You can tell a lot about Vic Mensa, the 22-year-old rapper, just from looking at his tattoos. To start, there’s “SOUTH SIDE,” emblazoned in Gothic script across his neck – an homage to where he grew up and still lives in Chicago, just like his collaborators, Chance the Rapper and Kanye West. A little lower down, the phrase “STILL ALIVE,” spelled out with a lightning bolt, stretches across his stomach, a nod to when he was a 17-year old trying to sneak into Lollapalooza, only to fall 30 feet off a bridge and get electrocuted by 15,000 volts of electricity. He had much better luck getting into the festival free of charge the next year: his band at the time, Kids These Days, headlined one of the main stages.
That was not the only time that Mensa’s career, which began when he started sneaking into studios at age 15, moved at lightning speed. After releasing his first mixtape in 2010 and co-founding a hip hop collective with Chance, Mensa graduated high school, recorded more solo music, and toured Europe with Danny Brown. And then? “Kanye hit me up a year and a half ago, and I’ve been working with him since,” Mensa said casually between cigarettes on a rooftop in Bushwick earlier this week.
So far, that alliance has led to appearances on both Saturday Night Live and “The Life of Pablo,” as well as a Grammy nomination. Mensa then also joined the label Roc Nation, which was announced via a video of him signing backstage with Jay Z, plus earned nods of approval from the likes of Beyoncé and Kendall Jenner.
With all that happening, it’s hardly a surprise that Mensa’s barely released his own music in the last few years – something he made up for at midnight this Friday, when he released a seven-song EP aptly titled “There’s A Lot Going On,” a precursor of sorts to an album that’s still “deep in its stages of creation.” “It’s been awhile since I’ve put out music, and I just really had to go through a lot of real life shit to be able to express it,” he said. “I wanted to do this as a gift to the people that have been with me for a long time and just to anybody that wants to listen, and I thought it’d be dope to have an initiative that was bigger than myself."
His language may be a bit flowery, but Mensa stayed true to his word: The EP is free of charge for anyone who’ll pledge or register to vote from now until July 4th, as part of a partnership with the nonprofit Respect My Vote. The songs, too, are filled with sincerity: Mensa recaps his last few years in unflinching detail, with the title track alone tackling going off antidepressants, contemplating suicide, and surviving the “bidding war” of record deals and ensuing writer’s block. Not to mention, of course, the anxiety of both going on SNL and moving into his mother’s basement.
And then there are the politics: His song “16 Shots,” and the cover art he designed, pay homage to Laquan McDonald, the black 17-year-old shot dead by a white Chicago police officer. Another track, “Shades of Blue,” refers to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a city that Mensa has been to twice in the last few months, first for a benefit concert, and then to talk to its citizens and hand out food and water.
In fact, it’s that last trip – not signing with Jay Z, or getting tapped by Kanye – that Mensa points to as the most memorable moment yet of his fast-moving career. “The people have been systematically poisoned for monetary gain by the powers that be,” he explained passionately. Still, he’s hardly lost faith in the system: “In Chicago, Laquan McDonald’s murder was hidden and covered up by the state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, and the mayor, and when it came time to vote, I was back by my mom’s house at those polls, and we voted out the possibility of that state’s attorney returning to office,” he said. “Voting’s not the end-all, be-all, but it is one right that you have as an American citizen that can give you an opportunity to shape the world you live in.”
“I just think there’s an edge of reality that Chicagoans have,” he went on. That the neighborhood tattooed across his neck is the site of many of the shootings that have earned the city its title of America’s mass-shooting capital is no doubt a factor, and one that shows up in the rest of his ink, too: the DARE logo inside one of his wrists, seemingly incongruous with the word “HOOLIGAN” spelled out across his knuckles, which is a nod to his friends in Hyde Park, is in memory of another friend who became a casualty of that violence.
But despite their seriousness, and the careful, deliberating manner he adopts when talking business, Mensa shows his tattoos off with ease in front of the camera, turning up the music before bouncing around shirtless and swinging around both his fists and his dreads. After all, Mensa does have a bit of modeling experience: Alexander Wang hand-picked him for his spring campaign, which he looked quite comfortable in alongside German model Anna Ewers.
In fact, fashion definitely seems to be a part of his future: “I’ve been dressing weird for a long time, just wearing bright fucking clothes and weird shit that people in the hood thought was gay,” he said, pointing to Raf Simons, Helmut Lang, Hedi Slimane and Wang as his favorite designers. “So expressing myself through fashion is pretty natural to me.”His next big-name collaborators, it seems, might be designers rather than rappers (he hinted at a major campaign) though he does have music coming out with Pharrell soon.
Right now, though, he’s focused on Governor’s Ball, which he’s playing solo this weekend. A few days after that, he’s turning 23, though he insists he still feels 19 – or, “living childhood fantasies dealing with grown problems,” as he said on his new title track. "I still get to be a kid every day. I do have to deal with things I didn’t have to when I was 19, but I still get up and make beats and rap, and that’s the shit I’ve been doing since I was 15 years old,” he said, putting out his cigarette and hopping up to squat on a bench. “I think that’s what maybe keeps me in my yout – Y-O-U-T, like Jamaicans say.”