so much about himself. This is wonderful songwriting. Third verse is another person but an unnamed street guy. The storytelling! The woman on the phone. This is GREAT. A street guy is articulating the kind of life the unnamed street guy is living. A lick. He brings you all the way into this story. OH SHIT. This is the guy who killed his homie. MANNNNN. This got dark, real dark.
7. “Card Cracker” (Skit)
I know this guy's voice. He’s a comedian. God, I can’t think of who he is. But I KNOW HIS VOICE. This is going to kill me. He’s a dark-skinned guy. Deep voice. Used to have a tonight show. His name is...I could draw him in a line-up but I don’t know his name and this is going to eat at me all album. But this skit was pretty funny/amusing.
8. “Down for Some Ignorance (Ghetto Lullaby)” ft. Chief Keef & Joey Purp
This is probably the song I've been anticipating the most. So glad Vic reached back home and got Keef to contribute to the album. Alright. Loving the build-up. Auto-Tune vocals. Deep bassline. Already sounds like the song I’m trying to pump my fist to. Drums dropped and this feels like music you commit acts to that will put you on CNN. Loved the Vic verse. Ready to rewind it. Don’t love the heavy reverb on his vocals for the hook. This is like if Kendrick’s “Art Of Peer Pressure” wasn’t about home invasion but to commit violent acts against enemies. Song construction is one of Vic’s best qualities. Deep down I wish this song was built like Young Chop 2012 drill but it’s dark and demented enough to convey what the rhymes are saying sonically. So I guess that was Keef at the beginning of the song who did the harmonizing? I was hoping he would’ve had a verse, his contribution is more like a bridge and hook. The sound of rewinding.
9. “Coffee & Cigarettes”
The Autobiography flows really well. Some of the smoothest transitions I've heard all year. Melodic Vic. His voice is so gentle. The wobbling synth sounds like it's been drinking all night. It sounds like a poetic love letter. I can’t stress enough how much I like his songwriting on this one. He’s pouring his entire soul into this one. Alt-rock rap music. “Wish you loved me as much as weed,” oh man now that is someone who is truly rolling like a stoner. “I hope your sister doesn’t grow up as fucked up as you did” could be taken all the way wrong. Whoever this woman was it sounds like she was living young, wild and free. Rapping Vic. Women are the muse of many Vic Mensa songs. “I'm the best at turning a good girl crazy” is such a cool way of flipping the good girl gone bad image. A song about the first love that crushed him. She was 17. You never forget the first love or the first heartbreak. Cool to hear her immortalized. Strings feel very Dark Twisted Fantasy. Skewered vocal samples.
10. “Wings” ft. Pharrell Williams & Saul Williams
Gorgeous production. You can hear all the colors that can be seen in Pharrell’s grill. Personal rhymes. Vic is in his bag, deep. You can hear it in the delivery, razor sharp. Beat switch is like a heartbeat racing, flow switch is keeping up with the pace. Love the tempo change, wooooo. You can almost hear Vic breaking a sweat keeping that rapid flow going. I would love to hear some of the new Chicago kids incorporating classic twisting in their songs but that’s a selfish request. Verse two is living up to the album title. “Self-destructive habits.” Vic's giving a voice to the voices in his head is HEAVY. Second verse of “Wings” is Vic’s “u.” Nothing will give me chills like “God himself will say you failed” but “climb the tallest building and spread your wings” is CLOSE. Such a good song. By far one of Vic’s best. He has mastered the art of making each personal line strike a personal chord. You feel the weight of each line.
11. “Heaven on Earth” (Reprise)
More scribbling. Vic is talking about a gun in his voice and an empty bottle of Hennessy. A message about his near-suicide attempt. I don’t love this beat but I’m willing to tolerate a spoon being knocked against a lunchroom table to hear what Vic is about to say. Singer? The-Dream! He sounds like he’s a spirit. The way his voice sounds weightless is dope. “Things we lost in the fire.” Don’t know why but I feel like The Weeknd is somewhere wishing he wrote this. Gives me early Abel vibes. Beat is growing on me.
12. “The Fire Next Time”
Continuing the theme of fire. Title of a renowned James Baldwin novel. Also, read more James Baldwin. Nice hook. Tell them how you can’t be stopped, Vic. I love how after such a serious moment we hear how Vic rises from the ashes. Haha, the Rocky line is all about how it was delivered. The basslines on this album will make the Loch Ness monster feel less monstrous. I wonder what the sample is? The song is getting bigger. I hope they got a choir for this. Ha. Loving the humor and confidence that you can feel in Vic’s lyricism. “I dress like Project Runway meets the project.” Hearing some excellent rapping. Music that make you excited to hit rewind. By far some of the best lyrics on the album and one of the best songs.
13. “We Could Be Free” ft. Ty Dolla $ign
This is the last track on the basic version of the album. I say that to say this: the album doesn’t drag. Loving the length. Back to the song. Vic is singing. He mentioned his parents on the second track and mentions them at the end. We all want to retire our parents, real goals. “Spent so much time counting issues I forget to count my blessings” is one of the truest lyrics said in 2017. WOOO. Those drums came and went. Ready for them to drop. Vic Mensa has the voice of an angel who likes a little too much whisky. Some of these beats could be Instagram models. The second verse already sounds better than the first and the first is better than damn good. Music you better feel unless your heart was surgically removed. This kid is GOOD! WOOOO now that was a powerful high note. Ty Dolla came in on the backend with THE SOUL. Ty Dolla sounding like a one-man choir. So much soul, so much power. Okay, I’m in church guys. All the way in church. We don’t deserve Ty Dolla.
14. “Rage” (Bonus)
I don’t remember hearing this one before the album. Originally, Vic Mensa said that “Rage” was a forthcoming single Beyoncé loved. Was it ever officially released as a single? I might’ve missed that. More powerful singing. Strong beat, feels like Thor slamming his hammer against steel. I wish he put this on the album proper instead of as a bonus. It feels like it would fit the narrative and flow well with the rest of the music. Words of a man falling apart. There's so much pain in the soul of these Chicago kids. They deserve all the success and happiness coming their way. Heavy piano keys with these ass-kicking drums. Cringing every time Vic has mentioned putting the pistol in his mouth. Chilling imagery. Lil Vic from 47th is giving a voice to where he’s from. I haven’t heard a Kid These Days record in a long time but songs like this remind me why Vic Mensa would be a great lead vocalist in a band. Must do my homework sometime this weekend. Closing breakdown reminds me of Yeezus a bit. Really good song.
15. “OMG” ft. Pusha T (Bonus)
Oh, Pharrell LACED him! He doesn’t even need a tag, the beat sounds like it was emailed from Neptune. Vic Mensa, the third Clipse member? I’m kidding. Don’t kill me. But he would have been an excellent G.O.O.D. Music member. I understand why Jay and Ye did a bit of tug-of-war over Vic. Love the hook, it’s so abrasive. I feel like a cowboy ready to cut down a door with a 40-gallon hat. Can we get Pharrell to produce an entire EP with Mensa? The way he’s flowing is ridiculous. At this point, I’m just waiting for Pusha to put the nail in this coffin. KING PUSH! He sounds so relaxed. Pusha T raps like he has never had a worry in his entire life. “We can go foreign for foreign until it’s boring,” ha, this is the new 'big bank take little bank.' The Wale and Lauryn lines are great. Pusha laced young Vic.
I’m a believer that rappers spend their entire lives writing their debut album. Of course, a debut carried more weight before the internet, when your first project was truly an introduction to the world.
Most rap fans will say they got acquainted with Vic Mensa years ago when blogs were ranting and raving about this skilled emcee from Chicago. But it feels good to say The Autobiography feels like Vic's real introduction. INNANETAPE was like shaking his hand; The Autobiography is hearing his story straight from the man himself.
The project is about him, his home, and the thoughts that weigh upon his soul. It gives the purest illustration, a portrait that he’s been drawing since his birth.
There are nine features on the album, but none of them create unnecessary clutter. Vic carefully selected the voices to assist his storytelling. Production is mostly superb, a mix of light soul and edgy melancholy. The album never gets too dark or too light, it’s balanced because life is balanced. Even the darkest days are greeted by the brightness of a sunrise. Old flames are brought back to life while dead friends are immortalized in letters to heaven.
Vic shows his strength as a storyteller, and some of the best moments are the ones that leave you wanting to know what happens next. He’ll be praised for all the punchlines and quotables but when Vic flexes the pen of a budding author, he receives my highest praise.
The Autobiography delivers the bloggers' premonitions of his gifts. Vic Mensa had a lot to say and he said it with vigor, passion and unfiltered rawness. JAY-Z has once again put the spotlight on a star just waiting to shine.
Shine on Vic Mensa, shine on.
Early Favorites: "Wings," "Heaven on Earth," "Memories On 47th St."
Early Not-So-Favorites: "Rollin' Like a Stoner"
By Yoh, aka Yoh Thesse Days, aka @Yoh31