Fresh off the break-up of his former band, Kids These Days, Vic Mensa landed on the hip-hop map in 2013 with a music video for his soulful, lyrically dexterous single "Orange Soda." His hair in the early stages of a fro, Mensa, alongside his diverse group of Chicago buddies (including a Chance the Rapper cameo), raps, croons, smiles and makes goofy faces while they enjoy poolside sunshine, rooftop shenanigans and a freshly packed bong filled with orange soda ice cubes (if you don't know much about the consumption of marijuana, it does not often involve orange soda ice cubes).
Vic is carefree, effortless, and captivating. His smile was infectious, and now, it's gone.
Four years and a Roc Nation deal later, The Autobiography, serves as Mensa's debut studio album. Vic's own drastically different aesthetic, trading in that short-fro and enchanting grin for dreads and a scowl, mirrors his change in sound from those "Orange Soda" days.
Throughout the album's 15-track, hour-long runtime (counting the two bonus tracks), Mensa experiments with an ambitious array of rap, punk-rock, and R&B to paint the picture of his life story. However, despite Vic providing clarity on the traumatic events that caused that long-gone smile to contort, The Autobiography brings forth more questions than answers on the artist's future.
"Say I Didn't," the album's infectiously braggadocios opener, finds Mensa switching on a dime between energetic rap and gorgeous high-notes as he reflects on his accomplishments. "Didn't I tell you this was the new birth of the Roc, n—-?", proclaims Mensa before hitting a soulful stride, "Didn't I take off the morning just to ride with ya?".
The song itself is pleasant, a smooth opener with Mensa playing the role of his own hypeman. However, whereas an intro track usually sets the tone for an album, "Didn't I (Say I Didn't)" is just about the only shade of optimism coming from Vic on The Autobiography.
"Rollin' Like a Stoner," the album's third (and possibly worst) track, portrays Vic in a state of chaotic misery. The rock/rap jam, a tale of Mensa's issues with addiction, feels forced and generically dark.
"Rollin' Like a Stoner, I don't care about everything," says Vic while sounding less himself and more akin to Kevin Rudolf (please, please, revisit "Let it Rock" if you understandably haven't). "Out of Control, I forgot to take my medicine." ??
Vic stays angry throughout the album; understandable, given the harsh memories being re-hashed for public consumption. However, that anger results less in gorgeous, fiery poetry and more in corny hooks. "Down for Some Ignorance (Ghetto Lullaby)," featuring fellow Chicago natives Chief Keef and Joey Purp, is too repetitively ominous to be enjoyable. With a strange metal/rock/rap fusion, Mensa's hook is simply his repeated chanting of the song's title.
Carrying the album's weight is Mensa's storytelling ability, which is Valyrian steel-sharp on tracks like "Homewrecker" and "Heaven on Earth." The former, featuring Weezer, describes his girlfriend as both "the wifey and the homewrecker," a role she takes on as she literally destroys Vic's home upon finding him cheating. "Heaven on Earth," an ode to Mensa's fallen friend/Chicago artist DARE, has Mensa rapping from three different point of views on each verse (his own, DARE's, and the killer's). The song's ending is chilling, reminiscent of Eminem's "Stan."
"We livin in the streets where ain't shit free/ And your man just had to pay the ultimate price," raps Mensa from the killer's POV. "A week later, I saw your post on the 'Gram/ RIP Dare with a picture of him./ Recognized the face from somewhere and then I realized…/ Damn."
Though convoluted with genre-bending album cuts that feel far less than his best, Vic's The Autobiography is very much that. Mensa bares his soul, putting his most private flaws and demons on center stage. The ambition is there, but the music is still playing catch-up.