Photo: Jared Siskin/WireImage.com
Vic Mensa Talks Chicago, Jay Z, And What He Taught No. I.D.
Vic Mensa's ascension to becoming one of rap music's ones to watch has been many things: controversial, sporadic, fascinating. From his inclusion in XXL's Freshman Class of 2014 to the recent release of his No I.D.-executive produced-debut album, The Autobiography, it is clear that the 24-year-old Chicago rapper is musically magnetic. So it's not a surprise that he's winning over fans and critics alike. But who's the guy Jay Z dubbed "a once in a lifetime artist"?
We caught up with the Roc Nation rapper to get to peel back the layers to get to know the man behind the art.
Who came up with the concept for the album art on The Autobiography? But more importantly who cleaned the place up afterward?
Actually, it was a set that I had built on a stage in a theater, and it was supposed to be me in the middle of chaos writing my way out of it. And it took inspiration from a song on the album called "Homewrecker" that I sampled [from] Weezer. In the song my apartment gets trashed, and so I wanted to show a trashed apartment and put myself in the middle of it, and really kind of portray how I was using these songs to describe my immediate surroundings.
You've said the current list of rappers talking about "something that means anything" is few and far between. Who are three rappers who are putting out substantive music right now?
Kendrick [Lamar], J. Cole and Jay Z.
Speaking of Jay Z, he has said that you are "a once in a lifetime artist." Do you feel that has put added pressure on you? Or is it just more fuel to be great?
Jay Z has been a really big influence to me far before I ever met him, and one of the nicest writers to ever grace a mic, so … "Blessed" is the word I'd use to describe that.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, you mentioned that you learned the most from working with No I.D. What's the biggest thing you think he learned from working with you?
(laughs) He probably learned to make sure all the doors are closed in the studio so that the next room over wouldn't be upset about noise, and he would probably say he learned to lock the doors too for hangers-on, and people that just show up unannounced (laughs).
Do you think that Chicago is on the verge of becoming one of rap's capital cities on the same level of Los Angeles and New York?
I would say Chicago is 100% already there. I think Chicago is pretty much the rap capital at this point in time.
Chicago is often portrayed as a war-torn city full of violence and unrest. Being someone who is from the city, what is Chicago really like?
Chicago is complicated and complex and very violent but also very rich with history and tradition and art and culture — it's all these things. I think the issue is that it's often characterized as being only violent. I can't even sugarcoat it and say that it's not violent and dangerous, but it's also very segregated. You can live an entire lifetime in Chicago and not hear a gunshot, but if you go in a certain neighborhood then you can live your whole lifetime hearing gunshots all the time.
You have been very candid about dealing with depression. Few rappers have gone there publicly. Why was it important for you to speak out on that?
I have a lot of kids that reach out to me and they tell me my music helped them through a difficult time, or in more dramatic situations, be like, "your music kept me from killing myself," When you're talking to 15 [and] 16-year-old kids that are dealing with these serious, serious mental issues and situations — and being a kid that dealt with those things at a younger age, and deals with them at an older age — I think that it's of paramount importance to erase the shame and the stigma around talking about it because if we don't identify the problem then we can't heal. So I try to be transparent and vocal about the things that I've gone through in efforts to grow myself and also to help other people that may not feel like it's ok for them to talk about it.
Outside of music, what's your favorite hobby?
I'm really into vintage clothes. So I've been … vintage shopping and kind of adding and reconstructing things and just doing a little bit of designing.
We hear you have a black belt. Do you ever get to use it?
It's been a long time since I was in a karate class, but I did Korean martial arts when I was a kid into adolescence, and it's been some years since I used it though. ... I'm on a different vibe these days. I'm like trying to not take things personally and let people's bull**** bounce off of me, so I'm not really kicking people in the face too much anymore
If you won a GRAMMY, where would you keep it?
I like the story about Bon Iver. They said he kept his GRAMMY in, like, the basement bathroom so he could just focus on getting another one. If I won a GRAMMY, I'd probably keep it at my mom's house on 47th Street.