Vic Mensa on Jay-Z tour, new album, and beyond

Since 2013’s Innatape, Vic Mensa’s self-produced debut mixtape, the Chicago rapper’s career has skyrocketed.

The 24-year-old has toured with J. Cole and Justin Bieber, collaborated with Coldplay and Skrillex, and been nominated for a Grammy.

Mensa founded the SaveMoney collective - which includes fellow Windy City native Chance The Rapper, signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, and performed with Kanye West and Sia on Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary.

He also released a pair of EPs and the aforementioned mixtape. And last July, he released his debut studio album, The Autobiography. Intensely introspective and political, the 13-track collection also boasts collaborations with Weezer, Pharrell, Syd, and Ty Dolla $ign.

For the last few months, Mensa has served as the opening act on Jay-Z’s North American 4:44 Tour.             

PACIFIC recently caught up with him before a performance at Portland’s Moda Center to discuss what it’s like to open for a mentor, the reasons behind making such a deeply personal album, and more.

PACIFIC: This tour is coming to a close soon. What can you say about the experience thus far?

VIC MENSA: Well, it’s like a sports season where you really hit a rhythm and start to get to peak form. That’s where I feel like I’m at with it right now.

You had a relationship with Jay-Z before this tour. But that’s different than opening 30-something dates. Did you have any trepidation going into it?

I didn’t have trepidation. I just wanted to do the best performances that I could. I wanted to create the most compelling set that I could. So I made sure that I reached out to people in my close circle that are amazing musicians. I’m blessed to work with some of the best that do it. My friend (Chicago producer) Peter Cottontale MDs (music directs) my show and we made it into a kind of journey. It’s very cinematic and theatrical.

You’ve had a somewhat crazy journey of your own to get here.

I’ve been doing it for a long time. But the craziness, really for me, has taken more shape in real life — behind the scenes. And that’s what I drew on to make The Autobiography. And what makes it makes it compelling is that it’s not the hustle-grind in the music industry, it’s real, life-like, hectic situations.

It certainly allows listeners a completely unedited view into your life. After all of the music you’ve made, it seems strange to call it your debut. But it’s definitely a comprehensive and representative collection.

That’s the reason I really took some time in making it. I’ve made these other bodies of work and they didn’t feel completely representative of what I wanted to say or how I wanted to leave a footprint. But I wanted the “debut” studio album to really encapsulate my life up to this point and be a clear channel to the things I stand for and are important to me — along with the experiences that have shaped me, struggles that have haunted me, aspirations that have driven me, and the loves that have broken me - all these things.

Are there sections of your life that are off limits? Or does it all go out there?

The way that I’ve approached it is that nothing is off limits. My opinion on that has gotten me in trouble, damaged relationships, and turned police forces against me. But … F**k ‘em.       

Can’t imagine the next record being all about poppin’ bottles, but has opening up so extensively made you at all cautious about it moving forward?

Lately, something I’ve been exploring in my music, still from my perspective, is talking about some of the other parts of my life, too. I do pop bottles (laughs). I pop bottles. I pop models. There are different sides to every coin and story.

With this album, I made a very conscious and concerted effort to focus on the things that are most important to me — my upbringing in Chicago; an empathetic view to violence in the streets; drug addiction; mental heath. Serious topics.

I’ve been having more fun with the music I’ve been making recently. But I have fun with it all. The creative process is so visceral and real. It’s exciting for me. But I also like to go to the club.

Is the cover of your album representative of the process while making it?

It took a lot (laughs). It did take a lot of tries to get it done.

You have a studio on the bus. Are you just capturing ideas or do you have something specific in the works?

I’m working on the next thing — with intent. Actually, I’m working on a few next things. 

For so long, Chicago wasn’t really part of the hip-hop conversation. Now it’s exploded and you’re a big part of that.

You know, I like how artistic movements grow and fester where the first sore is exposed. Chicago music is like pain. So it really is an exposed wound. And it’s contagious.

Chicago is now in a place where we’re influencing global culture to a level that’s unrivaled by any place other than maybe Atlanta. Chicago has less of an infrastructure, so it just took longer to get its footing in hip-hop. But it’s a special time. And I don’t see it stopping. We’re here for good now.

Vic Mensa with Jay-Z

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19

Where: Viejas Arena, 5500 Canyon Crest Drive, SDSU

Cost: $29-$175

Online: as.sdsu.edu/viejas_arena

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