Acid Rap was one of the best things about 2013; stunningly vibrant music that alerted us to the talent of Chance the Rapper. And in posse cut, “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” it shone a light on Vic Mensa too, who was able to match Chance’s word-play while keeping with Chance’s lyrical themes. Vic Mensa released his own mixtape that year, INNANETAPE, which contained a few tracks worth keeping (“Tweakin’”, for hearing Vic channel everyone from Earl Sweatshirt to Eminem; “RUN!”, for a sprinting beat and urgent hook to match the title).
Because Mensa’s talents displayed then were somewhat modest, “Down on My Luck” seemed to come out of nowhere, one of the best songs (and music videos) of 2014. Put it this way: Azealia Banks’ Broke With Expensive Taste was a great collection of hip house songs…none except the one that everyone already knew could match “Down on My Luck” (“She loves to dream, living in and off and out her mind/ In space and time, she takes a line & lies her life / Away you might just say she stays to go nowhere” packs so much into a house song). And one year later, a rousing collaboration with Kanye West in “U Mad”; between his Chicago origins, hip house and trap rap, that Vic Mensa could rap over anything, especially when backed by a major record label.
Vic Mensa’s long overdue debut album proves otherwise, even if 2016’s There’s Alot Going On didn’t already suggest it. Hard to imagine an album containing a (once-)worthy talent like Mensa, with support from Pharrell Williams and The-Dream, and executively produced by No I.D. could be this underwhelming. Especially when the lyrics are – as the title suggests – deeply personal: Mensa details suicidal thoughts on both “Heaven on Earth” (from the eyes of a departed friend) and “We Could Be Free” (which also continues There’s Alot Going On’s political themes, “You fools, saying ‘all lives matter’ / But it’s black lives you refuse include”). Elsewhere, a song like “Rage” (originally available with two others songs here as part of The Manuscript EP) can’t sustain interest past 5 minutes, but you can’t deny Mensa’s heart is in the right place. And the producers manage some gold: the revolving door of soul samples on “Say I Didn’t”; Pharrell’s Eastern-tinged guitar on “OMG.”
But the problems just keep coming: the exaggerated synth blasts of “Gorgeous” sound clumsy (witness how they sound coming out of the piano intro), to say nothing of the unfortunate under-use of the Internet’s Syd (returning the favor for Mensa’s feature on Ego Death). Speaking of, he similarly grabs Ty Dolla $ign to do very little on closer “We Could Be Free” (maybe hearing Ty Dolla $ign recently elevating the choruses of another closer has left me wanting something similar). Elsewhere, Vic Mensa’s breakdown on “Wings” sounds eerily similar to Kendrick Lamar’s breakdown in the first verse of “u”, which won’t be the first time that Vic Mensa has sounded exactly like another rapper.
And speaking of Kendrick, “Rollin’ Like a Stoner” is supposed to be something similar to “Swimming Pools (Drank)”: a track that advises on the method of escapism disguised as a frat-party anthem. Except, you know, Mensa ain’t Kendrick and isn’t able to convey the same message with more words. It doesn’t help that the heavily auto-tuned choruses just sound lame, whereas the dark backdrop of Kendrick Lamar commanding “drank” made it seem like you were falling in slow motion. Elsewhere, in much the same way the U2 feature on Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN turned out to be a non-descript Bono singing a few lines, “Homewrecker” “features” Weezer.
And while Mensa’s flow is capable enough (especially on the opening two tracks, which are some of the album’s best), he also indulges in some painfully cheesy lines, from references to television shows long dead (“Tryna take over the world like Pinky and the Brain”) no matter how ham-fisted (“If she see her name, she get Goku tough”). And the “smashing” of a “pumpkin ass” on “Gorgeous” is the least of our worries considering the build-up to the Victoria Secret line that falls flat nearly right before it (“She got expensive taste in lingerie / She say it’s too hard to keep it / Oops, we just dropped Victoria Secret”).
It all results in Vic Mensa trying to balance between the punchline rapper and the introspective one and doing neither particularly well, especially when compared to the artists that he wants to be compared with. I suppose it’s to be expected from someone who spent years showcasing his omnivorous appetite (or his malleable personality, depending on where you stand). The Autobiography has enough good in it that it hasn’t put me off listening to Mensa’s next project, but it certainly has made me more cautious.