On the opening track of his debut album, Vic Mensa takes the listener back to his childhood bedroom where he’s drowning in music-making. His creative process is interrupted by his father banging on his door: “Victor. Turn down the music, you have school tomorrow…You’re spending too much time in the studio.” Despite pressure from a caring dad, Mensa is too focused on his dreams. “Didn’t I tell you we was gon’ make it to the top n*gga?” he spits. He was always sure of the success he is now living. What he didn’t see coming were the growing pains he’d endure while ascending to fame in his late teens and early 20s.
Mensa began taking music seriously as part of the band Kids These Days from 2009 to 2013. “I started realizing my talents ‘bout the time I was 15,” he rapped on “Memories on 47th St.” After going solo, he signed to Roc Nation and had stamps of approval from hip hop’s finest including Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Common. On the surface, he was on the up and up, but on the inside, he spiraled down a path of prescription pill addiction, dysfunctional relationships, and suicidal thoughts. On the soulful, detailed, and passionate The Autobiography, Mensa offers a vulnerable take on these darker moments of his life and the South Side Chicago upbringing that shaped the man he is today.
Before arriving to a place to expose these wounds, Mensa felt he needed to sober up. “I was just really dependent on drugs and very depressed and suicidal and I couldn’t express anything but darkness. I was so lost,” he told Billboard in July. Mensa shelved an album he was initially recording called Traffic, shook his habits and then made The Autobiography, a project he was proud to reveal to his loyal fans.
On “Memories on 47th St.,” Mensa paints a visual of how his solid home life juxtaposed the social ills of Chicago’s street culture. “Gunshots outside my window, drug deals out by the Citgo / But mama always made sure the tooth fairy found my pillow/ My pops was always workin’, he put the family first.” On this track, he also pinpoints his first encounters with racially-charged police harassment. “At age 12 I learned the difference between White and Black / Police pulled me off of my bike, I landed on my back.”
He goes deeper into how these social ills affected him on a personal level. On “Heaven on Earth,” the 24-year-old recites a letter to his dead, older brother Cam, who was a victim of gun violence. On the second verse, Mensa raps Cam’s response, turning the song into a dramatic dialogue. He gives Vic sound advice that saves his life. “I see you in that bathroom stall suicidal with that gun in hand / How could you wanna die? Sh*t is so good for you.”
Another tale that Vensa unveils from his younger years is “Coffee and Cigarettes,” which is about his first bout with unrequited love. “She was only 17, first girl that broke my heart / Now I think I take it out on every girl I take out.” In his reflections, the Chicago artist has understood that hurt people hurt people.
The most graphic presentation on the album is “Wings,” featuring Pharrell Williams and slam poet legend Saul Williams. On the cut, Mensa introduces us to Victor, his truest self. He details the consequences he faced while popping pills. “I read the signs I was close to overdose like Prince / Picking pill pieces up out of the bathroom sink / Like an armored truck ride in the brink / I’d probably be a vegetable if not for medical attention.” On the second verse, he unleashes the intense, self-destructive thoughts that once ran in his mind. “You’ll never be good enough, nigga, you never was / Nobody fucking needs you, you should just jump off the bridge.”
Mensa’s vivid storytelling is purposeful and brings normalcy to the discussion around mental and emotional health for young Black men. He doesn’t preach what someone should or should not do. Instead, the rapper is real about his fight with drugs close brushes with death.
As a young African-American man who has been fortunate to grow past the tough surroundings that stifled him, he seems fully aware there are those still living the life he escaped. In rapping about these realities, he reminds the world that there are many fractures in America, particularly in his hometown of Chicago. Mensa doesn’t have to be an outspoken voice in this way, but he chooses to be. And perhaps after hitting rock bottom, there is nothing to lose by keeping things 100 percent real. Vic Mensa is a survivor.