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How Chicago Rap Phenom Vic Mensa Cheated Death and Charmed Kanye

The rising star on skate culture, police brutality and his alliances with hip-hop royalty

As a teenager, Vic Mensa nearly died twice. Fifteen thousand volts of electricity shot through him after he fell off a 30-foot bridge while sneaking into Lollapalooza. The day after he spent three nights in a hospital, he flew to New York City for a meeting with Atlantic Records.

Two years later, he drove home after a long night in the studio. A wheel on his mom’s car hit a pole on the expressway, causing the vehicle to spin out, leaving it totaled. “Those are the reasons why I got ‘Still Alive’ tattooed on my stomach. I say that knowing it’s not a coincidence that I’m still alive. I’m still alive to change the world and to do things that are significant. I don’t know what they all may be, but I was put on this earth for a reason.”

At 22, Mensa is living a young rapper’s fantasy. Backed by the most famous hip-hop moguls alive, Kanye West and Jay Z, and grounded by indie credibility, Mensa has had the distinct joy of both gaining international success and acclaim, and seeing his friends — like Chance the Rapper and the rest of the Savemoney crew — rise as well.

A performance of the melancholy “Wolves” at the SNL 40 special alongside West and Sia exposed Mensa to an audience beyond hip-hop heads and Chicagoans. His video for “U Mad,” another collaboration with West, has racked up 7 million views on YouTube, and he’s found an entry into the world of EDM thanks to the Skrillex-assisted “No Chill.” 

When performing live, Mensa spews quick-witted, fast-paced rhymes, whipping himself across the stage in a blast of excitement and rage. But over the phone, on his way to Montreal for a show, he speaks slowly about his childhood and success, carefully choosing each word. “I believe that everything happens for a reason,” he says earnestly. “[Meeting Jay Z] was definitely a moment where I felt like certain stars were aligning, and I was in the right place. Even working with Kanye West has been one of those moments. I think the fact that I met the people that I met that formed Savemoney were things that happened for a reason. We didn’t meet as a rap group; we just met as pure friends. Most people’s friends can’t rap like that.”

Mensa, like the rest of Savemoney and his mentor, Kanye West, grew up on Chicago’s South Side. “I was, in a lot of ways, cut from a similar cloth,” he says of his similarities with West. “My parents are educators, but I fucked around in the streets. I grew up on the same streets that [he] rapped about, and he was fresh. I could just relate heavily. When I started writing my own raps, I started writing shit that people could relate heavily to.”

In his Hyde Park neighborhood, Mensa found freedom in street culture. Comparing himself to Lee Quiñones from Wild Style, he describes how he was drawn to skateboarding and graffiti as a child. “I still have a skater mentality,” he reflects. “We always had to break into skate spots, just to have fun. I feel like my success with this music shit is like, ‘To do it our way, we always have to jump the fence.’ Graffiti influences all the art that I make [as well as] my rebel mentality.”

From there, he found his way into the rap scene, deciding that music would be his chosen path at the age of 15. A year later, he joined Kids These Days and had his first taste of success. The seven-piece indie band, which also included Donnie Trumpet mastermind Nico Segal, became a soul-rock festival favorite after the release of their 2011 EP, Hard Times. The following year, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy put his support behind them and produced their only album, Traphouse Rock. “Jeff Tweedy’s fresh, but I didn’t really know about him before that,” Mensa recalls. “He’s a musical genius, a twisted genius.”

But Kids These Days’ lifespan was short. They broke up in 2013, split apart by musical differences. Still, the band taught Mensa “how to scream, to be heard,” and his 2013 mixtape, Innanetape, made his voice even louder. Alongside Chance and Chief Keef, Mensa helped give Chicago’s hip-hop scene an even broader platform. The city was experiencing a rap renaissance of sorts, along with a tragic wave of crime, resulting in heavy numbers of violent deaths of young people of colour. Those on the outside focused on the music, while kids like Mensa and Keef lived with the dark reality every day.

“Sometimes I tug back and forth with the thought of fate and preordained destiny when I think about friends of mine who lost their lives prematurely,” he says solemnly. “Nineteen years old and stabbed to death. Twenty-five years old and shot. Some things happen for a reason and others just happen. I do believe my stars have aligned the way they have for a purpose.”

While performing at the Mad Decent Block Party tour stop in Brooklyn this past August, Mensa debuted a DIY “Fuck Police” bulletproof vest. It also happened to be the one-year-anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder, a mere coincidence according to Mensa. The sentiment has simply become a daily reflection for him. “I’ve been harassed by police my whole life and seen people who looked like me treated like animals at the hands of law enforcement. That’s how I feel: Fuck police. I see the news every fucking day. Police officers are killing black kids every day and never going to jail. In our system, it doesn’t matter what evidence there is behind a situation. The institution of police, of law enforcement, is crooked, criminal and held unaccountable.”

These sentiments have begun to come out in Mensa’s music. “U Mad” and “No Chill” are aggressive turns from 2014’s breezy, house-inflected “Down on My Luck,” the first official single off his long-awaited debut album Traffic, which still has no definite release date. He attributes the shift to “dealing with shit,” and sees the rest of his new music as having “a little more energy and raw aggression” than “U Mad” and “No Chill.”

“The sun shines every day, and I remember that,” he adds. “But niggas been having a hard time recently. I see it every day on the news [and] with just close people to me. The real world is catching up to them and making them into what they don’t want to be. I feel like very much a product of Chicago’s streets, so I gotta feel both sides of that. I gotta feel the beauty of the lakefront on a summertime day, and I also gotta feel the pain of my friend who got robbed at gunpoint last night. There’s just a danger. I feel all those things.”

Two years after Mensa’s car accident, Kanye West discovered the young MC through producers Michael Uzowuru and Om’Mas Keith, who played their music for the older rapper during a meeting about his own highly anticipated album Swish. “Kanye heard my voice and didn’t really know about me before that,” Mensa explains. “He thought I was fresh and wanted me out there, so I jumped on the plane.”

While at Coachella, Mensa’s signing to Roc Nation kicked into gear, and he filmed a guest appearance in Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé’s “Feeling Myself” video. “I met B through Jay. She told me she really liked what I did on [Kanye West’s] ‘Wolves,’ and then she heard a song of mine from Traffic called ‘Rage.’ She said she loved it and said she wants to do work with me.'”

While Mensa is a firm believer in opportunity, he is also realistic. The circumstances that brought him into the same arena as West, Jay Z and Beyoncé weren’t entirely accidental. “I never look at it as if any of my successes were given to me through fate,” he says. “Getting record deals, making the songs I’ve made, having fans and working with the people I work with aren’t chance. I know that dedication and work have gotten me to where I am and will get me to where I wanna go.”

With such powerful fans, the young rapper has become more aware than ever of the pitfalls accompanying the sharp rise in his star power. “I have people who only know about me because of Jay Z and Kanye West [and] don’t really know shit about me,” he reflects. But like those mentors, Mensa has a vision. “When I put this music out, it’ll clear the air and show people for who they really are. I don’t give a fuck about the industry or media’s acceptance of me. I really make music from the heart. And man, if you don’t feel me, fuck you. If you fuck with me, I’ll fuck with you.”