“Do you believe in magic? I know I do / Only thing better than dreamin' is seein' it all come true” —Vic Mensa, “Magic” 

Vic Mensa is one of the few artists who can walk the line between mutable and concrete with relative finesse. Since his debut mixtape, Straight Up, and in the eight years to follow, Mensa has morphed his sonics to match his external identity. His creative direction is sharp. Nearly a decade in the game, Vic has embodied each chapter of a Chicago coming-of-age story, and grown into a storied activist and agent of change. While his discography is an impassioned tell-all of life in his city, no one project captures the unique dreamer spirit of Chicago quite like Mensa’s 2013 mixtape, his attempt at an Illmatic, INNANETAPE.

On INNANETAPE, Vic Mensa’s bubbling and spastic youth made him electric. Piercing inflections (“Tweakin’”) and frenetic beat switches (“YNSP”), paired with his sobering commentary on police brutality (“Yap Yap”), greed (“Time Is Money”), and all manner of emotional unrest (“Holy Holy”), made the tape a ripe vignette of the still-misunderstood city through the eyes one of its golden sons. Mensa would go on to have myriad identities outside of the project, but the beauty of INNANETAPE was that it brought to light Vic Mensa, the dreamer.

A younger and sprier Mensa opens his summer-to-fall opus with a question: “Where to begin?” Really, then, the project begins with an imperative. Mensa isn’t rapping for his life so much as he is rapping to define it. Looking at the cover, we see a young Vic Mensa in transition as he is clearly coming into focus. Watching the accompanying music videos, we see Vic as limber, carefree, and playful as he loads up his bong with orange ice cubes. The DIY spirit of 2013 had Vic showing us exactly where he was, but also gave him the space to develop a picture of where he wanted his career to go as he grew into a man of the hour.

Without question, INNANETAPE was momentous for Mensa, but his assertive personality on wax was a byproduct of losing his way in 2012 when his traphouse rock band Kids These Days split. “The band breaking up when it did, honestly, only pushed me further in the direction I was already leaning on a personal level,” Mensa told Noisey in 2013. We can hear that lean instantly, in the hounding tone of “Welcome to INNANET,” as he spits, “Like do or die, ain't this some shit / Volume on 10 turn my shit up, they fist go pump like pistol grip / That Vic he stay up in some shit.” Vic is a dreamer, but what’s a dream without looming existential dread? Simple happenstance.

Speaking with Interview Magazine in 2013, Mensa communicated as much when discussing his future and destiny. “There’s a lot of times when I feel nihilistic, and lose hope, like I’m just lost in the world,” he said. “But there’s a lot of times when I can kinda be in control of destiny. Sitting around on your ass ain’t gonna bring you to any type of destiny. I mean, you can make that decision, to just laze out, chill, sell drugs, whatever. Bullshit your life away. But you can also make the decision to set yourself up for what the fuck you want. And if you know what you want, and if you believe in what you want, and it happens, then maybe that’s destiny.”

In that way, INNANETAPE traverses all sides of destiny and dreams. Take the standout “Orange Soda,” which is equal parts hunger and fear. In one verse, Vic Mensa the dreamer fends off exploitive labels and relishes his independence, while also wishing to peer into the future and uncover some sense of security. There’s a wonderful honesty to this, because as INNANETAPE carries the potential to inspire, never does it sound like Vic Mensa is trying to sell you false hope, or sell you anything for that matter. Inspirational music can often tread slimy and trite, but Mensa remains rooted in a reality where the only shine comes from his own natural excitement for the future. It’s sweet, and the furthest from nefarious.

The sonics, too, are dreamy in their own right and to a clear point. Mensa summons and maintains moods well, none of which are inaccessible or aggrandized. Sure, a track like “Lovely Day” finds us atop the world, but in the way that we all feel like royalty after that first early morning stretch. All of INNANETAPE plays in the fairy-drawn liminal space between summer and fall. Sweet singing from Vic and the frequent padding of programmed vocal choirs and soul samples work in tandem with crisp kicks and taut snares to draw the line between the seasons before exploring the divide for all its worth.

We can hear this divide in the way Mensa’s voice strains and cracks on “Fear & Doubt.” We can hear it in the husky “This is me at the end of the day” spoken-word close of the track, as Vic attempts to bare his soul while believing in the future. “Time Is Money” also tackles the grimacing angle of dreams and how they have the potential to corrupt us should they come true. The hook is less so catchy and more so a lifestyle mantra: “Make money, but the money you make don’t make you” repeated with fervor by an artist eager to get their cut of the hip-hop pie. INNANETAPE is in the business of striking careful and truthful balances, something Mensa remains focused on to this day, recently telling Ssense: “I think honesty is paramount to strength. My experiences gave me something to say.”

At the center of Mensa's dreamer identity, we have the wispy and blossoming “Magic.” There’s a simple, if not naïve, sweetness to “Magic,” wherein Vic rattles off the wistful pleasures of his youth and career. The list-form of the track, the brotherhood that comes by way of mentioning Chance The Rapper in jest and reminiscing on early days with Nico Segal, gives “Magic” all the bones of an I-made-it record. Though INNANETAPE decidedly broke Vic Mensa, at the time of writing “Magic,” it was a strictly fanciful tune. Wonder blooms amidst that dichotomy, proving prophecy can be endearing when done right.

Yet, “Magic” is not without foil. The soul of the album flourishes in full on the final track, “That N****.” The horns are ceremonious, the marching drums follow suit, and Vic’s delivery is at peak levels of fastidiousness. Particularly, the closing monologue of the album—also presented as a list, but now of Mensa’s near-death experiences and dramatic lows—is still delivered with the self-effacing candor and comedy of a quaint stand-up special. 

All of this is to say: trials aside, Vic Mensa arrived.

In the months to follow, Vic Mensa the dreamer made his dreams come true. INNANETAPE was critically acclaimed, awarded the highest honor of “Free Album” from HipHopDX. Rolling Stone named INNANETAPE one of 2013’s 10 Best Mixtapes of the Year. He signed with Roc Nation and released the debut album he needed to make. Now he’s on to making punk music. Critical assessments and tastes aside, Vic Mensa took off in 2013 and has had creative control ever since: that’s the stuff of dreams.

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