February 15, 2015 was a big day for Vic Mensa. The 21-year-old, Chicago-native singer and rapper made his national television debut on the SNL 40th Anniversary Special, alongside Kanye West and Sia, wearing whiteout contacts and post-apocalyptic rags. They were performing Kanye’s “Wolves,” the rumored opening track of his upcoming album, So Help Me God. The performance, with its odd staging and menacing vibe, was one of the best things of that much-anticipated special, and it resulted in one of those now-too-frequent who is that? freakouts on Twitter.
So, to echo the Twitter-sphere: who the hell is Vic Mensa?
Mensa’s SNL performance was undeniably his breakout moment, but he’s been indie blog and hip-hop-head famous for a while now — and rightfully so, for his collaboration with fellow Chicagoan Chance The Rapper, his house-drenched hit “Down On My Luck,” and his great (if schizophrenic) 2013 mixtape, Innanetape. And now, with the hint of another new So Help Me God song (“Why U Mad“), it’s clear that Mensa has been enthusiastically endorsed by Kanye and so is about to be in a much, much brighter spotlight.
Before all of this — before the Kanye endorsement, before the Mugatu-inspired bleach-blond tips — Mensa was Victor Kewnsi Mensah, just a kid in a band with his buddies. But even then, his music was more than a garage concern: the band performed on Conan and had an album produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Because Mensa is so young, he has the benefit of a 21st-century kid’s scatter-shot musical education, citing influences as wide-ranging as his new best bud Kanye, Gorillaz, Rage Against the Machine, and Linkin Park — specifically their Hybrid Theory. That was obvious in Kids These Days and their rap-rock approach, but it became even more apparent after the band broke up in 2013 and Mensa went out on his own.
To say Mensa went out on his own is to misspeak, maybe. He re-upped his focus as a solo artist, but he also founded the hip-hop collaboration SaveMoney, which is, as far as can be surmised, one of those now-ubiquitous umbrella groups (and apparel brands) that serve as an organizing body for otherwise independent artists. (See: A$AP, Odd Future. Also, see this video, which is worth watching because it features much of the SaveMoney crew working to spring one of their members from jail — and because it includes that member, Joey Purp, happily embracing his mother.)
Even though SaveMoney is a priority for Vic Mensa, he’s getting plenty of attention on his own. He was named one of XXL‘s 2014’s “Freshman Class,” a lauded list of hip hop’s best and brightest that has proven oddly prescient throughout the years, and has included Future, Lupe Fiasco, Danny Brown, Big Sean, and many more. (Though, in 2013, Complex had already listed Mensa as a “rapper to watch,” so he was hardly a green act by the time XXL endorsed him.)
He’s spent the past year taking his reputation on the road, appearing on stage with Disclosure and now alongside Kanye. As for what Kanye could have in store for Mensa, we won’t know for sure until So Help Me God drops, which could be — so help me god — any time.
For those who like to speculate, it’s worth noting that Mensa shares sensibilities with Frank Ocean, who has also collaborated often with Kanye (on Yeezus and Watch the Throne). He’s got a richness to his flow and is an undeniably clever lyricist, sharing Kanye’s love of mashing up idiosyncratic pop culture references. (A sample, from Innanetape’s “Tweakin”: “I’m an author without the aardvark/ Pull tricks like Card Shark, thumbs up to the camera like Nardwuar/ Warhol & a Narwhal in an ark.”) He sings, and even though he doesn’t do it as well as Ocean does, his voice has a soulful ease to it. Add his kaleidoscopic influences to that, and it seems likely he’ll be key to bringing some youthful eccentricity to Kanye’s album.
As far as his own thing? In 2014 Mensa was talking about a new, proper album, but it hasn’t materialized, and he hasn’t spoken about it anytime since, probably because he’s been so busy collaborating. But keep a look out, because regardless of how often or in what form he appears on So Help Me God, Mensa is worth watching in his own right.